In a curveball revealing that President Trump’s legal problems extend far beyond special counsel Robert S. Mueller III and even federal law (for which he might receive a pardon, or attempt to pardon himself), the New York attorney general is suing the president and other members of his family. The Post reports:
The New York attorney general filed suit against President Trump and his three eldest children Thursday, alleging “persistently illegal conduct” at the president’s personal charity, saying Trump repeatedly misused the nonprofit organization — to pay off his businesses’ creditors, to decorate one of his golf clubs and to stage a multimillion-dollar giveaway at his 2016 campaign events.
In the suit, filed Thursday morning, Attorney General Barbara Underwood asked a state judge to dissolve the Donald J. Trump Foundation. She asked that its remaining $1 million in assets be distributed to other charities and that Trump be forced to pay at least $2.8 million in restitution and penalties.
Underwood said that oversight of spending at Trump’s foundation was so loose that its board of directors hadn’t met in 19 years, and its official treasurer wasn’t even aware that he was on the board.
Underwood, who replaced Eric Schneiderman last month, found that misuse of the funds was linked to Trump’s campaign. In Underwood’s view, The Post reports, “the foundation came to serve the spending needs of Trump — and then, in 2016, the needs of his presidential campaign. She cited emails from Trump campaign staff members, directing which charities should receive gifts from the Trump Foundation, and in what amounts.” While hers is a state action, Trump may find himself in further civil and/or criminal jeopardy because Underwood “sent letters to both the IRS and the Federal Election Commission, identifying what she called ‘possible violations’ of tax law and federal campaign law by Trump’s foundation.” It is not clear what personal liability Trump would have.
The case underscores several key problems for Trump.
First, Underwood seems to be a capable replacement for Schneiderman. Along with other Democratic state attorneys general, she has considerable powers to subpoena documents, interview witnesses and explore state law for a variety of offenses. Trump cannot pardon himself for state crimes. Unless Trump wants to take the Fifth, he may be compelled to testify under oath, just as he may have to testify in the Summer Zervos case.
Second, given that there are already concerns about whether the settlement with Stormy Daniels was a campaign expenditure and therefore should have been revealed, the discovery of other monies improperly routed to the campaign shows, if nothing else, a pattern of deliberate nondisclosure. Finding specific intent to break campaign-finance laws could transform a civil case into a criminal action.
Finally, Underwood and her office benefited not only from reporting but also from the legal work of nonprofit, good-government entities. Norman Eisen, chair of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, tweets, “Starting a couple years ago, we at CREW among the first to uncover evidence and file complaints about of improprieties at the Trump foundation — [we’re] proud we helped kick off attention to this issue. The New York State AG complaint is powerful. Trump may fight but he will lose.”
In sum, a new legal avenue, another means of inspecting Trump’s finances, has opened. His legal problems extend well beyond the Russia investigation. Whether it is Michael Cohen or the latest campaign-finance suit, Trump will find it hard to keep himself off the witness stand and escape accountability simply by smearing the FBI and Justice Department.