Scandals have surrounded many presidents throughout American history, but no one who has occupied that office has ever been in as serious trouble with the law as Donald Trump could be now. Three investigations of potential crimes are now moving ahead, two in New York and one in Georgia, and there is a real possibility that he will actually be prosecuted.
What is this all about? What possible criminal charges could he face? Who else, in his family or among his associates, might be charged? Might there be consequences for him or his business empire other than criminal charges?
Nothing is simple about Donald Trump’s potential legal woe, and months may pass – maybe a few years — before all of this is completely sorted out. Even so, enough is now known publicly, through official actions and news leaks out of the investigations, to show the general outlines of the problems that appear to be confronting Trump and his entourage.
First, though, let’s examine some basic factors.
Potentially at issue for Trump personally, his family, his associates and his business are matters both of civil law and criminal law. What’s the difference?
Civil law is society’s means of correcting legal misconduct without putting anyone in jail. It is more focused on remedies than on punishment. A claim of civil wrongdoing can be pursued by private persons or entities, or by government. The usual penalty is a fine or an award of “damages” – that is, a mandatory payment of money. In extreme cases, fines or damages can run into the millions. If a business is involved, it can be broken up or forced to adopt broad internal reforms. Because the penalties are not as great, for personal liberty or freedom, it is easier to prove illegality. The only proof needed is that the evidence of wrongdoing outweighs possible innocent explanations. This is called the “preponderance of the evidence” standard. A civil case can be tried by a jury or by a judge. It can be ended by settlement before, during or after a trial.
Criminal law is society’s means of controlling the greatest threats to personal or public safety and public order. It can be thought of as corrective in nature (prisons are often run by a “corrections department”), but its basic approach is punishment upon proof of guilt. The penalties can be as modest as small fines or court orders to correct for the misconduct, but can also mean lengthy prison time and, in the most extreme cases, capital punishment. Crimes are considered offenses against the state, or all of society, even if the harm is done only to another individual human being or private entity. Prosecution is done only by government; that’s why criminal cases will have titles like “State v. Jones” or “State v. Smith.” Because the punishment can be severe, the government must prove its case by a much more difficult test: “beyond a reasonable doubt.” That does not mean that guilt must be absolutely certain; there is a good deal of flexibility in what “reasonable” means. Innocence is always assumed, so the government must overcome it by proof of guilt. Criminal cases can be ended before, during or after trial, by pleas of guilt by the accused.
Presidents or former presidents have faced a variety of claims of civil law violations. One of the most lurid was the sexual harassment lawsuit against President Clinton by a former Arkansas state employee, Paula Jones. In the end, he paid her $830,000 in damages, he was fined $25,000 for false testimony, had his law license suspended, admitted to lying in court in exchange for not being prosecuted for the crime of perjury, and was impeached but not convicted by Congress. (By the way, impeachment is considered to be a civil law process, not a punitive or criminal matter.)
And some have faced criminal investigations. The most notorious, of course, was the Watergate investigation of President Nixon; he resigned before actually facing charges and he won a pardon by President Ford to spare him from prosecution. His resignation from the presidency ended the threat of impeachment
Here is what we now know about Donald Trump’s current situation, beyond the fact that he is the only president ever to be twice impeached (though not convicted either time):
- He is under criminal investigation by state prosecutors in Georgia for the potential crime of tampering with the 2020 presidential election by asking a state official to “find” enough votes to assure him of victory over Joe Biden in that state.
- For more than two years, he and his family and business have been under investigation for possible crimes in violation of state law by a state grand jury in New York City. The prosecutors in that case won a case that went to the Supreme Court to gain access to years of Trump’s personal and business tax returns and other financial records. That investigation was prompted initially by the revelation that Trump had ordered a payment to a sexual partner to keep their relationship secret during the 2016 presidential campaign. That probe has been widened to include possible crimes of tax evasion and commercial or insurance fraud.
- Also, for more than two years, Trump and his family and his business and business associates have been under investigation by the state attorney general in New York for possible civil law violations, including commercial and insurance fraud. Just this week, however, that state probe was broadened to include potential criminal charges under state law – in particular, tax evasion or fraud.
So far as is currently known publicly, there are no pending investigations of potential violations of federal criminal or civil law, although he and the business appear to be at risk of federal tax evasion charges.
Observers who are familiar with the “Trump Organization,” the multi-faceted, global business that is Donald Trump’s commercial empire, have said that it is a small, closely knit family business, with very few people involved in its management and operations. His children, Ivanka, Eric and Donald, have been directly involved in running the company. Perhaps the leading non-family member intimately involved in the business is the Trump family’s longtime accountant, Allen Weisselberg. News accounts this week have said that the two New York investigations have become especially threatening to Weisselberg.
It is known that Michael Cohen, the former personal lawyer to Trump who has pleaded guilty to eight federal crimes – campaign finance violations, tax fraud and bank fraud – has been a central witness in both of the New York investigations. He also has testified at length before Congress about his observations of Trump’s financial dealings.
Trump’s charity organization, the Trump Foundation, has been closed down after New York state investigators found serious misconduct under state laws regulating charitable endeavors.
No one outside of the investigators in the ongoing civil and criminal cases can know when, if ever, actual charges will be filed.