Former prosecutors and legal experts who have closely watched the investigation, a joint pursuit by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D) and New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), rejected Trump’s assertion that his company and close adviser are being pursued as part of a political vendetta. Authorities understand “the eyes of the world are on this prosecution, and one would think they would . . . bend over backwards not to treat Trump differently,” said Thomas C. Rotko, who handled public corruption and fraud cases in the district attorney’s office.
“It is absolutely vital,” New York University tax law professor Daniel N. Shaviro said, “to prosecute things like this with well-known people to show taxpayers that the law applies to everyone.”
Still, the investigation’s political overtones are inescapable. Trump has seized on comments James made during her 2018 election campaign, when she called him an “illegitimate president” and vowed to investigate his family business. And in the run-up to Thursday’s indictment, Democrats appeared highly attuned to the possibility of political blowback.
“I’m sure the NY DA and AG understand that, from an optics standpoint, the first charges they bring against the Trump Organization can’t be petty, rarely-prosecuted crimes. Don’t they?” David Axelrod, a former campaign strategist for President Barack Obama, tweeted Wednesday.
Weisselberg is accused of participating in a 15-year tax fraud scheme involving more than $1.7 million in unreported compensation. He pleaded not guilty during a brief court appearance on Thursday.
The grand jury indictment charges Weisselberg with grand larceny, a felony that can result in prison time, among other charges. The Trump Organization is charged with failing to report or pay taxes on benefits it provided to select employees. It, too, has pleaded not guilty.
Trump himself has not been accused of a crime, and he warned in an op-ed published earlier this week that “having politically motivated prosecutors, people who actually got elected because they will ‘get Donald Trump,’ is a very dangerous thing for our Country.”
Speaking in court, Assistant District Attorney Carey Dunne sought to confront the criticism from Trump and others. “Politics,” he said, “has no role in the grand jury chamber, and I can assure your honor that it played no role here.”
The investigation, Dunne added, has been “thorough, careful and proper.”
James’s office did not directly address her prior comments about Trump, but in a statement said, “We will follow the facts and the law wherever they may lead.”
The Trump Organization’s statement in response to the charges said that no other district attorney would “ever think” of bringing a criminal prosecution over employee benefits. Not so, countered Rotko. Small companies, including restaurants and family-owned businesses, are routinely charged criminally for state tax violations in New York, he said. Such cases over, say, unpaid sales tax often get resolved in civil proceedings but can be handled criminally depending on the amount of money involved and how pervasive and persistent the tax avoidance is.
The charges unveiled Thursday may be the beginning of a broader and more serious criminal case targeting not only the former president’s business but other executives there, former prosecutors and legal experts said. Authorities are hoping Weisselberg will testify against Trump to lessen his legal exposure. The indictment mentions, but does not name, two other employees who received free housing in New York City and car leases.
The investigation dates back more than two years and the totality of evidence probably is not yet publicly known. For instance, investigators have also looked at whether the Trump Organization manipulated the value of properties in its real estate portfolio in a way that deceived lenders and tax authorities.
“The more organized, the more pervasive and the more it was orchestrated by top management, the more justified the D.A. is in bringing this case against the organization,” said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School and former assistant district attorney in Manhattan.
“I don’t think there is an effective legal argument that this is a political witch hunt, but I do think there could be an effective political argument if this is where the investigation stops.”
Regardless of the former president’s political prominence and public perception, Roiphe added that if investigators uncover evidence of substantial accounting fraud, it is incumbent on authorities to pursue it.
“I would definitely pursue the case, and it would have nothing to do with the identity of the person likely responsible,” she said, emphasizing that this case fits squarely within the purview of the district attorney’s office.
Both investigations appear to have started with allegations from Trump’s former fixer and longtime lawyer Michael Cohen. James has said in court filings that her investigation was triggered by Cohen’s testimony to Congress, where he said Trump repeatedly exaggerated the value of his assets to mislead lenders and tax officials.
Legal experts also noted that the investigation has dragged on, and required substantial resources, in part because Trump went to great lengths to try to block his longtime accounting firm from giving investigators years of his tax and business records. Although Trump did not prevail in two stops at the Supreme Court, he succeeded in delaying the investigation for 17 months while the case worked its way through the legal system.
“Another company wouldn’t have gotten two days to challenge that subpoena, let alone two years,” said Daniel Alonso, who served as chief assistant district attorney under Vance but left the office before it began investigating Trump. The lengthy effort “was because Trump put in a lot of effort to try to frustrate at least that part of the inquiry.”
After reviewing the 25-page indictment Thursday, Alonso called the case “more serious” than a routine state tax matter in that the Internal Revenue Service is also identified as a victim in the alleged scheme.
“It’s not just untaxed fringe benefits,” Alonso said, “but a way to funnel off-the-books payments to Weisselberg, a favored executive.”
The combined loss of more than $900,000 in local, state and federal taxes is significant, Alonso added, and allows prosecutors, if there is a conviction, to seek a state prison term of up to five to 15 years.
Before seeking an indictment to charge a corporation, authorities would have had to consider several factors, including a requirement that prosecutors take into account companies and credit companies that cooperate and self-report misconduct.
“Those factors,” Alonso said, “don’t seem to play in favor of the Trump Organization here.”
Shayna Jacobs, David A. Fahrenthold and Julie Tate contributed to this report.