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The civil lawsuit filed this week by New York Attorney General Letitia James looks, on its face, to be well-supported in its allegations of a decade or so worth of fraud by Donald Trump and his businesses.
That same lawsuit also is undeniably the culmination of years-long, politically-driven inquest by the AG.
Both of these things can be true, and are true, at once. And the former is neither a justification nor an excuse for the latter. Yes, the AG’s complaint looks sound. And yes, it’s very much the product of a nakedly political crusade.
The complaint, at its heart, is about the Trump Organization’s systematic overvaluation of its assets. We’re not talking minor tweaks or fudging at the margins here; this is about eye-popping overvaluations that will require the Yiddish language to come up with a stronger word than “chutzpah.”
For example, the complaint alleges that Trump’s property at 40 Wall Street was appraised at $220 million; Trump’s people shrugged off that figure and claimed it was worth $530 million. A Trump-owned apartment complex was properly worth around $750,000 (largely because it was rent-controlled); instead, Trump’s people pretended it was unrestricted and valued it at a cool $50 million. And Mar-a-Lago, temporary home of purloined classified documents, was actually worth around $75 million. Trump’s people must have missed a decimal point, as they placed it nearly ten times higher, at $739 million. These are more than rounding errors.
Why’d they do it? On some level, as Michael Cohen has publicly claimed, Trump needed to pump up his own ego. He wanted, most of all, to rank higher on the Forbes list of wealthiest Americans. In fairness, who among us hasn’t gazed at that list, wishing we could just bump ourselves up a few slots?
On a less egocentric but more practical level, Trump and his businesses used those overvaluations to get loans – more loans, bigger loans, at better rates – from institutional lenders. The more you’re worth, and the more collateral you can post, the more money the banks will lend. (The complaint also alleges that Trump would use inflated valuations for insurance purposes, and deflated figures when it came tax time. Crafty.)
In all, the AG’s complaint alleges over 200 instances of “false and misleading evaluations.” So this was no occasional slip-up; this was a business model. And, sure, there is some measure of subjectivity in certain valuations. But there’s simply no way to justify overvaluations of ten-fold, and more. That’s no accident – certainly not when repeated hundreds of times. The evidence here, folks, is strong.
But it’s just as plain that this lawsuit is politically motivated. That’s not a take or an opinion. It’s a fact. Let’s look at AG James’s own words.
During her 2018 campaign for the New York AG position, James made her pursuit of Trump (and everything around him) the centerpiece of her platform. She tweeted that she would be “leading the resistance against Donald Trump in NYC,” that “New Yorkers need a fighter who will take on Donald Trump & stand up for our rights. I’ll be that fighter. Join my campaign,” and that “@realDonaldTrump should keep asking about me, because I’m getting ready to ask him some questions — under oath.” If that’s not enough, James raised funds from political donors with this entreaty:“I need your help in this fight against Donald Trump.”
Ok, one might reasonably argue, so maybe James didn’t mean that she’d deploy the official power of the AG position to go after Trump, his family, and his businesses; maybe she just meant she’d oppose certain policies of the then-President that she found objectionable to the people of New York. Not so much; the goal was always to nail Trump personally, someway, somehow… She tellingly declared at one point, “I’ve got my eyes on Trump Tower.” Give her credit for transparency, at least. James also declared while she was a candidate – before she had access to a single morsel of actual evidence as AG – that Trump “engaged in a pattern and practice of money laundering” and “can be indicted for criminal offenses.” And the day after she won office, James proclaimed – surely after a period of deliberate and sober reflection – that “We’re going to definitely sue him. We’re going to be a real pain in the ass. He’s going to know my name personally.”
Let me say this plainly: James’s politicization of the AG’s office, and the Trump case, is simply unacceptable – whatever the merits of the resulting complaint. Would you accept a candidate for Delaware state AG running on a platform of “Vote for me, and donate to my campaign, so I can nail the Bidens?” (Again: please do not fall back on “But James’s complaint is strong.” That’s a non-sequitur, not an answer to the issue of political targeting.)
And even if you don’t care about the appearance of a prosecutor running for office on a promise to nail one particular person, or the ethics of it, or the potential ramifications for the notion of even-handed justice, how about this: James’s overt politicization of the case undermines her own chances at success. Trump surely will move to dismiss the case based on James’s demonstrated political bias. He likely won’t succeed – New York state judges aren’t generally a Trump-sympathetic lot – but it’s a motion that is available to Trump only because of James’s own words and conduct.
And if James were ever to be part of a criminal prosecution of Trump, he’d have a reasonable defense based on what lawyers call “selective prosecution” – meaning, essentially, he was targeted for improper political reasons. Again, these motions rarely succeed. But I’ve never seen a stronger case for selective prosecution than this one; I polled a few other former prosecutor colleagues (no fans of Trump) and they couldn’t come up with a more flagrant example, either. (Can you? I mean that seriously; please send in any nominees to firstname.lastname@example.org.) Again, James has only herself to blame for giving the ammo to Trump in the first place.
We’ve got a long way to go in this lawsuit. Perhaps somewhere far down the line, the parties will settle for some enormous amount. Or perhaps they’ll go to trial (though that’ll take forever and a half; Trump will either be president again by then, or his political career will be over). Whatever the outcome – and James probably will win in the end, given the apparent strength of the evidence – she has undermined the notion of the unbiased, impartial prosecutor by overtly targeting Trump for her own political gain.