The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump seeks to use indictments as a political rallying cry as he tries to survive latest legal threat

The Post’s David Fahrenthold explained what we knew on July 1, 2021, about the charges against the Trump Organization and its CFO, Allen Weisselberg. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: John Taggart/The Washington Post)

Former president Donald Trump turned to a familiar playbook Thursday, attacking New York prosecutors who charged his company and chief financial officer with a raft of financial crimes by calling their charges politically motivated and an overreach designed to target him and his supporters.

Trump, who has battled through decades of criminal investigations, bankruptcies and scandals, immediately used some of the same phraseology he employed during investigations into his conduct in the 2016 campaign and while he served as president.

“The political Witch Hunt by the Radical Left Democrats, with New York now taking over the assignment, continues. It is dividing our Country like never before!” he said in a statement minutes after the indictments were unsealed. “Do people see the Radical Left prosecutors, and what they are trying to do to 75M+++ Voters and Patriots, for what it is?”

Trump Organization and CFO arraigned on multiple criminal charges

Whether charges that his company evaded taxes by hiding payments to employees will do any political damage to Trump is unclear as he teases another presidential run in 2024 and looks to play a starring role in the 2022 midterm elections. He has retained the strong support of the Republican Party through a series of potentially damaging episodes, including bragging of sexual assault on tape, being impeached twice and spreading falsehoods about the 2020 election that served as fuel for the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.

But Trump weathered those political storms by fighting back with the power and the staff of the White House behind him as well as a Twitter account that could immediately set the news agenda for the day. Those resources are now gone, testing Trump’s ability to turn allegations against him into political rallying cries. Current and former advisers also said that Trump was often most disturbed by threats to his businesses as opposed to political showdowns.

Critics of the president said they doubted the charges would sway people’s opinion of Trump.

“Given everything else he’s been accused of and proven to have done, this isn’t going to surprise anyone or change many opinions,” said Daniel Goldman, a former assistant U.S. attorney who was a lead House impeachment lawyer in 2019 during the investigation into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine.

He added that Trump and his allies may gain some traction with the argument that he was targeted because of his political profile.

“It is a less serious charge than we might have expected,” he said, and “there is some legitimacy to the argument that this is not the type of charge that is usually brought against a corporation.”

Key to Trump’s fate will be whether more information and charges follow Thursday’s indictments.

Manhattan prosecutors say they will continue their investigation into Trump’s business, and people familiar with the matter, who like others spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations, said they will continue to seek cooperation from Weisselberg, the CFO, and others connected to the case. Goldman and others said they suspected prosecutors would not be able to win cooperation from Weisselberg.

New York Attorney General Letitia James (D), who helped bring the case, said more could still come out and called the day an important milestone.

“This investigation will continue, and we will follow the facts and the law wherever they may lead,” she said.

Prosecutors charged the Trump Organization with a 15-year “scheme to defraud” the government and its chief financial officer with grand larceny and tax fraud in what they said was a wide-ranging effort to hide income from tax authorities.

None of the charges directly implicate the former president in wrongdoing and would not legally preclude him from running for office again. Many of his allies preemptively cast the charges as a letdown for New York prosecutors, who had spent months seeking Weisselberg’s cooperation and digging into the company’s finances.

 Some former prosecutors who have been heavily critical of Trump said the case was not a blockbuster.

“In the normal universe, a charge like this of the chief financial officer of a substantial firm and the firm itself for what looks like tax avoidance of about $1 million is significant,” said Preet Bharara, the former Southern District of New York prosecutor who was fired by Trump. “But in the context of expectation that we were going to be talking about long-standing very substantial large dollar figures related to fraud by people up to and including the former president of the United States, this is not that.”

David Schoen, a former Trump lawyer who represented him during his second impeachment trial, said he expected Trump to maintain a similar posture toward the probe as he did after the riot at the Capitol, where he argued the actual victim was him. Trump has often sought to defend his conduct by telling supporters that prosecutors are unfair, or that the charges are manufactured, or that prosecutors are really coming for them.

“He knows among his supporters, there is a strong feeling that he is under siege because of who he is. There is a strong idea of, ‘They are trying to get Trump no matter what,’ ” he said. “There is a strong feeling among Trump followers, or a significant part of the country, that when Donald Trump is attacked, they and their beliefs are being attacked also. They believe any criminal indictment is a political maneuver to avoid having him run for president.”

The allegations — like previous ones against him — could damage the president in areas where his standing with the public is already low. A majority of voters throughout the 2020 election, according to both public and Republican Party polls, said they did not believe Trump was trustworthy and gave Joe Biden higher marks.

Even with a deep base of political support among Republicans, Trump’s overall approval ratings have consistently remained in the low 40s.

But Trump has proven remarkably resilient with his attacks on prosecutors and his ability to wrangle free of tricky situations, from the special counsel investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election to two impeachment trials. The New York investigations have loomed for months over Trump’s political considerations, and several advisers on Thursday said they were relieved, even as they conceded he was not out of the woods.

People who have spoken to Trump in recent days said he plans to attack the prosecutors at his rallies, raising the fact that both James and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D) have expressed opinions critical of him, with James saying she would charge him if elected. He has told allies he wants to run for president again and has planned rallies, endorsement speeches and events for the rest of the summer.

While Trump has largely been focused on politics, he has in recent weeks begun coming to Trump Tower for meetings and was involved in some of the company’s discussions over the investigation.

Trump, through his statements, did not argue the merits or the facts of the case or even mention Weisselberg, a decades-long top employee, by name.

“They’ve investigated me for years and this is all they have,” Trump said, according to one confidant who spoke with him over the weekend as details of the indictment began to be reported. “It’s a total joke.”

On Thursday, he complained about the visuals of the arrest, which included Weisselberg in handcuffs, and described it as a “chicken s----” prosecution, according to a close adviser. Trump told others he had spoken to Weisselberg and described him as a close friend. This person said Trump watched coverage of the events for a good part of the day.

Gwenda Blair, a Trump biographer, said the former president had previously shown a remarkable ability to recover from crises by projecting optimism and confidence even in the face of problems. She recalled covering a bankruptcy sale at a Trump-branded condo building in West Palm Beach, Fla, where Trump was losing control of the property. Trump showed up, she said, and cast the defeat as a victory.

But she said Trump no longer exudes the same salesman’s optimism about the future, the eternal promise of a better life. Instead, she said, his message is all about the past. “We’re going to get even. We’re going to get ours back. He’s like the avenger now, the revenge machine,” she said.

That, Blair said, may be a potent message for politics, if not for business.

George Conway, a frequent critic of Trump who once worked with executives in the company on a Manhattan project, said Weisselberg’s indictment could be damaging for Trump if he spills his guts. But so far he hasn’t.

“Is it the silver bullet? No,” said Conway, whose wife Kellyanne was a top campaign and White House aide to Trump. “The ultimate consequence is he may run now because he thinks that’s his best defense toward all this stuff.”

David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.