Trump faces what he's long avoided: being held to account

NY AG explains decision to sue Trump Foundation
NY AG explains decision to sue Trump Foundation

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NY AG explains decision to sue Trump Foundation 01:38

Michael D'Antonio is author of the book, "Never Enough: Donald Trump and the Pursuit of Success" (St. Martin's Press). The opinions expressed in this commentary are his.

(CNN)Donald Trump has always acted as if all is fair in love and war, and that his life is never-ending combat. In this battle, he was always willing to do what others wouldn't -- stiff contractors, declare multiple bankruptcies, lie and distort -- in order to win. This disregard for decency is now hurting his children, and threatens his standing as President of the United States.

The New York attorney general's new lawsuit against the Donald J. Trump Foundation contains the bombshell revelation that 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski sought to distribute foundation funds at the onset of the primaries, a propitious moment for candidate Trump. "Is there any way we can make disbursements this week while in Iowa?" he asked in an email to the Trump Foundation CFO and treasurer. At least five Iowa organizations received $100,000 gifts from the Trump foundation.
Revealed in the AG's press release, the Lewandowski email is evidence, if not proof, that the campaign was trying to use foundation money to benefit the candidate. This is the kind of manipulation Trump himself allegedly practiced for years as he took money from donors and passed it along to others as his own gifts.
Trump gave The Palm Beach Police Foundation $150,000 and was honored for the "selfless support" he showed through his philanthropy. He then creatively hosted the foundation's gala at his own resort, Mar-a-Lago, and billed them $276,463. The lawsuit also alleges that the Trump charity paid an aggregate of $268,000 to settle legal claims against Mar-a-Lago and Trump National Golf Club, and purchase a painting of Trump.
    Trump also attempted to use the charity, albeit legally, to get in the good graces of political conservatives, sending checks to both the right-wing law group called Citizens United and the nonprofit conservative publishing group the American Spectator Foundation. Some of these foundation expenditures, including funds used to settle a lawsuit against Trump's golf course, were reimbursed.
    The details in the lawsuit make the President's supposedly charitable activities look like they were just part of the same hype that he practiced to assert he was worth more than $10 billion. (One has to ask, if he was so rich, why didn't he write those checks to Iowa charities from his personal account?)
    Besides casting the President in a bad light, the lawsuit asks that Trump be banned from serving as director of a New York nonprofit board for 10 years while also seeking to ban his eldest children -- Donald Jr., Ivanka, and Eric -- from serving for a year, or until they are trained in fiduciary services.
    These boards exist, at least in part, to give the scions of big money social connections and do-gooder bona fides. With this complaint, the state of New York is essentially declaring the Trump offspring unfit to serve. Worse, it opens them up to the kind of searching investigation that their father carefully avoided during the decades of operating countless businesses.
    Secrecy has been a Trump hallmark from the very start of his public life, and until he entered politics in a serious way he was able to make all sorts of claims, which no one could refute because he was the only one who knew the truth. Even after entering politics, he's been extraordinarily private about his business dealings.
    His I-will-I-won't performance around the matter of releasing his tax forms, something candidates have done since the days of Richard Nixon, ended with him withholding this vital information from the public.
    Because they were required to report some of their activities, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, and his son Erik's separate charity, offered rare peeks into how the family operates. Press investigation into their activities prompted broad interest and apparently spurred the attorney general's office to investigate.
    The President fired back Thursday about the lawsuit on Twitter, remarking that Eric Schneiderman, who started the case, resigned his post in disgrace, referring to the former New York AG's resignation on the heels of assault allegations.
    This may work to persuade his supporters that this is all a matter of politics. But in New York, where Trump is unpopular and the lawsuit will proceed outside the federal system, it will have little to no effect.
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    As hearings are conducted and evidence is presented, the President faces the prospect of being confronted with something he has labored to avoid all his life: a genuine public accounting. This is seemingly Donald Trump's main concern. Prosecutors acting outside his reach have the power to uncover facts that could reveal that Donald Trump is not the man he claims to be.
    At a time when special prosecutor Robert Mueller is making strides in his investigation on Russian interference in the 2016 election, and Trump's longtime fixer Michael Cohen is in serious legal jeopardy, the New York attorney general's complaint represents one more ray of light beamed into the darkness of the President's past. Soon there may be no shadows left.