Election 2024: The Slow Road

On Friday, Judge Chutkan finally acknowledged what was increasingly inevitable in light of the D.C. Circuit’s continued delays in ruling on Trump’s interlocutory appeal, and indefinitely delayed the trial date in the Jan 6th federal case, previously set for March 4th.

Given that, it now seems probable that a different Trump criminal trial may commence first, the “hush money” case in New York state. This was the first set of criminal indictments to be brought against Trump back in April 2023, and a trial date of March 25th had previously been set. Here Trump is charged with falsifying business records in relation to payments he allegedly made to a porn star (Stormy Daniels) through an intermediary (his then-lawyer, Michael Cohen) in the waning weeks of the 2020 presidential campaign, allegedly in order to prevent news coming out before the election about Trump having had an affair with said porn star.

In contrast to the three other criminal proceedings currently pending against Trump, with the New York charges one can reasonably argue that selective prosecution is at play–that state felony charges would not normally be charged for this type of conduct. As such, this case has always struck me as the least important of the Trump trials. On the other hand, a reasonable argument can be made if the hush money hadn’t been paid and the Daniels story had become known in October 2016, then Trump would have lost the 2016 presidential election. From that perspective, it feels like judicial punishment for the hush money conduct is warranted even though state class “E” felony charges seem like an odd vehicle, the (increasingly ineffective) Federal Election Commission having dropped its investigation back in May 2021.

In other news disappointing to those hoping for a speedy resolution of Trump’s legal entanglements, on Friday a spokesperson for Judge Engoron said that the ruling on the Trump Org fraud case is now targeted for mid-February. Some have speculated that the delay may relate to news that former Trump Org CFO Allen Weisselberg may be negotiating a plea deal on charges of having lied on the stand during the Trump Org fraud trial.

However, some news did come out of the fraud trial this past week suggesting yet another potential exposure area for Trump.

As part of his earlier rulings in the Trump Org fraud case, Engoron had appointed an independent monitor, retired judge Barbara Jones, to oversee and report on certain aspects of the Trump Organization’s financial reporting and conduct. Jones issued her most recent report last week, and it contained a curious footnote, reading in part:

I discussed the springing loan previously disclosed as being between Donald J. Trump individually and Chicago Unit Acquisition (an entity related to the Chicago Trump Tower) with the Trump Organization several times. When I inquired about this loan, I was informed that there are no loan agreements that memorialize the loan, but that it was a loan that was believed to be between Donald J. Trump, individually, and Chicago Unit Acquisition for $48 million. However, in recent discussions with the Trump Organization, it indicated that it has determined that this loan never existed…

Apparently this $48 million loan, which has consistently appeared on Trump’s Office of Government Ethics (OGE) disclosures since 2015, has been a mystery to Trump watchers. As such, if Jones is correct that the loan actually never existed, then Trump has been making false disclosures to the federal government for years. Theoretically, that could lead to criminal charges.

But what may really be going on here is potential tax evasion, associated with $48 million of debt forgiveness Trump received from lenders relating to Trump Tower Chicago. Quoting from the Daily Beast’s recent article on the subject:

“…Jones’ letter appears to match a 2019 analysis from Mother Jones’ Russ Choma—which concluded that Trump may have committed tax fraud by fabricating the loan, making it look like his LLC still owned a debt that had in reality been fully forgiven. That would have allowed Trump to duck taxes on $48 million of canceled debt, a rate which could run up to 39 percent. Jones’ letter, citing the Trump Organization itself, backs up what would be the centerpiece to that theory: That the loan does not exist.

In non-legal news, the Democrats held a presidential primary in South Carolina on Saturday, the first one of the year on which Biden was actually on the ballot. The Democratic Party had decided in 2023 that, going forward, South Carolina should be the first primary of the cycle, supplanting the traditional roles of Iowa and New Hampshire. When New Hampshire would not play ball by delaying their date, Biden announced he would not file to be on its primary ballot, although he won New Hampshire anyways due to a write-in campaign. This weekend, he won 96% of the vote in South Carolina against token opposition. The Republican primary in that state is still three weeks away.