July 8, 2021
Former President Donald Trump has claimed for years to be “a master of the tax code.” But now—faced with charges leveled against the Trump Organization and its CFO, Allen Weisselberg, by New York District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr.—Trump is going with a legal defense of ignorance.
“I don’t even know. Does anybody know the answer to that stuff?” he shrugged on Saturday, July 3, in front of adoring fans at a political rally in Sarasota, Florida.
The twice-impeached former president’s remarks provoked a flurry of reactions from some legal commentators and pundits, who saw a besieged client running his mouth in public, and potentially undermining his legal team’s carefully manicured strategies.
But Trump wasn’t so much upturning his legal defense as much as he was delivering his sloppy rendition of it, The Daily Beast says.
According to two people familiar with the matter, lawyers representing him and the Trump Organization are preparing to include this very point in court arguments, given how much the specific intent of an individual matters in areas of New York tax law.
And yet, former prosecutors and defense lawyers who have tried criminal tax cases in New York City told The Daily Beast that Trump, his family, and company executives face a steep hill—and it’s mostly due to Trump himself.
“To a certain extent, not knowing the law is a defense… It’s one of the only defenses in a case like this,” said Tess Cohen, a former New York prosecutor. “But I have trouble believing that’ll get very far.”
That’s because, for years, Trump has called himself “king of the tax code.”
“Nobody knows the tax code better than I do… I’m like a student of the tax code,” he said during a 60 Minutes interview in 2015. He repeated that sentiment on MSNBC and later told supporters in Tampa: “I know more about taxes than any human being that God ever created.”
Trump’s attorney Ronald Fischetti did not respond to requests for comment on this story.
Should this investigation make its way to trial, prosecutors with the Manhattan district attorney and New York State attorney general would certainly want to question Trump under oath for hours, legal scholars said. The result would be “devastating” for his defense, said Carl Bornstein, a former New York prosecutor who now teaches at John Jay College of Criminal Justice.
Behind the scenes, the ex-president has insisted that New York prosecutors are out to hurt his business and to try to poison the Trump Organization’s dealings with other companies. In the past few weeks, Trump has encouraged people close to him to publicly claim that his family business is thriving, according to two people familiar with his request.
In recent private conversations, the former president has lamented that further investigation into him and others at the Trump Organization could potentially stretch on for years, adding to his hefty and growing pile of legal bills.
As Trump continues to weigh running for president again in 2024, any increased pressure or potential indictments from New York prosecutors could hobble another lengthy campaign. Still, several longtime advisers to Trump have reassured him that the vast core of Republican voters will not abandon him, should he choose to run again, and that the probes in his home state merely reinforce their devotion.
“The numbers don’t change. Rock solid,” John McLaughlin, who worked as one of Trump’s top pollsters during the 2016 and 2020 campaigns, said, citing his own recent polling data. “Attacks on President Trump galvanize his base.”
When the IRS hunts someone down for refusing to pay taxes, government lawyers don’t have to show intent. But this legal battle is taking place in New York, where state laws require prosecutors to prove that someone was “willfully engaging” in tax fraud.
It’s a higher bar, but not an insurmountable one—especially when it seems that investigators have specific documents that would indicate a concerted effort to conceal the truth.
The 25-page indictment says investigators have “internal spreadsheets” that show exactly how unreported perks replaced employee income, Cohen, the former New York prosecutor, noted.
“Simultaneously, the Trump Organization reduced the amount of direct compensation that Weisselberg received in the form of checks or direct deposits to account for the indirect compensation that he received in the form of payments of rent, utility bills, and garage expenses,” the indictment claims.
“You can’t get much better evidence than that,” Cohen said.
Research contact: @thedailybeast