Beyond Mueller: 5 other legal roadblocks facing Donald Trump

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Beyond Mueller: 5 other legal roadblocks facing Donald Trump

by - 6 min read

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U.S. President Donald Trump may be claiming victory and exoneration with the end of the special counsel’s investigation, but he still has a long legal road left to navigate. 

New York is where Trump made his name and it’s now where he faces his biggest legal liabilities. State and federal investigators are examining numerous aspects of his political and professional life and the consequences could range from civil fines and penalties to criminal charges.

Some of those probes sprang from the special counsel’s work, with Robert Mueller passing off potential avenues of investigation that didn’t fit his mandate to probe Russian election interference.

“In terms of so many different jurisdictions having a piece of investigations pertaining to the president of the United States and his business and his charity and his inaugural committee, I don’t know if there’s a historical precedent for what we’re looking at right now,” said Jessica Roth, a former prosecutor in the Southern District of New York, now a professor at the Cardozo School of Law.

Here are five areas of investigation:

1. Campaign finance violations

The most serious threat to Trump comes from his former personal lawyer Michael Cohen directly implicating him in a scheme to pay hush money to two women before the 2016 election.

Prosecutors in New York said the payments — $130,000 to adult film actress Stormy Daniels and $150,000 to former Playboy model Karen McDougal — constitute campaign finance violations because they were meant to keep the women quiet before voters went to the polls. The maximum campaign contribution is $2,700 and must be made public.

With evidence from Cohen, co-operation from both Trump Organization CFO Alan Weisselberg and American Media Inc. — the parent company of the National Enquirer, which facilitated the payments — experts say prosecutors potentially have enough evidence to bring charges against Trump.

Adult film actress Stormy Daniels Southern District of New York courthouse on April 16, 2018. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

The asterisk is that, like Mueller, they too are under the (still debated) Justice Department guideline not to indict a sitting president. 

“The Southern District of New York is legendarily independent and tough minded, but even they probably don’t think they can indict a sitting president,” said Victoria Bassetti at the Brennan Center for Justice. 

Karen McDougal attends a Playboy event on Feb. 6, 2010 in Miami Beach, Fla. (Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for Playboy)

She adds, however, “if there’s any group of people who would be willing to push it, it’s them.”

Trump says he never directed Cohen to break the law. But some experts say an indictment could be ready when Trump leaves office. However, Roth points out the only other similar case to go to trial, involving Senator John Edwards in 2012, ended with an acquittal on one count, and a hung jury on the rest. 

She also notes that Cohen has “credibility issues” and that a criminal case against Trump would need “more documentary evidence and [to] hear from other witnesses.”

2. The inauguration committee

SDNY prosecutors are also looking into Trump’s inauguration committee and whether it misspent funds, accepted foreign donations or traded donations for access.

The committee raised $107 million, far surpassing previous inaugurations and raising questions about how the money was handled and whether the not-for-profit committee was fulfilling its aims as a charity.

U.S. law prohibits foreign donations to federal election campaigns or committees.

Trump arrives on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol for his inauguration as the 45th president of the United States. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The SDNY sent a “wide-ranging subpoena,” to the committee, says Roth, asking about foreign donors “but also other materials related to potential violations of the laws against wire fraud, money laundering, false statements lots of other statutory violations.”

Again, a Trump insider may be the key. Rick Gates was the campaign co-chairman and heavily involved with the inauguration committee. He pleaded guilty to fraud last year and has been co-operating with authorities. In mid-March Mueller delayed his sentencing for a second time, writing to the court that Gates “continues to co-operate with respect to several ongoing investigations.”

White House spokesperson Sarah Sanders in December denied any wrongdoing by the president. After news of the subpoena, in February, Sanders said it had nothing to do with the White House and referred questions to the inaugural committee.

Rick Gates leaves Federal District Court in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 14, 2018. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

3. The Trump Organization and the Trump Foundation

New York’s attorney general forced the closure of the Trump Foundation, the charitable arm of Trump’s business operations, having called it little more than a personal chequebook that Trump used to pay his legal bills, buy personal items and support his election campaign.

But a lawsuit brought by the attorney general — currently Letitia James, continuing the work of her predecessors — against Trump and his children Don Jr., Ivanka and Eric continues, seeking to prevent them from sitting on a charity board in New York state for 10 years and to pay millions in restitution.

Further, after Cohen testified in February, the attorney general opened new lines of investigation into the Trump Organization, issuing subpoenas to Trump’s longtime lender Deutsche Bank.

Donald Trump Jr., walks from the elevator at Trump Tower, in New York City, on Nov. 16, 2016. (Carolyn Kaster/Associated Press)

Cohen told a congressional committee that Trump inflated the value of assets when seeking loans from the bank for four projects and a bid to buy the National Football League’s Buffalo Bills in 2014.

Those probes are happening parallel to other state investigations, including from the New York State Department of Taxation which is looking into decades of alleged tax evasion by Trump and his family, as reported by the New York Times.

The state’s Department of Financial Services has also reportedly subpoenaed Trump’s insurer after Cohen testified that the Trump Organization inflated the value of assets to its insurers.

The state investigations are civil matters and could result in fines, or in more serious matters, referral for criminal prosecution.

4. The Summer Zervos lawsuit

While Trump might not be indictable while president, but a New York state appellate court found he can be sued.

In mid-March the court ruled that a defamation lawsuit by a former contestant on The Apprentice could go forward. Summer Zervos alleges she was the subject of unwanted kissing and groping by Trump in 2007 during her stint on his reality TV show.She says Trump defamed her and the other women who’ve accused him of sexual misconduct when he repeatedly called them liars during the 2016 election campaign.

Summer Zervos is seen after a hearing at Manhattan Supreme Court judge in New York, on Dec. 5, 2017. (Kathy Willens/Associated Press)

Trump lawyers have argued the constitution prevents him from being sued in state courts because it would interfere with his official duties. Butthe court found that the “supremacy clause” doesn’t apply, citing a Supreme Court ruling in 1997 that said presidents can be sued for things not related to their official work.

One of Trump’s lawyers said he will appeal the decision to the state’s highest court. Meanwhile, a court filing says the president has agreed to provide written responses to questions in the lawsuit by Sept. 28.

5. The unknowns

There may be more investigations that haven’t been made public.

During his testimony, Cohen refused to discuss any other possible wrongdoing that hadn’t been made public. Cohen saidhe couldn’t speak openly about anything still under investigation. 

When search warrants relating to Cohen’s case were recently released, all the material pertaining to campaign finance violations was redacted. Roth says redactions can be made to protect classified individuals, grand jury information or for the privacy of uncharged persons — but there could be more to it.

Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen takes a call on Park Avenue in New York City on April 13, 2018. (Yana Paskova/Getty Images)

“Anything’s possible,” Roth said. “The volume of redacted material including in the recent filings from the special counsel’s office … makes me think that there is considerably more that we don’t know.”

While Trump and his allies have dismissed some of the investigations as being politically motivated, Bassetti says no president has come into the job with Trump’s type of business background, and that brings a lot of potential exposure to investigations like these.

“I just don’t see how any criminal prosecutor or anyone who’s in the business of investigating violations of the law could turn a blind eye to the amount of evidence that’s been uncovered.”

This story originally appeared on CBC

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