After impeachment trial, will Donald Trump face criminal charges?
There’s little chance Donald Trump will be convicted by the US Senate of inciting an insurgency but his legal troubles won’t end with the conclusion of his second impeachment trial.
The former president could soon be indicted on criminal charges, not to mention the multiple civil actions that have been filed against him.
The ex-New York property tycoon, now ensconced in his luxurious Florida residence, is no stranger to the legal system, with his army of lawyers long accustomed to defending him and attacking his opponents during civil hearings.
Now that Trump is once again a mere citizen without the protection of presidential immunity, he risks the unprecedented infamy of being indicted.
He is the target of at least one criminal investigation, led by Manhattan prosecutor Cyrus Vance, who has been fighting for months to obtain eight years of Trump’s tax returns.
Initially focused on payments before the 2016 presidential election to two women who claim they had affairs with Trump, the state-level probe is also now examining possible allegations of tax evasion, and insurance and bank fraud.
In July, the Supreme Court ordered the president’s accountants to hand over the financial documents to Vance’s team. Trump’s lawyers have challenged the scope of the requested documents and a ruling is pending.
Trump has called the investigation “the worst witch hunt in US history”.
Vance’s case, heard behind closed doors before a grand jury, appears to be moving along, though.
According to US media, investigators from Vance’s office recently interviewed employees of Deutsche Bank, which has long backed the former president and the Trump Organization. They spoke to staff at Trump’s insurance broker Aon, too.
The investigators have also interviewed Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, who received a three-year prison term after admitting making hush payments to the two alleged mistresses of Trump.
The ex-lawyer had testified to Congress that Trump and his company artificially inflated and devalued the worth of their assets to both obtain bank loans and reduce their taxes.
Threat of imprisonment
New York Attorney General Letitia James, a Democrat, is also investigating the allegations.
Her team interviewed one of Trump’s sons, Eric Trump, under oath despite the opposition of Trump attorneys, and obtained documents on some of the family’s properties.
Her investigation is a civil one, but she said recently that if she finds any evidence of criminal activity it will “change the posture of our case.”
If Trump is ever convicted he would be at risk of imprisonment. Unlike federal offences, state convictions cannot be pardoned by the president.
And while Biden has vowed reconciliation with Republicans he would be highly unlikely to interfere in any criminal prosecution in any case.
Many Trump critics are delighted at the possibility that the 74-year-old might be charged, including activists at “Rise and Resist” who called for his imprisonment during a demonstration in New York in January.
However, prosecutors, aware of the volatility of the American political climate, may think twice before pursuing him, several lawyers told AFP.
“I don’t think anyone is going to be jumping at it,” said Daniel Richman, a former prosecutor and law professor at Columbia University.
“The last thing you want is for the process to be used as or perceived as being used as just another tool in a political operation.”
‘Risks to justice’
Roberta Kaplan, a lawyer who is leading three civil actions against Trump, says there are two schools of thought.
“I’m very much of the school that you don’t refrain from doing justice out of a fear that if you do justice, it will inflame people,” she said.
Kaplan believes that pursuing charges against Trump would uphold the principle that no one in the United States is above the law.
“In the long term, the risks are far too great not to establish these principles and to make sure that justice is done,” she told AFP.
For Gloria Browne-Marshall, a law professor at The City University of New York, seeing Trump in the dock would constitute “a very logical denouement” to his time in office.
She envisions what she describes as the “Al Capone scenario,” where the legendary 1920s gangster was convicted of tax evasion, not other more serious crimes he committed.
But even if an indictment is likely before Vance’s term is up in October, Browne-Marshall has difficulty foreseeing a trial or sentence.
With millions of Trump supporters ready to fund his defense, he could counterattack with his own legal actions and drag the cases out for years, she said.
Prosecutors, who are elected and dependent on taxpayers’ money, would have to mobilize a considerable war chest to indict him something they may not be willing to do.