The modern-day Republican Party is masterful when it comes to grabbing soundbites and repeating them endlessly in the hope of persuading public opinion—and the most prominent GOP mantra of recent weeks has been “no collusion, no obstruction, complete and total exoneration,” President Donald Trump’s March 24 tweet in response to Robert Mueller’s final report for the Russia investigation. That theme and slight variations of it have been echoed countless times in the right-wing media. But Esquire’s Ryan Lizza, in an in-depth article posted online this week, explains why Trump’s legal problems are far from over.
Mueller’s report has yet to be released publicly, although Attorney General William Barr has said that a redacted version will be sent to Congress in mid-April. Lizza notes that the “most serious accusation against Trump”—that he “affirmatively and criminally conspired with Russians in their twin plots to hack and distribute Democratic e-mails and spread disinformation through social media”—was also “the least likely to be proven” during Mueller’s investigation. And even though Trump “acted like a person with something to hide,” it was “always unlikely that he was stupid enough” to “have engaged in a criminal conspiracy with the enemy.”
But Lizza quickly adds that even though Mueller’s probe did not establish a full-fledged criminal conspiracy between Trump and the Russian government, Trump’s supporters are conflating Mueller’s assessment (as described by Barr) with a claim that the president is “in the clear here, there and everywhere”—and that claim “has obscured his legal troubles in New York.”
Lizza explains that in New York, Trump is facing investigations at both the federal and state levels—federal as in prosecutors for the Southern District of New York, state as in the New York State Attorney General’s office (now headed by Democrat Letitia James, elected in the 2018 midterms).
“The state’s attorney general and its Department of Taxation and Finance also have active investigations of Trump entities,” Lizza observes. “Across the East River, in Brooklyn, the Eastern District of New York is reportedly looking at Trump’s inaugural committee. But Trump may have the most to fear from SDNY.”
Lizza notes that Mueller’s probe led to SDNY investigations and the legal problems of Michael Cohen, who pled guilty to tax evasion and bank fraud and will be starting a three-year prison sentence in May.
“Proving collusion with Russia is difficult,” Lizza writes. “Proving bank fraud is easy…. SDNY prosecutors treated Cohen like a hardened criminal, and they made it clear they wanted his superiors at the Trump Organization and other institutions put on notice.”
Lizza goes on to say, “The point here is not that Trump is a criminal or to engage in anti-Trump fantasies about the president being taken away in handcuffs. It is simply to point out that the real danger for Trump—and his closest family members—is from zealous prosecutors in New York who have already shown in the Cohen case that it is rather easy to find criminality, especially around taxes and banking, when the target is, to put it mildly, less than scrupulous with his books.”
Lizza concludes his piece by stressing that in light of everything SDNY prosecutors have had to say about Cohen’s activities in the Trump Organization, it is certainly reasonable to believe that from a legal standpoint, “there is real danger for Trump in New York.”