The news came late on Tuesday night, with a two-sentence statement from the New York attorney general's office: "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 DA."
Sometimes a few words convey an enormous amount. This is one of those times.
For years, critics of Donald Trump have waited to see whether his problematic behavior would result in real legal repercussions. Remember the Mueller investigation, the two impeachment trials, the Emoluments Clause lawsuits, the many congressional subpoenas into potential wrongdoing by Trump and/or his associates and the criminal probe involving Trump's election meddling in Georgia? I do, too. And yet, the former president has thus far avoided any significant legal consequences for his actions and alleged actions. That is, possibly, until now.
The New York attorney general's office has reportedly been looking into whether the Trump Organization — a privately held organization that owns hotels, golf courses, residential and commercial properties and other companies — improperly inflated property values to obtain loans and deflate property values. Why do that? To get favorable tax treatment. As The New York Times' investigation into Trump's taxes has highlighted, "The Apprentice" star (and his team) have an incredible knack for accounting wizardry, a skill that helped the professed billionaire pay zero dollars in federal taxes in 11 of 18 years that The Times examined.
But until now, it appeared that the state investigation centered only on potential civil liability, while the Manhattan district attorney's office was conducting a criminal investigation into similar allegations.
The state attorney general's announcement should be able to provide us with some important information about what we are likely to see going forward. First, a criminal investigation almost certainly indicates that Attorney General Letitia James' office has uncovered evidence that goes beyond mere discrepancies in financial documents. Criminal conduct requires that prosecutors show some level of intent. It seems clear we are not talking about misfiled paperwork here.
Second, the announcement increases the chances that Trump himself and/or former and current executives of his business empire will face criminal exposure. Operating under the assumption that no one wants to go to jail, this could put significant pressure on former and current employees of the Trump Organization to cooperate with the investigation. Anyone potentially implicated in the criminal investigation will have incentives to give the attorney general's office information in exchange for favorable plea deals.
Third, the last part of the statement, "along with the Manhattan DA," is important. Reports indicate that the district attorney's office has been looking into similar allegations against the Trump Organization and perhaps more, like tax deductions on consulting fees paid to Ivanka Trump. While we do not know the full extent of how the two offices are working together, this kind of teamwork is not exactly typical. It may be another reason to conclude that the attorney general's office has found evidence that could be helpful for the DA's criminal investigation.
This is a big, high-profile announcement. There is a reason you are reading an article about it. There is no doubt that James and her office know how much attention they have unleashed. James, an ambitious prosecutor who is also investigating allegations of wrongdoing by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and has filed a lawsuit that seeks to dissolve the National Rifle Association, will want to tread carefully with so many eyes on her and her office. In other words, an announcement like this is an aggressive move. And it is unlikely to have been made lightly.
It is, of course, important to remember that an investigation does not equal a conviction. There are still many, many steps between those two things. But it is likely that it is safe to assume that James' office is working with significant credible evidence of criminal wrongdoing.
We are well past the mere speculation of potential criminal conduct.