Trump meets his match in Manhattan DA. Tax fraud charges show accountability is coming.

What's next for Weisselberg? I've had many defendants tell me to shove my cooperation offer, then take it after seeing what I planned to show the jury.

Michael J. Stern
Opinion columnist

The day that half of America has been eagerly awaiting has arrived. The Manhattan District Attorney's Office has criminally indicted Donald Trump’s alter ego, the Trump Organization, on wide-ranging tax fraud charges. The organization’s chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, was also indicted.

Despite the corruption, lying and attacks on American democracy that characterized the Trump presidency, nothing has been more infuriating than watching Trump seemingly get away with it all. Not even a historic double impeachment appeared to bring any accountability that would stick.

But the legal armor that protected Trump when he was a sitting president is gone, and Thursday's indictment is the first clear sign that Trump could be held responsible for some of his misdeeds.

As I combed through the online indictment articles, I passed pictures of a devastated condo building in Surfside, Florida. Half the building was in rubble, making the half that was still standing worthless. It made me think of Trump. He might not have been personally indicted, but if the success of the Trump Organization is ripped from its namesake, all that will be left of “the Donald” is bravado and hairspray.

A fortune from cheating, not savvy

Trump’s original groundswell of political support came largely from his reputation as a business whiz who promised to “Make America Great Again” by recreating his own financial success on a bigger scale for millions of lower- and middle-income Americans who were working hard but struggling to survive. 

Indictment of the Trump Organization by a grand jury of ordinary citizens screams that Trump’s financial success came not from his business savvy but from cheating. And while the indictment itself might not be a condemnation of the whole of Trump’s company, headlines like this are: “Donald Trump's family business indicted on criminal charges.” The indictment is unlikely to result in Trump losing support with the cultish part of his base, but it could shake loose some who were holding on by the worn threads of their MAGA caps.

More important than its effect on his supporters, indictment of the Trump Organization signals that Trump may be in personal jeopardy. The Trump Organization attorney, Ron Fischetti, has acknowledged that his conversations with prosecutors make clear that Thursday's indictment was not the last and that Trump is not “out of the woods yet.” 

Trump has been implicated in a 2016 hush money fraud scheme designed to silence two women with whom he is alleged to have had affairs. Allegations of additional tax and loan fraud have also been reported.

Trump Tower housing the Trump Organization in New York City on June 30, 2021.

It’s impossible to know whether the Manhattan DA believes he has sufficient evidence to indict these activities under New York law. But, it is widely believed that Weisselberg holds the map to the grounds on which Trump’s long list of criminal allegations are buried. If Weisselberg tells what he knows, he could bring Trump down.

So far, Weisselberg has resisted efforts to persuade him to cooperate. But the prospect of imprisonment for a 73-year old man has a way of changing things – especially when the beneficiary of his dirty work continues to flaunt a life of luxury.  

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Because an indictment triggers discovery obligations on the DA’s part, Weisselberg will now have access to virtually all the evidence against him. I cannot count the number of times a defendant initially told me to “shove” my cooperation offer, yet ended up cooperating after seeing everything I was going to show to the jury that would decide his fate.

Making matters worse for Weisselberg, his former daughter-in-law has publicly acknowledged that she has provided prosecutors with a dump of documents and interviews that implicate him in illegal activities on behalf of the Trump Organization. As the months pass, and the clock ticks down to a trial at which Weisselberg knows his moral and legal failures will be on international public display, it will be increasingly difficult for him to keep Trump’s crimes a secret.

Alone, isolated, maybe cooperative

The DA’s decision to charge only Weisselberg and the Trump Organization in the first indictment was a good strategy, despite likely having evidence that implicated other members of the organization. Weisselberg has no one in the same stew to commiserate with – he’s alone and isolated. Those are two ingredients that often lead to cooperation.

Remember, Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, pledged to take a bullet for Trump … until federal authorities closed in on him.  Cohen’s blood-brother promise ended in congressional testimony and a guilty plea that detailed decades of Trump crimes, some of which are contained in Thursday's indictment.

If Trump were smart, he would say nothing about the substance of the indictment. But Trump being Trump, he will not be able to keep his mouth shut, and that has left many of us anticipating a delicious disaster. 

President-elect Donald Trump, Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Allen Weisselberg, chief financial officer of The Trump Organization, on Jan. 11, 2017,  in New York.

If Trump defends Weisselberg’s “off the books” compensation, he will be implicating himself in the tax fraud. But if Trump says any unreported compensation took place without his knowledge or approval, he will be throwing Weisselberg under the proverbial bus at the same time his own freedom requires the good graces of Weisselberg’s silence. “Alexa, what is another word for ‘delicious’?” 

What happens next? Expect lots of posturing from Weisselberg’s attorneys and Trump surrogates, who will argue that failure to report work perks is rarely charged as a criminal violation and that the charges are part of a political witch hunt. Expect the DA to remain relatively silent, so as not to run afoul of the code of ethics that prevents prosecutors from tainting the jury pool. The DA should speak through court appearances and filings, not TV interviews or Twitter threads.

Tax fraud charges: The pressure's on Allen Weisselberg to flip on Donald Trump

Then, after Weisselberg’s attorneys have digested the reams of evidence against their client, expect a series of clandestine meetings in which the prosecutors and Weisselberg’s counsel negotiate a cooperation deal. 

It is certainly possible that Weisselberg will refuse to cooperate, but the odds are that he will eventually come to the table. Though they did not hold up their end of the bargain by cooperating truthfully, even former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn struck cooperation deals.

The Manhattan District Attorney did what no one else, including Congress, could do – he got Trump’s financial records and used them to hold Trump’s business accountable.  And the DA managed to accomplish this despite a Trump appeal to the Supreme Court, where Trump stacked the deck by appointing one-third of the justices.

Trump’s strategic battle with the DA has just begun, and so far the DA has made all the right moves. It's time for Trump to get nervous. Finally.  

Michael J. Stern, a member of USA TODAY's Board of Contributors, was a federal prosecutor for 25 years in Detroit and Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter:  @MichaelJStern1