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‘Vulnerable to prosecution’: When Trump leaves White House, presidential ‘cloak of immunity’ goes away

President Donald Trump has long been the subject and instigator of lawsuits, both before his presidency and while he has been in the White House. That will not change after he leaves.

A number of lawsuits and investigations awaits Trump once he returns to private life. Some could stain his family’s reputation. Some could affect his business. And some could damage him personally as the protection provided by the presidency goes away.

Trump lost to President-elect Joe Biden after a contentious and prolonged race to win the White House. As of Saturday afternoon, Biden had 290 electoral votes, more than the 270 needed to secure the election after flipping several battleground states that Trump won in 2016. In the popular vote, Biden had 74,857,880 votes to Trump’s 70,598,535.

“The short answer is that once he leaves the office, his cloak of immunity, actual or implied by (Justice Department guidelines), will disappear,” said David Weinstein, a former Florida federal prosecutor.

The Justice Department has a long-standing policy that a sitting president cannot be prosecuted for criminal offenses. Former special counsel Robert Mueller cited the policy when investigators elected not to make a determination on whether Trump obstructed justice during the investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election.

But that immunity is for actions he took while in office, and “it stops there,” Weinstein said.

The most significant threats against Trump once he leaves office are brewing in his hometown, New York City.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has been conducting a criminal investigation into Trump and his company’s business dealings. New York Attorney General Letitia James is investigating whether Trump and his company committed tax fraud.

“He’s very vulnerable to prosecution,” said Jimmy Gurule, a former Justice Department official in the George H.W. Bush administration, referring to Vance’s investigation, which is seeking Trump’s tax returns and other financial documents. “I think the threat is very real and very substantial.”

Aside from the threat of prosecution and the unearthing of tax returns he has long kept private, Trump is facing a litany of other lawsuits that could put his family in an unflattering spotlight and force him to provide DNA evidence to the attorneys of a woman who accused him of rape.

He could also be compelled to testify under oath. During his presidency, his attorneys have repeatedly invoked immunity and executive privilege to keep Trump from having to testify, but neither protections will exist once he returns to private life.

Here’s what you need to know about some of the investigations and lawsuits that will follow Trump after he leaves the White House:

The Manhattan criminal inquiry

Vance’s office is investigating alleged hush-money payments made during the 2016 campaign to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump before he became president. Manhattan prosecutors are also looking into possible criminal activity within the Trump Organization.

Prosecutors are seeking eight years of Trump’s taxes and other financial documents as part of the grand jury investigation. Trump, who has called the investigation a “political prosecution,” sued to shield his tax records, instigating a protracted legal battle that has reached the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court, in a 7-2 landmark ruling, has rejected claims by Trump’s attorneys that he is absolutely immune from criminal investigations while president.

“Two hundred years ago, a great jurist of our Court established that no citizen, not even the President, is categorically above the common duty to produce evidence when called upon in a criminal proceeding,” Chief Justice John Roberts wrote. “We reaffirm that principle today and hold that the President is neither absolutely immune from state criminal subpoenas.”

The court sent the case back to the lower court to resolve other legal issues. And last month, a federal appeals court, again, ruled that Trump must disclose his financial documents to Vance’s office, rejecting his lawyers’ additional claims that the subpoenas were too broad and were issued to harass him.

Trump, again, appealed to the Supreme Court, which has not yet decided whether to hear the case a second time.

The New York attorney general’s fraud investigation

James’ office is investigating whether the Trump Organization improperly inflated the value of its assets in financial statements to secure loans and get tax benefits. The investigation began in 2019 after Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, told Congress that the president had lied about his assets.

James took legal action last summer to force members of the Trump Organization, including Eric Trump, the president’s middle son who runs the company, to testify and produce documents.

In September, a New York state judge ordered the Trump Organization to turn over documents to James’ office, including financial records related to a property in Westchester County, New York.

Eric Trump has sought to postpone an interview with prosecutors until after the election, citing his desire to campaign for his father. But a judge ordered him to appear for an interview under oath, which he did in October. Details of his testimony were not made public.

James, a Democrat, has been a vocal critic of Trump and ran for state attorney general on a promise to investigate him, his family and his company.

Trump’s defamation lawsuits

Trump is facing two defamation lawsuits brought by women who accused him of sexually assaulting them and then disparaging them as he denied the allegations. In both cases, Trump has argued – unsuccessfully – that the presidency shields him from litigation.

Former Elle magazine writer E. Jean Carroll accused Trump of raping her in a Bergdorf Goodman dressing room in New York City in the mid-1990s. She sued him for defamation in 2019, after Trump accused her of lying to boost the sale of her memoir in which she described the incident. Carroll is also seeking DNA evidence to see if Trump’s genetic material is on a dress she said she wore during the alleged rape.

The Justice Department in September sought to represent Trump in the case, arguing that the president was acting in his official duties when he denied Carroll’s allegations.

The intervention was seen as an effort to shield the president from the potentially damaging legal action in the midst of a reelection campaign. A federal judge blocked the Justice Department from intervening, ruling that his comments about Carroll “have no relationship to the official business of the United States.”

Former “Apprentice” contestant Summer Zervos filed a similar lawsuit in New York state court. Zervos said Trump forced himself on her a decade earlier by kissing and groping on multiple occasions.

She went public with the allegations in 2016, when Trump was running for president. Trump later said the incidents never happened and called Zervos a liar. Zervos sued for defamation in 2017.

In 2019, the court rejected Trump’s attorneys arguments that he’s constitutionally immune from state lawsuits while in office. The court, though, put its ruling on hold while Trump appeals to New York’s state court. The move postponed a possible deposition of Trump.

The New York appeals court has yet to hold a hearing on the case.

Trump family dispute

Mary Trump, the president’s niece, has accused him and his siblings of cheating her out of millions of dollars in inheritance while squeezing them out of the family business.

“Fraud was not just the family business – it was a way of life,” according to a lawsuit filed in September in New York state court.

The lawsuit alleged that Trump, his brother Robert, and sister, former federal judge Maryanne Trump Barry, portrayed themselves as Mary Trump’s protectors while secretly taking her share of minority interests in the family’s extensive real estate holdings. Robert Trump died in August.

The lawsuit came after Mary Trump, daughter of Trump’s older brother, Freddy, published a memoir portraying a dysfunctional family preoccupied with petty grievances, backstabbing and money.

Alleged misuse of nonprofit funds, Trump hotel

A lawsuit by Washington, D.C., Attorney General Karl Racine accuses Trump’s inaugural committee and two other entities Trump owns of misusing the committee’s money to enrich the president.

Racine’s offices alleges that the committee, a nonprofit organization, contracted with the Trump family to grossly overpay for event space in Trump’s hotel in Washington, D.C.

For example, the committee paid more than $1 million for event space and food over four days at the hotel, which Racine’s office said was above market value and the hotel’s own pricing.

“District law requires nonprofits to use their funds for their stated public purpose, not to benefit private individuals or companies,” Racine said in a statement early this year. “In this case, we are seeking to recover the nonprofit funds that were improperly funneled directly to the Trump family business.”

The Trump International Hotel said that Racine’s claims were false and misleading and that the rates charged to the committee were not inflated.

Suit over Michael Cohen’s legal bills

Cohen, Trump’s longtime personal attorney, has claimed Trump and his company had agreed to pay for his legal bills as he became a focus of investigations by New York City prosecutors and the Russia special counsel’s office during the first half of Trump’s presidency.

But Cohen said the Trump Organization abruptly stopped paying after he turned on the president and began telling friends and family he would cooperate with prosecutors. His legal bills totaled nearly $2 million.

Cohen is one of half a dozen former Trump aides and associates who were indicted as a result of Mueller’s Russia investigation. He pleaded guilty to several crimes, including lying to Congress and violating campaign finance rules for orchestrating hush-money payments to two women who claimed to have had affairs with Trump.

Once Trump’s self-described fixer tasked with keeping his boss’ darkest secrets, Cohen is now a vocal critic of the president. Trump, he told lawmakers during a testimony last year, is a “racist,” a “con man” and a “cheat.”

 

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