In the days after the midterm elections, executives at President Donald Trump’s family business, the Trump Organization, huddled on calls to discuss the possible implications of Democrats winning back the House of Representatives and the potential risk that poses to the company.
While the Trump Organization has a long history of lawsuits, and currently faces multiple investigations from state and federal authorities, the prospect of a Democratic-controlled House, armed with subpoena power and bent on investigating every aspect of the President’s life, presents a different threat altogether, according to interviews with multiple people familiar with the company’s internal discussions or close to the President’s legal team.
In September, one person familiar with the company told CNN that “the worst thing for the business would be a change of control in Congress.”
Republicans still hold the Senate, but there are a lot of ways a Democratic majority in the House can make life difficult for the Trump Organization. Committee chairs can drag executives in front of public hearings and compel testimony about all manner of the private company’s dealings. They can also inundate it with document requests.
In the aftermath of the election, executives reminded staff to preserve records, according to a person familiar with the conversations. They also discussed bringing on additional outside counsel, that person said, particularly a firm with expertise in government investigations. Though it’s unclear how serious they are about that option— two other people familiar with Trump’s legal team say they are not aware of an effort to hire more lawyers— doing so would be a big shift for the president’s family-owned business, which tends to rely on a tight group of longtime loyal executives and attorneys.
Two of the company’s lawyers tell CNN they’re comfortable with their current team, which they say is well-prepared and battle-tested given the number of lawsuits the company has faced over the years. There is also a sense, wishful thinking perhaps, that Democratic investigations may not be as politically damaging as some close to the president fear.
Lawyers close to the President and his company suggest Democrats may temper their inquiries once they formally take over next year amid pressure to balance the potential political fallout of looking like they’re out to get the Trump Organization against other investigative priorities, such as government spending by cabinet members. Some of those same lawyers say they anticipate Congress will strike a softer tone in order to advance other Democratic priorities such as protecting healthcare and passing an infrastructure package.
Whatever happens, the Democratic takeover of the House is still more than a month away. Until then, the Trump Organization will continue to deal with two open investigations and the threat of a third. The New York State Department of Taxation and Finance is investigating allegations of tax fraud, CNN has reported, while the Manhattan US attorney’s office is examining whether executives violated campaign-finance laws in their effort to help facilitate hush money payments to women who alleged affairs with Trump. That probe is the subject of an “ongoing” grand jury investigation, according to court filings and a person familiar with the matter.
The New York Attorney General’s office is currently pursuing a civil law suit against the President’s charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, as well as against the President himself and his adult children. The office is also weighing whether it could pursue a criminal probe of the charity, an effort that could touch on the Trump Organization, given how closely the nonprofit and company are intertwined. Tish James, the state’s newly-elected attorney general, ran for the seat by promising voters an aggressive pursuit of the President.
The Trump Organization also has the problem of Michael Cohen, the company’s former vice president and Trump’s longtime lawyer, who pleaded guilty in August to eight counts brought by the Manhattan US Attorney’s office. Cohen has been speaking with federal investigators and is set to be sentenced on December 12. Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, received limited immunity for his cooperation in prosecutors’ investigation of Cohen. Weisselberg’s cooperation is limited to the Cohen investigation.
Weisselberg, along with the company’s longtime general counsel, Alan Garten, are among 30 people connected to the President and his business dealings that California Democratic Rep. Adam Schiff would like to interview. Schiff, the likely incoming chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, has indicated that he will make investigating possible Russian money laundering a top priority. That includes potential money laundering through the Trump Organization, as well as foreign payments made to former Trump campaign aides Paul Manafort and Rick Gates, both of whom pleaded guilty to financial crimes in the special counsel’s investigation.
If and when Democrats do launch new probes into the President’s business, the Trump Organization plans to highlight previous cooperation with congressional committees as evidence of the good faith efforts it has made in the past, said the person familiar with its plans. The firm has turned over documents to various congressional committees for the last two years, providing documents to lawmakers probing Russian election meddling and answering requests for information about possible violations of the anti-corruption clauses in the constitution, known as emoluments clauses.
When it comes to questions about ethics matters, including emoluments, the Trump Organization has responded to about 85 percent of the requests, the person said. Democratic staffers disagree with the characterization, pointing out that many of the responses didn’t actually provide enough or even any information.
In a 2017 response to Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings’ request for information on how the firm tracks foreign government payments, the company provided an outline of a system it had designed to monitor foreign government revenue and how to calculate profits from it. The lawmaker belittled the Trump Organization’s plan, calling it a “pamphlet” that “raised grave concerns.”
Democrats have said that the hundreds of letters they’ve sent over the past two years — requesting documents themselves or pleading with Republicans to investigate various issues — provide an investigative roadmap for when they take the majority, and the Trump Organization has been a frequent target across multiple committees.
Democrats are still deciding which of those investigations they want to prioritize. Democratic aides say there’s no master list yet of how investigations will be launched in the new Congress, but the sheer number of committees that want to probe the Trump Organization — there are at least five— signals that the company will be a top priority, particularly when it comes to issues such as foreign payments made to Trump, allegations of Russian money laundering, and gaining access to Trump’s personal tax returns.
“I’ve always believed that the key here is follow the money,” said Rep. Denny Heck of Washington, a Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. “That would be my strongest desire: that we do something to get at some of the questions that were raised about whether or not the Russians had undue influence over President Trump because of some preexisting financial entanglements.”
Trump’s relationship with Deutsche Bank, which was fined in a Russian money laundering scheme, is one topic multiple committees have said they want to examine, given the bank’s history of lending to Trump-related businesses and projects. California Rep. Maxine Waters, who is expected to chair the House Financial Services Committee, has pressed for an investigation into Deutsche Bank, and sent letters requesting information about its Russian operations and whether accounts Trump and his family members held had any ties to Russia.
A spokesman for the bank declined to comment on the change in leadership and referred CNN to a previous statement, which said, “Deutsche Bank takes its legal obligations seriously and remains committed to cooperating with authorized investigations.”
Looking for lawyers
The President’s company is facing a situation not all that dissimilar from the President himself. With special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of Russian election interference entering its final phase, and House Democrats preparing to unleash a barrage of investigations, the White House is seeking to hire as many as two dozen attorneys to fill out its counsel’s office, whose ranks have been depleted in past months as staff attorneys have left.
But there’s a difference between hiring lawyers for the White House and for the President’s company. Taxpayers foot the bill for those White House attorneys, while the money to defend his company comes from the Trump family. Over the years, the company has been loath to spend big money on lots of expensive attorneys, deciding instead to rely on a small group of loyal people to handle the its legal issues.
The company’s primary outside lawyer is Alan Futerfas, a New York-based criminal defense lawyer who represents not only the Trump Organization, but also the President’s eldest sons, Donald Jr and Eric, who now head the company. Futerfas’ firm of only three principal attorneys has been the front-line response team to multiple investigations by Mueller’s office, Manhattan federal prosecutors and several congressional committees.
Futerfas works closely with Garten, the company’s general counsel. While Futerfas has handled the bulk of the inquiries for both the company and the sons, at some point the interests of those clients could diverge, opening up the need for another set of lawyers to represent just the company. Futerfas and Garten did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did The Trump Organization.
The lines separating the interests of Trump and those of his company were indistinguishable prior to his arrival at the White House. When he took office in January 2017, he put his assets in a trust and handed over day-to-day management of his business to Donald Jr and Eric. Over the years Trump has turned to a reliable set of outside law firms to represent both him and his company. That includes the firm Morgan Lewis, which has advised Trump on tax issues, as well as two lawyers in particular, Marc Kasowitz and Larry Rosen.
Kasowitz, a longtime attorney for Trump, continues to be involved in a variety of matters for the President, most notably defending him in the ongoing defamation lawsuit brought by Summer Zervos, a former contestant on “The Apprentice.” Kasowitz was an early member of the President’s legal team handling matters arising from the Mueller investigation but in July 2017 he stepped aside and made way for John Dowd, who left in May 2018.
Rosen has represented Trump since the early 1990s, most recently handling campaign-related matters and a defamation lawsuit filed against the President by GOP strategist Cheryl Jacobus. He also represented Cohen in an arbitration dispute concerning payments made to Stormy Daniels, the adult film actress who alleged a sexual encounter with Trump. The White House has denied her allegations.
Earlier this year, following a shakeup of the President’s private defense team, a few large law firms passed on the opportunity to defend him in the Mueller investigation. If the Trump Organization does decide it needs to hire more lawyers, it may face similar issues given the impression among some lawyers that the President and his company don’t pay their legal fees. At least three defense attorneys based in New York and D.C. raised that as a concern to CNN– though none had been approached by the company about representing it. One lawyer said his firm has a policy of not working with the company. Firms have also turned it down because their other clients have balked at the notion of being associated with the President, his family or his company.
Ultimately, the extent of the scrutiny that is brought on the company will become clear as Democrats take control of the House in January.