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Opinion The legal walls are closing in around Trump

Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (D-Miss.), chair of the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection, speaks at a hearing on Capitol Hill on Oct. 19. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
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Defeated former president Donald Trump just had a really bad week. He faces, perhaps for the first time in his political career, a real prospect of being held accountable for his conduct in multiple legal challenges.

Start with New York, where state Attorney General Letitia James showed her hand in the pending civil investigation into the Trump Organization’s finances. Challenged on the need for questioning two of Trump’s children, she made some powerful accusations on Tuesday concerning six of the business’s properties.

The New York Times reported: “Ms. James’s filing argued that the company misstated the value of the properties to lenders, insurers and the Internal Revenue Service. Many of the statements, the filing argued, were ‘generally inflated as part of a pattern to suggest that Mr. Trump’s net worth was higher than it otherwise would have appeared.’” A spokeswoman for the company dismissed the allegations and, as usual, cast them as politically motivated.

Establishing Trump’s personal involvement in the alleged attempt to defraud others might be difficult, although it would be hard to explain away how the company valued 20,000 square feet in his Trump Tower triplex that did not exist, as the filing claims. Keep in mind that because this is a civil case, James need only prove her claims by a preponderance of the evidence. (Trump faces a parallel criminal case under investigation by the Manhattan district attorney.) Getting Trump to testify in open court — or to be forced to take the Fifth Amendment — might make for a public spectacle. It would also draw the attention to a topic that Trump dreads: Decades-long allegations that he isn’t nearly as rich as he says.

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Meanwhile, Trump’s risk of criminal liability escalated in the case in Georgia concerning his attempt to bully secretary of state Brad Raffensperger to “find” just enough vote to reverse Georgia’s election outcome. The Post reported: “In a letter Thursday, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis (D) told the chief judge of Fulton County’s Superior Court that [a special purpose grand jury] was needed because a ‘significant number of witnesses and prospective witnesses have refused to cooperate with the investigation absent a subpoena requiring their testimony.’”

This grand jury could recommend criminal prosecution, a fateful step in a case in which the prosecutor enjoys a mound of direct evidence (including a tape of Trump’s threats) and has at her disposal multiple state laws under which Trump could be prosecuted. She might be much closer than any other prosecutor to finding a basis for criminal prosecution.

As if that were not enough, the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 insurrection won a round at the Supreme Court, which summarily dismissed Trump’s efforts to invoke executive privilege to prevent the National Archives from turning over documents relating to the actions of his administration that day. It is not merely these specific documents that should worry Trump. As Elizabeth McElvein and Benjamin Wittes explain at Lawfare:

Put simply, the former president, whether he knows it or not, is now in a dramatically weaker position than he was only recently with respect to the committee. The new legal landscape, for example, almost certainly means that two top Trump officials—former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadow and former top adviser Stephen K. Bannon—can no longer argue that the privilege prevents them from cooperating with the committee. The same applies to other potential witnesses, and to the former president himself, should the committee seek his testimony.

Meadows, Bannon and other high-level Trump allies — including Ivanka Trump, from whom the committee is now seeking testimony — will soon face a tough choice: Testify, refuse to testify and risk jail time or take the Fifth Amendment. And in Ivanka Trump’s case, it’s going to be hard to come up with a Fifth Amendment excuse since there is no indication that she is under investigation for any wrongdoing. Rather, the committee believes she is a witness to the willful inaction of the then-president who refused to act for 187 minutes as the Capitol was trashed and as the lives of Vice President Mike Pence and lawmakers were threatened.

Members of the Jan. 6 committee, including Rep. Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), have been previewing blockbuster hearings that will lay out in great detail the failed coup orchestrated by Trump, including alleged efforts by his attorney Rudolph Giuliani to orchestrate fake alternate slates of electoral college voters. Given the hundreds of witnesses and thousands of documents they’ve already reviewed, the sheer volume of evidence might be jaw-dropping.

In civil and criminal cases — in Georgia, New York and D.C. — the walls are closing in on the instigator of the failed coup. His deluded cult members will never be convinced of his wrongdoing, but the rest of the country might finally see the curtains pulled back on the most astounding wrongdoing perpetrated by any U.S. president. And for Republicans, the struggle to explain why they allow themselves to be led around by such a character might get just a tad more uncomfortable.

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