Did Several Entities Related to President Trump Face Criminal Investigation in 2018?

A popular tweet listed no fewer than six Trump-related entities supposedly under the legal microscope.

  • Published 17 December 2018
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Claim

A half dozen Trump-related entities were under criminal investigation in December 2018.

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Origin

President Donald Trump and several of his associates faced mounting legal and political jeopardy in the final days and weeks of 2018. On 12 December, for example, Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen was sentenced to three years in prison for tax evasion and campaign-finance violations related to his involvement in a scheme to pay “hush money” to two women who claimed to have had sexual encounters with Trump.

Cohen declared his willingness to fully cooperate with prosecutors in relation to other investigations, and he openly alleged that the president personally directed him to carry out the payments, telling the judge in his own case that he had spent years of his life covering up Trump’s alleged “dirty deeds.”

The day after Cohen’s sentencing, the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times reported that the same federal prosecutors in New York had launched a criminal investigation into President Trump’s inauguration committee, examining whether some of the non-profit committee’s funds were improperly spent, as well as whether donors (including foreign donors) had been given or promised policy concessions or access to the incoming Trump administration in exchange for their contributions.

Against this background, a popular tweet appeared to offer a startling summary of alleged crimes surrounding the 45th president. On 13 December, Judd Legum, founder of ThinkProgress web site, took to Twitter to note:

Entities under criminal investigation:
1. The Trump campaign
2. The Trump transition
3. The Trump inauguration
4. The Trump administration
5. The Trump Organization
6. The Trump Foundation

That list was promulgated further when the activist group MoveOn posted a screenshot of Legum’s tweet to Facebook:

 
How many of these entries belong on a list of Trump-related entities under criminal investigation?

1. The Trump campaign
TRUE

Former FBI Director Robert Mueller is leading a special counsel investigation into whether Russia directed efforts to interfere in the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and whether the campaign of Donald Trump (or individuals associated with it) colluded with agents or representatives of the Russian state in that effort.

According to the original order given by acting Attorney General Rod Rosenstein in May 2017, Mueller’s probe was to be a continuation of an ongoing FBI investigation into the possibility of Russian election interference and Trump campaign collusion:

The Special Counsel is authorized to conduct the investigation confirmed by then-FBI Director James B. Comey in testimony before the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on March 20, 2017, including:

(i) any links and/or coordination between the Russian government and individuals associated with the campaign of President Donald Trump; and

(ii) any matters that arose or may arise directly from the investigation …

The order also specified that “If the Special Counsel believes it is necessary and appropriate, the Special Counsel is authorized to prosecute federal crimes arising from the investigation of these matters.”

As a result, it is accurate to state that “the Trump campaign” is under criminal investigation.

2. The Trump transition
TRUE

Just as Mueller’s team has the authority to investigate potential criminal wrongdoing by Trump campaign associates and representatives that took place before the election on 8 November 2016, the special counsel has also been investigating the activities of Trump associates after election night and before Trump’s inauguration on 21 January 2017 — that is, during the Trump transition.

Most notably, prosecutors have secured a guilty plea from Michael Flynn in response to a charge of providing false statements to the FBI about conversations he had with Russia’s ambassador to the United States, Sergey Kislyak. Those conversations took place in late December 2016, at the height of the transition period, and were not trivial in nature.

After then-President Obama ordered economic sanctions against Russian entities in response to Russian-directed efforts to interfere in the 2016 election, Flynn (who was at the time a member of Trump’s transition team) conveyed a message of conciliation to Kislyak. Flynn asked that the Russian government respond moderately to the sanctions.

In November 2017, Mueller outlined Flynn’s criminal offense of lying about those (and other) conversations, writing:

The defendant, Michael T. Flynn, who served as a surrogate and national security advisor for the presidential campaign of Donald J. Trump, as a senior member of President-Elect Trump’s Transition Team and as the National Security Advisor to President Trump, made materially false statements and omissions during an interview with the Federal Bureau of Investigation on January 24, 2017, in Washington, D.C …

Flynn falsely stated that he did not ask Russia’s Ambassador to the United States to refrain from escalating the situation in response to sanctions that the United States had imposed against Russia. Flynn also falsely stated that he did not remember a follow-up conversation in which the Russian ambassador stated that Russia had chosen to moderate its response to those sanctions as a result of Flynn’s request.

Flynn was forced to resign as national security adviser in February 2017, after it was revealed that he had misled Vice President Mike Pence about his December 2016 phone conversations with Kislyak.

In December 2018, Mueller recommended that Flynn be given a relatively lenient sentence for lying to the FBI, partly in acknowledgement of his guilty plea and what Mueller described as the “substantial assistance” Flynn had since given to “several ongoing investigations.” Flynn is scheduled to be sentenced on 18 December 2018.

3. The Trump inauguration
UNPROVEN

This claim stems from the December 2018 news reports mentioned above, which alleged that the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, who conducted the successful prosecution of President Trump’s former personal lawyer Michael Cohen, had turned his attention to the president’s inauguration committee. On 13 December, the Wall Street Journal reported that:

Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, people familiar with the matter said. The criminal probe by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is in its early stages, also is examining whether some of the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions, some of the people said.

Later the same day, the New York Times reported an additional angle to the criminal probe, raising the specter of potentially illegal foreign influence over the then-incoming Trump administration:

Federal prosecutors are examining whether foreigners illegally funneled donations to President Trump’s inaugural committee and a pro-Trump super PAC in hopes of buying influence over American policy, according to people familiar with the inquiry.

The inquiry focuses on whether people from Middle Eastern nations — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — used straw donors to disguise their donations to the two funds. Federal law prohibits foreign contributions to federal campaigns, political action committees and inaugural funds.

Although these reports were published by two reputable news organizations, they do not contain concrete evidence to support their central claims, which are instead based on information provided by unnamed sources. This does not mean they are not accurate, but since we cannot examine any concrete evidence, the articles themselves are not sufficient for us to establish the veracity of the claims of a criminal investigation into Trump’s inaugural committee.

A spokesperson for the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York declined to comment when asked whether they could confirm the claims contained in the Journal and Times reports. The White House did not respond to a similar request.

4. The Trump administration
MIXTURE

It’s unclear how the Trump administration (i.e., the White House, cabinet, and government entities under President Donald Trump’s purview) is facing criminal investigation. The “administration” is a loose, collective term rather than a discrete legal entity and therefore is not subject to criminal prosecution, although various government departments and agencies have been the subject of numerous civil and administrative lawsuits (as is typical for any government on the federal, state, or local level) including, for example, high-profile court challenges to the Trump administration’s policies on immigration.

It’s also true that former and current figures within the Trump administration have faced, or may in the future face, criminal investigation and prosecution. For example, Michael Flynn briefly served as Trump’s national security adviser before being charged and pleading guilty to lying to the FBI.

Furthermore, Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law who holds an administration position as senior adviser to the president, has been the subject of intense scrutiny for his participation in a June 2016 meeting often referred to as the “Trump Tower” meeting.

That meeting took place in Donald Trump Jr.’s Manhattan office, after an intermediary earlier offered the president’s son “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary [Clinton] and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

The meeting was ultimately attended by Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya, Donald Trump Jr., Kushner, Paul Manafort, and four other Russian nationals.

Federal campaign finance law prohibits campaigns or their representatives from soliciting or receiving anything “of value” from foreign nationals or entities (which some experts have argued could be interpreted to include information, as well as financial contributions).

It is possible that Kushner (and other attendees) could face criminal investigation or prosecution if Mueller or another prosecutor decides they have evidence that his attendance at the Trump Tower meeting constituted involvement in a conspiracy to solicit a “thing of value” from the Russians in the context of his father-in-law’s presidential campaign.

Finally, President Trump himself, the senior figure in the Trump administration, could potentially face criminal investigation or prosecution emerging from the conviction of his lawyer Michael Cohen for campaign finance violations relating to the payment of “hush money” to the two women who claimed they had affairs with Trump.

In pleading guilty in August 2018, Cohen said Trump had directed those payments, thereby implicating the president in a federal crime. In December 2018, New York prosecutors appeared to re-affirm that position, writing that:

During the campaign, Cohen played a central role in two similar schemes to purchase the rights to stories — each from women who claimed to have had an affair with Individual-1 — so as to suppress the stories and thereby prevent them from influencing the election. With respect to both payments, Cohen acted with the intent to influence the 2016 presidential election.

Cohen coordinated his actions with one or more members of the campaign, including through meetings and phone calls, about the fact, nature, and timing of the payments. In particular, and as Cohen himself has now admitted, with respect to both payments, he acted in coordination with and at the direction of Individual-1. As a result of Cohen’s actions, neither woman spoke to the press prior to the election.

It’s also conceivable that President Trump could face criminal investigation or prosecution on charges of obstruction of justice stemming from his long-standing and repeated calls for the closing down of Mueller’s Russia investigation.

5. The Trump Organization
UNPROVEN

This entry relates once again to the conviction of Cohen and the payment of “hush money” to the two women mentioned above. In a December 2018 sentencing memo relating to Cohen’s case, Robert Khuzami, the acting U.S. attorney for the Southern District of New York, outlined the alleged involvement of the Trump Organization (referred to as “The Company”) in the scheme.

The prosecutor alleged that the Trump Organization reimbursed Cohen for paying $130,000 to one of the women (the porn actor Stephanie Clifford, also known as Stormy Daniels) and subsequently lied about it in their accounts:

After the election, Cohen sought reimbursement for election-related expenses, including the $130,000 payment he had made to Woman-2. Cohen presented an executive of the Company with a copy of a bank statement reflecting the $130,000 wire transfer. Cohen also requested reimbursement of an additional $50,000, which represented a claimed payment for campaign-related “tech services.”

Executives of the Company [the Trump Organization] agreed to reimburse Cohen by adding $130,000 and $50,000, “grossing up” that amount to $360,000 for tax purposes, and adding a $60,000 bonus, such that Cohen would be paid $420,000 in total. Executives of the Company decided to pay the $420,000 in monthly installments of $35,000 over the course of a year.

At the instruction of an executive for the Company, Cohen sent monthly invoices to the Company for these $35,000 payments, falsely indicating that the invoices were being sent pursuant to a “retainer agreement.” The Company then falsely accounted for these payments as “legal expenses.” In fact, no such retainer agreement existed and these payments were not “legal expenses” — Cohen in fact provided negligible legal services to Individual-1 [Donald Trump] or the Company in 2017 – but were reimbursement payments. Cohen then received the $420,000 during the course of 2017.

This means that federal prosecutors in New York have publicly implicated “executives” from the Trump Organization in the payment scheme that saw Cohen convicted of campaign finance violations, and they alleged that the Trump Organization lied in how they accounted for their reimbursement of Cohen. Those actions could well see the Trump Organization as an entity, or specific individuals who work for it, subjected to criminal investigation or prosecution, but as of 17 December 2018 no official confirmation of any such investigation had been issued.

In particular, the potential role of Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s chief financial officer, has come under scrutiny. In August 2018, the Wall Street Journal cited unnamed sources in a report that claimed Weisselberg was one of the “executives” mentioned in court records relating to Cohen’s trial, and that New York prosecutors had offered him immunity from prosecution in return for telling them what he allegedly knew about the “hush money” scheme and the Trump Organization’s alleged involvement in it.

A spokesperson for the office of the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York again declined to comment when asked to confirm whether such an investigation against Trump’s company, or its employees, was under way. The Trump Organization did not respond to a similar request for comment.

6. The Trump Foundation
UNPROVEN

In June 2018, New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood brought a lawsuit against the Donald J. Trump Foundation, accusing the non-profit and its directors (Donald Trump, Ivanka Trump, Donald Trump Jr., and Eric Trump) of “extensive and persistent violations of state and federal law”:

For more than a decade, the Donald J. Trump Foundation has operated in persistent violation of state and federal law governing New York state charities. This pattern of illegal conduct by the Foundation and its board members includes improper and extensive political activity, repeated and willful self-dealing transactions, and failure to follow basic fiduciary obligations or to implement even elementary corporate formalities required by law.

Much of this alleged activity has been covered in detail since 2016 in a series of articles by the Washington Post‘s David Fahrenthold.

Underwood’s lawsuit was a civil action, petitioning the New York Supreme Court to dissolve the Trump Foundation, bar Trump and his children from being directors of a non-profit organization for between one and 10 years, and order them to pay $2.8 million in restitution and fees and arrange for the distribution of the organization’s remaining assets to other charities.

Although the June 2018 lawsuit did not in itself constitute the opening of a criminal case against the Trump Foundation or the Trump family, Underwood alleged several violations of criminal law and referred the results of her investigation to the Internal Revenue Service (IRS), which has the authority to initiate a criminal investigation with a view to bringing charges.

A month after Underwood announced her lawsuit, Bloomberg News reported that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo had followed up on the attorney general’s actions, ordering New York tax authorities to open their own probe with the possibility of eventually bringing criminal charges against the Trump Foundation:

The Donald J. Trump Foundation has been under criminal investigation in New York for more than a month for violating the state’s tax laws. The Department of Taxation and Finance is taking the lead on the investigation, but other agencies may be involved, an aide to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) told Bloomberg.

The aide, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the ongoing investigation, said the investigation could lead to a criminal referral to the state attorney general or the Manhattan district attorney.

No concrete evidence or official statement was offered to support that claim, something that does not mean it is inaccurate but does mean we cannot independently verify its accuracy.

A spokesperson for the New York Attorney General’s Office told us that “As a matter of policy we do not confirm criminal investigations.” Neither the IRS nor the New York State Office of Tax Enforcement responded to our inquiries as to whether either body had initiated a criminal investigation against the Trump Foundation or its directors. A spokesperson for the Trump Organization, who has in the past issued statements on behalf of the Trump Foundation, did not respond to our request for comment.