NY AG Barbara Underwood
NY AG explains decision to sue Trump Foundation
01:38 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Tristan Snell is a former assistant attorney general for New York state, where he helped lead the investigation and prosecution of Trump University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.

CNN  — 

Forget about Donald Trump for a moment.

Imagine a hypothetical man who takes donations from people who think they are giving to a charity for veterans.

The man then uses those donations to settle lawsuits against his businesses and to fund a series of publicity stunts for his own political campaign.

Tristan Snell

Now imagine that same man also starts a school. Students think they are paying tuition to learn how to start their own businesses. They are told the tuition will go to charity. But instead, the “school” has no license, the “teachers” are just salesmen preying on people’s hopes and insecurities, and the “tuition” goes to line the man’s pockets.

If this man were some no-name huckster, our response would be very simple: he is a con man with an unbreakable habit of fraudulent behavior, never to be trusted.

This is the proper lens through which to view the lawsuit brought against the Trump Foundation this week.

It is not about any particular improper payment by the “charity.” It is about Trump’s blatant and persistent practice of lying to people, then taking their money, and acting as if no law or regulation or governmental authority ever applies to him.

The New York attorney general’s case packs a strong evidentiary punch. Emails among members of Trump’s innermost circle show that the “foundation” was not a separate entity or a proper charity but allegedly just another slush fund from which Trump could pay people for his personal and political benefit.

Trump’s publicity stunts during the 2016 Iowa caucuses – skipping the Republican debate to raise money for his foundation, for example – were engineered by his presidential campaign. The New York state attorney general’s office alleges that Trump’s foundation was simply a façade. According to the lawsuit, the foundation’s actions appear to have allegedly been in violation not only of New York charities law but also federal tax law governing 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations.

Trump may try to dismiss the airing of this DonateGate as the work of “sleazy New York Democrats,” as he tweeted on Thursday, but the tweeter doth protest too much. When career investigators and prosecutors expose his wrongdoing, he always tries to brush it off as partisan.

It is likely only a matter of time before Trump starts personally attacking New York’s new attorney general, Barbara Underwood, even though she has spent years as a prosecutor and public servant, including in the federal Justice Department as acting solicitor general.

Instead of following Trump on Twitter, follow the money: Trump settled the Trump University case for $25 million (an extraordinarily high amount, given that the illegal school had grossed about $40 million). That was not the action of a man who could defend his innocence on the merits. Trump has repeatedly denied the fraud claims.

Now, Trump faces not only the New York attorney general but also potentially the IRS and the FEC for potentially serious violations of federal tax and campaign finance laws, respectively. Once again, dedicated prosecutors and judges, many of whom are conservatives and lifelong Republicans, will be called upon to scrutinize Trump’s conduct, with the federal tax issues potentially carrying criminal liability. And the New York case may result in a trial well before Trump faces re-election in 2020.

Yet what is most disturbing about this latest scandal is what it confirms about Trump’s character.

Nothing is sacred to Trump, except himself. Treasured values, our nation’s heroes, and our legal system are just there to be taken advantage of if it means a quick buck or a bump in public approval.

With Trump University, he peddled the American Dream to aspiring entrepreneurs.

With Russia, the indictments seem to indicate that Mueller’s investigation is mounting evidence that may prove that Trump’s campaign conspired with a foreign power to influence an American election – one of the greatest fears of the Founding Fathers.

With the Trump Foundation, according to New York’s attorney general office, he allegedly exploited veterans as political pawns by taking the charity donations of well-meaning patriots and used them for his own gain.

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Trump simply does not seem to believe that laws ever apply to him. He operated Trump University without a license. And the latest lawsuit raises the question of whether he operated the Trump Foundation in total disregard of state and federal law. He thinks he can pardon himself. These data points need to be viewed in totality, rather than in isolation, and the portrait they create is terrifyingly clear.

The last time we found ourselves ruled by a man who fancied himself this far above the law, his name was King George III. Our plight today is not so dire: we still have judges and prosecutors dedicated to the Constitution and the rule of law. We have state governments, if not a functioning Congress. Yet these defenses will be weak if moderates, independents, and Republicans of good conscience do not begin to see Trump for what he is.