Five independently elected investigators have turned their attention to former President Donald Trump, a sign his legal woes are mounting as he no longer enjoys the protections once afforded to him by the Oval Office.
Trump is now facing inquiries run by elected officials from Georgia to New York to Washington with only their constituents to answer to. Most are Democrats, but one key investigation was launched by a Georgia Republican who has faced heavy criticism from Trump since the election.
And the former President’s actions on his way out of office, including his attempts to overturn the 2020 election results and to stir up his supporters with baseless claims of fraud until they stormed the US Capitol on a harrowing January day, have only added to his legal problems.
“It’s never happened in our history but every single one of these prosecutors and attorneys general has more than sufficient predication to investigate what they’re investigating,” said Daniel R. Alonso, who was a top deputy to Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance from 2010 to 2014.
There are signs the probes are picking up. In New York, investigators recently got their hands on Trump’s tax returns and have bolstered their team with a prosecutor who specializes in complex financial cases. In Georgia, another prosecutor plans to begin requesting subpoenas from a grand jury as early as this week.
“The world has changed for Donald Trump, legally, now that he’s no longer president,” said Elie Honig, a former federal and state prosecutor and a CNN legal analyst. “Donald Trump tried to delay civil suits against him, he tried to delay subpoenas against him while he was president. All of that is gone now, so now we’re seeing multiple investigators – federal and state – digging in and taking a hard look at Donald Trump.”
All eyes on the Empire State
In Manhattan, all eyes are on Vance, who has been investigating Trump’s finances for two years and is not expected to run for reelection.
The Democrat has 10 months left in his term – setting the clock, some said, for him to wrap up his investigation.
“It’s likely that the case, if it is charged, would be charged before Vance leaves office,” said Anne Milgram, a former attorney general for New Jersey and former federal prosecutor.
“That’s because that’s 10 months away – which is a long time in a criminal investigation – and because the DA’s office had previously noted that there were statutes of limitations timing issues,” she said.
Prosecutors have already interviewed witnesses, subpoenaed documents from lenders, an insurance broker and others, and last month recruited a former federal prosecutor with a background in complex financial investigations to bolster their team.
Last week investigators also received a trove of records, including tax returns, financial statements, and communications between the Trump Organization and Mazars, Trump’s long-time accountant, after the Supreme Court denied Trump’s latest bid to block Vance from accessing those records.
“I think the goal will be to move quickly and, if they believe a crime has been committed, they will move to present the case to the grand jury within months, not years,” Milgram said.
Vance, the son of a former US secretary of state and Washington insider, spent the better part of his legal career as a white-collar criminal defense lawyer. He ran for district attorney and was sworn into office in 2010 after a more than 30-year run by his predecessor Robert Morgenthau.
He has been innovative in pursuing some cases and in 2019, Vance’s office obtained the first conviction on state domestic terrorism charges.
But some of his victories have been tinged by controversy.
When Vance brought criminal charges against Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein for sexual assault following the rise of the #metoo movement, Weinstein’s conviction was hailed as a “new era of justice” by Time’s Up, a women’s advocacy group. But it came only after an earlier decision in 2015 to decline to prosecute Weinstein after an Italian model accused him of groping her and recorded Weinstein on tape saying, “I won’t do it again.”
Vance was also criticized for not prosecuting Donald Trump Jr. and Ivanka Trump, who were investigated in 2012 for allegedly misleading potential buyers for units in the Trump SoHo, a New York hotel property. In both instances, lawyers for the individuals had donated to Vance’s campaign.
Vance defended himself, telling reporters in 2017 that the donations had no impact on his thinking. His office said the allegations against Weinstein were “horrifying” but there was not sufficient evidence to charge him.
“At the end of the day, we operate in the courtroom of the law, not the courtroom of public opinion,” Vance said.
Alonso, the former Vance deputy, has previously said sometimes a district attorney is successful by deciding not to file charges.
On the Trump investigation, he said, Vance will not be political.
“He knows that the job is not to lick your finger and hold it up to the wind and decide which way the wind is blowing before you make a decision,” Alonso said. “He will look at the evidence and decide who he believes is guilty and whether he can prove it.”
Another New York investigation
One of the biggest thorns in Trump’s side has been New York Attorney General Letitia James.
When James was running for office in 2018, she campaigned on a pledge to investigate everything from Trump’s policies to his finances.
“I’m running for attorney general because I will never be afraid to challenge this illegitimate president when our fundamental rights are at stake,” James said at the time.
Her record since has shown that she meant it: She challenged the Trump administration’s addition of a citizen question to the US census, pushed for the New York legislature to pass a law to close a presidential pardon loophole, and wrapped up a lawsuit brought by her predecessor that led to the dissolution of the Trump Foundation.
Now her office is digging into Trump’s business and personal finances, exploring whether assets were improperly valued and if banks or tax authorities were defrauded. James has won court victories with a judge compelling Eric Trump, who co-runs the day-to-day operations of Trump Organization, to sit for a deposition and ordering Trump’s tax lawyer to turn over reams of documents.
James has been a trailblazer, becoming the first African American woman to hold city-wide office when she was elected New York City’s public advocate in 2013 and then the first woman elected to serve as New York’s attorney general and first African American woman to hold statewide office. Her political ambitions are not limited to the AG’s office. She has mused about running for mayor and some have speculated she could make a bid for governor if Andrew Cuomo does not run again for office.
Cuomo backed James in her bid for attorney general but their ties have recently been tested. James issued a scathing report in January finding the New York Department of Health undercounted Covid-19 deaths among nursing home residents by about 50%, setting off a political crisis for Cuomo.
Over the weekend, she publicly pushed back on Cuomo’s plans to investigate sexual harassment claims brought against him. Cuomo initially said he would appoint a retired federal judge to investigate the claims by two women. When that move was met with harsh criticism, he then said he would ask James and the chief judge in New York to appoint an independent investigator. Ultimately, he ceded ground to James who alone will select an independent law firm to investigate the allegations against the governor.
Cuomo says he never inappropriately touched or propositioned anyone, but did apologize to anyone who may have misinterpreted his comments in the workplace as unwanted flirtation.
“She’s been a strong independent voice throughout her career,” said Robert Abrams, New York attorney general from 1978-1994 and a member of James’ transition team. “All of this demonstrates that she has shown courage and tenacity for what she believes is right, what is her duty and responsibility.”
Trump has seized on James’ past comments, saying her actions against him are politically motivated. In a court filing challenging Vance’s subpoena for his tax returns, Trump’s lawyers quoted James nine times, including when she said, “I will be shining a bright light into every dark corner of his real estate dealings.”
James said Trump is wrong about her.
“I’m not biased. I represent the state—all individuals, all citizens in the state of New York, whether you’re Republican and or Democrat,” James told Marie Claire in January. “That is my duty and that is the mission.”
Georgia’s GOP investigator
Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger’s office is also investigating Trump, for his attempts to overturn the state’s election results.
When Trump lost the presidential election, no state official was in his crosshairs more than Raffensperger, a lifelong Republican. Even as tension and pressure from Trump were on public display, Georgia’s top election official said he had supported Trump and publicly stated multiple times that he wished Trump had won.
But while saying he was personally disappointed in the results as a conservative Republican, Raffensperger steadfastly refused to give credence to a litany of conspiracy theories bolstered by the then-President alleging election fraud in Georgia.
Since the rioting at the US Capitol on January 6, Raffensperger has offered a more critical take on Trump’s actions.
“Many of the actions that he’s taken since then are not what you would expect from a president,” Raffensperger told CNN in January. “I’ve said from day one that we have to be really mindful of our speech because we can’t spin people up and play people and get them into an emotional frenzy.”
Raffensperger’s is the rare Republican-led investigation, made more awkward by the fact that Raffensperger was a direct witness to Trump’s attempts to influence the outcome of the election.
A source familiar with the Georgia secretary of state’s investigation confirmed officials are looking at two calls. One is the January phone call, of which CNN obtained the audio. In it,Trump pushed Raffensperger to “find” votes to overturn the election results after his loss to Biden. The other involves a call Trump made on December 23, to a Georgia election investigator in the secretary of state’s office who was leading a probe into allegations of ballot fraud in Cobb County. Trump is heard asking the chief investigator with Raffensperger’s office to to search for dishonesty in the 2020 presidential election, telling the individual that the investigation was of national importance, according to a source with knowledge of the call.
Trump’s senior adviser, Jason Miller, said in a statement last month that there was nothing “improper or untoward” about the call between Trump and Raffensperger.
“And the only reason the call became public was because Mr. Raffensperger leaked it in an attempt to score political points,” Miller’s statement said.
Raffensperger’s office declined to comment, saying they don’t comment on active investigations.
Twenty investigators work in Raffensperger’s office statewide, and the team has a lot on its plate. They’re currently working on 252 cases from 2020 that are open or pending presentation to the state election board, a source familiar with the Georgia secretary of state’s investigations confirmed to CNN.
The office investigates every complaint it receives and described the investigations as “fact-finding and administrative in nature,” according to a statement on February 8, the day it opened an inquiry into the infamous calls.
Once Raffensperger’s office completes its investigation, the findings will be reported to the state election board, which may decide that probable cause merits there was a violation, and that the case should be referred to Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis or additionally, Georgia’s attorney general for further investigation, according to two people familiar with the process.
Georgia digs in on election meddling
In addition to the investigation by Raffensperger’s office, Willis is looking into Trump’s call to the Georgia secretary of state, looking to sway Georgia’s election results in his favor.
When that call took place on January 2, Willis had only been in office one day. By early February, her office began firing off letters to Georgia officials asking them to preserve documents related to attempts to influence the state’s election as she investigates potential crimes including the solicitation of election fraud, conspiracy and racketeering. According to the letters, none of the Georgia officials are targets of the investigation.
The probe instantly elevated the newly elected prosecutor’s national profile. But it also irked some Georgia residents who believe the focus on Trump will drain attention and resources from local issues in Fulton County, which includes much of the city of Atlanta.
Those who know Willis, though, were unsurprised to see her forge ahead.
“There’s some evidence saying a law might’ve been broken. It might’ve been done in her jurisdiction, she’s going to investigate it,” said Charlie Bailey, who previously worked closely with Willis in the district attorney’s office and is running for state attorney general in 2022. “I know it is different because it’s a former president. I do realize that, and I know she realizes that too, but she takes that very seriously.”
Willis, a Democrat and a longtime prosecutor, ousted her former boss to become the county’s first female district attorney in January. She and her staff have been juggling an avalanche of interest in the Trump investigation with an office that was already buckling under its caseload, according to a source familiar with the investigation.
One of her first moves was asking the state attorney general to reassign two high-profile cases against Atlanta police officers for alleged use of excessive force, including in the shooting death of Rayshard Brooks. Her critics believe it’s a sign her priorities are elsewhere.
“If the DA’s office has time and the resources and all the time and manpower to do that – go after Trump for this election stuff or whatever – just make sure that the civil rights cases that are in her county are treated equally and take the same kind of priority,” said Chris Stewart, a lawyer for the Brooks family.
“What do we do now?” Stewart asked. “Families are stuck in the middle.”
Meantime, Willis has said her Trump investigation will stretch beyond Trump’s call with Raffensperger to include any efforts to influence the election in Georgia.
She has said in interviews she may begin requesting subpoenas from a grand jury as early as March. And that grand jury will draw from a pool of constituents in Fulton County unlikely to be sympathetic to Trump: President Joe Biden won the county with nearly 73% of the vote in November.
“I have no idea what I’m going to find,” Willis told CNN affiliate WSB last month. “A good law enforcement officer, a good prosecutor, you walk in with an open mind.”
Willis is perhaps best known in Georgia for her role in the 2014 prosecution of a dozen educators accused of being involved in a cheating scandal. Eleven were convicted on racketeering charges.
Her former colleagues said she’s unlikely to be intimidated by taking on the former President. But she has acknowledged doubling her security amid threats.
“Interestingly enough, the comments are always racist. And it’s really just a waste of time and foolishness,” Willis told MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow last month. “It’s not going to stop me from doing my job, and I don’t think that it’s an insult to remind me that I am a Black woman.”
Another crack at Trump in DC
For Karl Racine, there’s perhaps little downside in pursuing yet another case against Trump.
Racine, who became Washington, DC’s first elected attorney general when he took office in 2015, serves a constituency that overwhelmingly favors Democrats. In 2020, 92% of the District voted for Biden.
Racine previously took on Trump in a lawsuit alleging conflicts between the then-President’s business interests and his oath of office. The lawsuit was rendered moot when Trump left office.
For Racine’s latest pursuit, it appears to be a waiting game as prosecutors investigate whether the former President’s alleged role in the insurrection violated the city’s incitement of violence law, and determine whether it’s best to partner with the US attorney’s office.
“They don’t want to bring charges without the cooperation of the federal government,” former DC Attorney General Bob Spagnoletti said. “They’re not going to step out on a limb here.”
Racine’s office only enforces local codes for the city, while the prosecution of both major and federal crimes falls under the purview of the Justice Department.
Racine has said he is focused on the incitement of violence charge available to him under the DC code, but the charge only carries a maximum of six months in prison, and legal experts note Racine wouldn’t have the authority to force Trump back to Washington to appear in court.
Spagnoletti points out it would be most advantageous for Racine to work in connection with the US attorney in DC, especially since only that office has the power to convene a grand jury.
“Because Karl Racine doesn’t have one, he needs to be able to work with the US attorney to gather evidence expeditiously, and not grind it to a halt which is what will happen without a coordinated strategy,” Spagnoletti said.
Acting US Attorney Michael Sherwin has said his office will weigh potentially charging all actors involved in the insurrection but has declined to elaborate on whether that also means Trump. It’s unclear if Sherwin will remain in his post if Merrick Garland is confirmed as US attorney general.
Racine did reveal in January that his office was “collaborating at a high level with federal prosecutors.”
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story, published March 1, presented paraphrasing of the President’s comments to the Georgia elections investigator as direct quotes. The story has been updated following the discovery of an audio recording of the call. Read more here.