World·Analysis

What new criminal charges tell us about the legal threat to Donald Trump

The charges will do nothing to dissuade Donald Trump from running for president again if that's what he chooses to do. If that's all prosecutors have, it's a decidedly ho-hum finale to a years-long legal saga. But prosecutors and witnesses are dropping clues about more news coming.

Prosecutors drop what could be some clues as they indict Trump's right-hand man on criminal charges

The Trump Organization's chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, right, seen here in 2016, faces 15 charges. The company is also accused of tax fraud. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

It would be a decidedly anti-climactic finale if this were the end of the years-long criminal investigation into Donald Trump's business dealings.

A batch of just-announced charges will do nothing to dissuade Trump from running for president again if that's what he chooses to do.

Nor will those charges announced Thursday explain why there was a merciless multi-year legal scrap that saw prosecutors twice claw their way to the Supreme Court to pry loose Trump's tax returns.

The former president's company now stands accused of criminally under-reporting the salary of Trump's longtime right-hand man, allowing him to avoid taxes on one-tenth of his income over 16 years.

That longtime aide, Allen Weisselberg, was also charged Thursday with not reporting income that paid for his apartment, two Mercedes and private-school tuition for children in Weisselberg's family.

Some of these 15 tax-related charges announced by New York City prosecutors carry potentially serious maximum penalties — up to 15 years in prison.

Still, it's hardly a dramatic dénouement to the Trump legal story — unless, of course, this is only the beginning.

The clues in the charges 

Some disgruntled ex-denizens of the former president's orbit warn that's indeed the case. They say the worst is yet to come for Trump.

His lawyer-turned-nemesis Michael Cohen says this case will go much further than any accounting of Weisselberg's salary.

"It's the tip of the iceberg," Cohen, who has been helping prosecutors, said in an interview Thursday with CNN. 

"There is so much more that's going to be coming."

Will Weisselberg co-operate with investigators? That's a big question after he was charged in a Manhattan court Thursday. (Barry Williams/Pool via Reuters)

One burning question is whether the fear of languishing in jail might prompt Weisselberg to flip on his decades-long boss. (He has reportedly not co-operated with investigators.)

But Cohen said the logical move now is for Weisselberg to deliver dirt on Trump rather than risk, at age 73, spending the rest of his life in jail.

Prosecutors claim to have a solid case against Weisselberg that proves he and the company knowingly evaded taxes — hiding $1.76 million US in extra pay for him over 16 years. That amounts to about one-tenth of his salary, which averaged nearly $1 million most years.  

"He would be crazy not to [testify against Trump] because right now his life is on the line," Cohen said. 

WATCH | Weisselberg took federal immunity deal in 2018:

Another Trump insider gets immunity

3 years ago
3:43
This time, it's Allen Weisselberg, the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. It's not known what information Weisselberg has agreed to share in return for immunity, but someone in his position would be privy to the inner most workings of Trump's businesses. 3:43

There are also what could be some clues embedded in Thursday's announcement that suggest prosecutors have bigger plans for this case. 

Former Trump personal attorney Michael Cohen says he's been talking to prosecutors and calls the charges the 'tip of the iceberg.' (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The charging document alludes to an unindicted "co-conspirator No. 1" who participated in the alleged tax-evasion scheme from 2005 to 2021.

No charges have yet been laid against that unknown person.

An indictment document also mentions that Trump's signature was on the cheques that paid Weisselberg for school tuition.

The document also says two other company employees received compensation similar to Weisselberg but does not name them.

The daughter-in-law speaks

Prosecutors have also asked that some details of their case be kept sealed, which suggests they're still investigating other crimes.

There's plenty of time for more charges as the grand jury established for the case is reportedly just one month into a six-month appointment.

Weisselberg's former daughter-in-law says she's also been helping prosecutors; she's in the midst of a bitter divorce and custody battle with his son.

Jennifer Weisselberg says she believes investigators are examining funds taken from donations to Trump's 2017 presidential inauguration.

New York Attorney General Letitia James seen leaving the New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan after attending the arraignment hearing of Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg. Some observers say there are clues embedded in Thursday's announcement that suggest prosecutors have bigger plans for the case. (Angus Mordant/Reuters)

She predicted the investigation will ultimately target people who served in the Trump White House.

"There's going to be a lot of criminal liability," she told MSNBC. "There were some things going on after Donald was already president."

Expert in tax law unconvinced

One expert in tax law has a different expectation: She doesn't expect too much legal trouble for Trump based on what's publicly known.

Even if he's charged over a tax violation, she said she doesn't envision Trump ultimately being convicted and sent to prison. 

"My guess is that the former president will emerge unscathed," Beverly Moran, a professor at Vanderbilt University, said in an interview.

"When you have the money to fight, there are numerous opportunities to protect the charged person. If I had to bet, I would bet no jail time for the president."

Trump is calling this case a fraud and an attack on his millions of supporters. He used similar language after the 2020 election, which culminated in his supporters waging a violent attack on the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

There's one way Trump could court more trouble for himself: by talking. While former FBI director Robert Mueller declined to seek obstruction of justice charges against Trump while he was a sitting president, that doesn't mean he's forever immune to such charges.

Trump has already begun attacking prosecutors in the court of public opinion.

In statements released by his office, the former president refers to the case as a political witch hunt, and, notably, as an attack not just against him — but against his millions of supporters.

In one such statement, Trump described this case as the radical left trying to sideline more than 75 million "voters and patriots."

It's similar to the language he used before the attack on the Capitol. 

What counts as obstruction of justice 

After Trump's election loss, he repeatedly called the process rigged and said his supporters wouldn't stand for it, ultimately inviting them to a now-infamous rally in Washington on Jan. 6. Five people died.

When asked what it would take to prompt obstruction-of-justice charges, Moran said the bar is relatively high, and it would require clear attempts to intimidate those involved in the case.

She said Trump could escape consequences if he speaks in general terms, such as predicting that his supporters won't accept charges against him.

But she said a court might punish Trump if he tries whipping up a crowd, given what's already happened after the election.

"If he says, 'Everybody should go down to the courthouse. Or down to the prosecutor's office and let them know how you feel,' after Jan. 6, that becomes more threatening language than it would have been before Jan. 6," Moran said.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now