Editor’s Note: Errol Louis is the host of “Inside City Hall,” a nightly political show on NY1, a New York all-news channel. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Donald Trump hears the footsteps of law enforcement getting closer, and he’s not happy. He has posted a bitter 900-word rant – one of the longest statements he’s issued since leaving office – aimed at New York Attorney General Letitia James. It offers a revealing look at Trump’s growing legal troubles, now that a long-running investigation into the Trump Organization by James’s office has ratcheted up and may now include the possibility of criminal charges.
“There is nothing more corrupt than an investigation that is in desperate search of a crime,” Trump wrote on his website. “But, make no mistake, that is exactly what is happening here. The Attorney General of New York literally campaigned on prosecuting Donald Trump even before she knew anything about me. She said that if elected, she would use her office to look into ‘every aspect’ of my real estate dealings.”
A spokesperson for James told CNN: “We have informed the Trump Organization that our investigation into the organization is no longer purely civil in nature. We are now actively investigating the Trump Organization in a criminal capacity, along with the Manhattan D.A.”
We don’t know exactly what James is investigating; it’s unusual for a prosecutor to announce the possibility of criminal charges in this fashion. She could be sending a signal to witnesses and potential cooperators that things are about to get serious. Or she could simply be reacting to information that was leaked to the media.
But the most important part of the statement – the thing that likely sent Trump into a rage – is the confirmation that James and the Manhattan District Attorney, Cyrus Vance, are working together. After a long legal battle that went all the way to the Supreme Court, Vance recently got copies of Trump’s tax returns. The returns are expected to confirm – or refute – explosive charges alleged by Trump’s former attorney, Michael Cohen, in testimony to Congress.
According to Cohen, Trump exaggerated the value of real estate owned by his company in order to secure a loan to buy the Buffalo Bills football team, and then drastically undervalued the same property for tax purposes.
An investigation by The New York Times exposed what seemed to the very tactics Cohen described: “On his 2012 balance sheet,” the Times wrote, “Mr. Trump described an estate he owns in Westchester County, N.Y., as being worth $291 million. He bought the property, Seven Springs, in 1996 for $7.5 million. In 2018, Mr. Trump said in a federal ethics filing that the property was worth no more than $50 million.”
Those wildly varying estimates could spell trouble for Trump. The value of real estate can vary with market conditions, but deliberately manipulating estimates – telling the bank a property is worth $291 million, but then reporting to the government it’s only valued at $50 million – can constitute criminal fraud.
In his recent rant, Trump lashed out at Cohen, complaining that “the District Attorney’s office has been going after me for years based on a lying, discredited low life, who was not listened to or given credibility by other prosecutorial offices, and sentenced to 3 years in prison for lying and other events unrelated to me.”
Cohen did, indeed, plead guilty to a range of federal charges that included concealing income and lying to a bank in the process of getting a home equity loan – actions taken in order “to silence two women who otherwise planned to speak publicly about their alleged affairs with a presidential candidate,” according to federal prosecutors.
Cohen and other past and present Trump Organization employees – including the ex-president’s sons – have spoken repeatedly with prosecutors with the state Attorney General and the Manhattan District Attorney’s offices. So Trump has every reason to worry, though we don’t know if any charges will be filed.
And despite the ex-president’s insults and protestations, his growing legal jeopardy comes as no surprise. Investigative reporters have examined Trump’s finances for decades, generating enough books to fill a small shelf. Aggressively manipulating real estate values has long been part of his business strategy, according to a detailed investigation by the New York Times in 2018
We have every reason to think there are yawning gaps between what he has claimed to different public and private agencies. And all the name-calling in the world won’t change that.