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Politics & Policy

The Overhyped Story on New York’s Trump Probe

New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks at a news conference in New York, June 11, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Despite all the clamor since news broke last night of a purportedly big development in the state of New York’s criminal investigation of former President Donald Trump’s real-estate organization, nothing very meaningful has happened. The development here has to do, merely, with who is investigating. Nothing has changed regarding what is being investigated.

For years, multiple New York state authorities have been eying the Trump organization and the former president himself. As I’ve previously outlined (see, e.g., here), the DA has homed in on suspicions of bank, insurance, and tax fraud, based on what has been reported (particularly by the New York Times) to be a decades-old pattern of inflating or deflating estimates of the value of Trump assets to seek financial advantage (e.g., higher values help with borrowing and real-estate coverage, lower values with tax obligations, and insurance premiums). Meanwhile, the Empire State’s attorney general, Letitia James, has been probing the same subject matter, in anticipation of using her authority to bring civil actions — the AG’s criminal-enforcement authority is more limited than the DA’s.

Last night’s news is that the two offices are now joining forces on the criminal aspect of the investigation. That’s all.

This is not surprising. As I explained back in February (in the column linked above), the DA’s office — which litigated the case all the way to the Supreme Court twice in order to get access to former president Trump’s financial records — has been staffing the probe up. Joining forces with the AG’s office means the DA’s criminal probe will have additional resources, including lawyers experienced in corporate-financial investigations.

James is an ambitious progressive politician who is frequently touted as a future gubernatorial candidate (maybe the not-too-distant future). It makes political sense that she would want a more prominent role in a probe of Trump, who is unpopular in New York (which President Biden carried by 2 million votes in 2020, and Hillary Clinton by 1.7 million in 2016). So the latest shuffling of the prosecutorial deck will add fodder to Trump’s claims that he, his family, and his organization are being subjected to an abusive political vendetta by New York Democrats. Nevertheless, the announcement that James and Vance will be working together, rather than pursuing the case on parallel tracks, does not change the subject matter under investigation.

It is worth adding, as I have noted before, that though the investigation has been going on for a long time, no one has been accused of a crime or sued civilly at this point.

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