The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s fate likely to be determined not by a lawsuit but by voters

President-elect Donald Trump and his children Eric, Ivanka and Donald Jr. arrive for a news conference Jan. 11, 2017, at Trump Tower in New York. (Timothy A. Clary/AFP/Getty Images)

We can trace the starting point to Feb. 27, 2019. On that day, Michael Cohen, a former attorney for President Donald Trump, appeared on Capitol Hill to answer questions about, among other things, how Trump’s private business was run. Cohen had unique insight into the question, having served as Trump’s right hand for years.

One of the things Cohen alleged was that the company had regularly inflated the valuations of its properties. Within days, regulators in New York state, where the Trump Organization is headquartered, had subpoenaed records from the company. Eventually, it became clear that New York Attorney General Letitia James was investigating a possible pattern of inflation — an investigation that resulted in the announcement on Wednesday of a broad lawsuit targeting Trump, three of his children and the company itself.

Compressing the timeline into one paragraph, though, downplays how much time passed. It’s been more than 1,300 days since Cohen offered testimony in that packed room at the Capitol. Since then, the Capitol was overrun by violent Trump supporters, and packed rooms fell dramatically out of fashion thanks to the coronavirus pandemic. Or, put another way: If it takes another 1,300 days to resolve the lawsuit — certainly a duration well within the realm of possibility — it would come at some point in the spring of 2026.

Or, potentially, more than a year into a second Donald Trump presidency.

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Politics are, of course, inextricable from the newly announced lawsuit. In part that’s because Trump is always so assiduous about dragging all of his external problems into the context of an overarching power structure eager to attack him. In part it’s because James, a Democrat, pledged to dig into Trump’s behavior when campaigning for her current position back in 2018.

That’s not to say that the allegations presented by her office on Wednesday are a political hit job (as Trump quickly took to Truth Social to claim). The filing, which runs into the hundreds of pages, suggests substantial grounds for a lawsuit. Asked by a Washington Post reporter whether Trump defenders were justified in claiming that the inflated metrics were simply standard business practices, James said they were not.

“This conduct cannot be brushed aside and dismissed as some sort of good-faith mistake,” James said during a news conference. “The statements of financial condition were greatly exaggerated, grossly inflated, objectively false — and therefore fraudulent and illegal.”

But this doesn’t extricate politics from the lawsuit’s existence. It may simply be that Trump’s elevation in national politics drew the spotlight to years of activity — even as it gave politicians like James and the members of Congress who questioned Cohen in 2019 fertile soil for their own ambitions.

The response to the suit will itself fall heavily along political lines. There’s a well-worn pattern by now, seven years after Trump first announced his candidacy in 2015: Some new investigation or question emerges about Trump’s behavior that, for any other person, would present a huge legal, political or ethical dilemma. His critics get enthusiastic and start poring over the details. Then, slowly, the situation resolves in a way that leaves Trump, his business and his political position mostly undamaged.

To some degree, this is precisely because Trump does such a good job of contextualizing probes as biased, inoculating his supporters against the allegations. It is also partly because many of these investigations have worst-case outcomes for Trump that could, in fact, be quite damaging — but the likelihood of those scenarios is slowly withered by legal machinations that grind the process down into dust or by agreements that end with Trump handing over some chunk of cash or shuttering some ancillary component of his empire. (Asked whether a settlement is possible here, James acknowledged that it is.)

This isn’t to say the probes lack merit; just as there are robust indicators of malfeasance in the new lawsuit, there have been many such indicators in years past. It’s simply to say that each new investigation of Trump is treated as existential by his opponents, even when so many have proved not to be. They are also presented as existential by Trump because that’s an effective mechanism for assuring that they end up somewhere far less damaging.

Also noteworthy is that James is targeting Trump’s old occupation, not his new one. He used to be a real estate salesman. Now he’s a right-wing rhetoric salesman, and lawsuits like James’s are good for business.

There has been some rumbling in recent weeks that Trump’s new business — maintaining an ideological grip on the Republican Party — has stumbled. An NBC News poll released over the weekend showed a dip in the number of Republicans who chose Trump over the party, a shift that some attributed to the damage Trump incurred from the Justice Department probe into the documents he had at Mar-a-Lago. But another NBC News poll conducted a few weeks after the search of that property (the value of which, James would like to point out, the Trump Organization appears to have wildly overinflated) found that his grip on the party had strengthened.

The reality is that Trump’s favorability among Republicans has been fairly steady over the past two years. When he was in office, he was viewed more positively by Republicans on net than he is now. But in weekly polling from YouGov conducted in 2022, his average net favorability within his party is plus-67 — Republicans are 67 points more likely to say they view him favorably than they are to say they view him unfavorably. In the past three weeks, since Mar-a-Lago, the average net favorability has been plus-65 points.

He’s about where he was in 2017.

It is possible that the new lawsuit in New York will hobble Trump’s business before November 2024. It’s certainly possible that, for those in Trump’s orbit who are cited in the suit, the long-term damage could be significant. And it’s also possible that Trump could soon face a federal indictment that makes things like the New York lawsuit pale as a personal threat.

The safest assumption, though, is that this lawsuit will quickly move to the background, with regular reports about new legal challenges and filings, that it will remain unresolved at least through the middle of 2024. That, by the time it’s resolved, we’ll already have a good sense of what the next chapter looks like for Trump.

By mid-2024, after all, we’ll have a better sense of how Trump’s new business endeavor is faring. Has his effort to control the GOP led to his earning the party’s presidential nomination once again? Or was his grip finally loosened as Republican voters opted for someone who wasn’t trailed by a parade of attorneys clutching microphones and paperwork?

Every new legal challenge to Trump is inherently remarkable simply because the breadth and nature of his activity, legal or not, were so unusual for an American president. The suit announced Wednesday targets that old universe of influence; Trump is already leveraging it to the benefit of his new one. His fate is almost certainly more heavily dependent on the success or failure of his new enterprise: Make America Great Again, Inc.