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Digital Subscriptions > Newsweek International > 16th March 2018 > CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

CATCH ME IF YOU CAN

IS THE AMERICAN JUSTICE SYSTEM ANY MATCH FOR DONALD TRUMP?
CHAD BATKA/GETTY

TRUMP

IN THE SUMMER OF 2016, Donald Trump sold a pair of New York City condos to his son Eric for $350,000 a piece—less than half their listing prices. In doing so, two tax lawyers wrote in The Washington Post, he may have committed fraud. It wasn’t the first time someone has accused him of such a crime. Years earlier, as the city and state audited his 1984 tax returns, Trump failed to provide documentation for $600,000 in deductions. The case went to trial, where his tax preparer testified under oath to have never signed the return. Yet the tax preparer’s name was on the document. Assuming he was telling the truth, the only possible explanation, according to Trump biographer David Cay Johnston, was that someone had photocopied his signature and pasted it on the return. (Trump lost both cases and was later fined by a state judge.)

Since the late 1970s, Johnston and other Trump biographers— including the late Wayne Barrett—have documented many instances of what they call the New York real estate mogul’s ethically and legally questionable business dealings. (The White House and the Trump Organization did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.) And though Trump has lost in court, he has shown extraordinary skill at shutting down investigations. “He knows when to run to the cops and rat out people,” says Johnston, author of the recent book It’s Even Worse Than You Think: What the Trump Administration Is Doing to America. “He knows how to use the court system to cover up what he’s done by making a settlement on the condition that the record be sealed. He’s masterful at this.”

Political success—and the added scrutiny it brought to Trump’s life—have not changed his style. Since his election, legal scholars, former prosecutors and other critics have argued that the president’s flagrant disregard for unwritten norms is degrading American democracy. Their list of examples is long: Trump broke with 40 years of presidential tradition by not releasing his tax returns. He has made a multitude of false statements and attacked journalists for doing their jobs, weakening the public’s ability to agree on facts. He has also ignored the appearance of conflicts of interest, retaining ownership of various properties, where foreign and domestic lobbyists fork over big money for the chance to meet him. Trump’s done all of this while facing a variety of legal challenges—including one from New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who’s investigating his charity after it admitted violating IRS rules when it used foundation funds to benefit Trump or his family.

The most perilous—and high-profile—challenge Trump has ever faced comes from special counsel Robert Mueller. His probe is supposed to ferret out whether Trump’s campaign coordinated with Russian electoral interference operations. But it is widely assumed to be much broader. Mueller is investigating whether Trump obstructed justice when he fired FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, and his team, packed with experts in financial malfeasance, is also believed to be looking at money laundering charges.

The president’s critics certainly hope so. Once they recovered from the shock of his election, they put their faith in the U.S. legal system to stymie Trump’s worst impulses and hold him accountable. Since last summer, a common refrain, especially among progressives, has been “It’s Mueller time.”

Much of what can charitably be called irregularities in Trump’s business past are public, but he has always managed to negotiate or settle his way out of trouble. Now, Mueller’s lawyers with subpoena power will be able to go far beyond what Johnston and other investigative journalists have already turned up. With three members of Trump’s campaign (Rick Gates, Michael Flynn and George Papadopoulos) cooperating with the special counsel—as well as another, former campaign manager Paul Manafort, under indictment and facing decades in prison—the president has never looked more vulnerable.

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