By any fair measure, today has been an abject disaster for Donald Trump. New York Attorney General Letitia James this morning announced a sweeping civil case against the former president, his controversial business, and even three of his adult children, as part of a lengthy investigation into the Trump Organization’s allegedly fraudulent business practices.
State prosecutors documented more than 200 instances of fraud over 10 years, which is why they’re seeking roughly $250 million in civil penalties. Complicating matters, James and her office also identified instances in which Trump World’s practices allegedly ran afoul of federal criminal law — and those apparent transgressions have been referred to federal law enforcement for additional scrutiny.
The risks for Trump are staggering — which makes it all the more notable to appreciate the match that lit this flame. The New York Times noted in passing this afternoon:
The investigation started after Michael D. Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former personal lawyer and fixer, testified to Congress that Mr. Trump and his employees had manipulated his net worth to suit his interests.
That’s true, but in the interest of being picky about the details let’s go back a little further.
Around this time six years ago, then-candidate Trump paid illegal hush money to a porn star named Stormy Daniels, in the hopes of keeping secret an alleged extra-marital affair before the 2016 election. Cohen, the Republican fixer and an executive in the Trump Organization, took the lead in orchestrating the illegal payment.
Nor has it been well documented, this did not go unnoticed. Cohen was ultimately charged, prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to prison, even as his former client was rewarded with the presidency.
It was around this time that the lawyer turned on Trump. In early 2019, as part of an apparent payback campaign, Cohen delivered dramatic congressional testimony on Trump’s alleged financial crimes — including asset value inflation and systemic fraud at the Trump Organization.
Cohen’s testimony was a political bombshell, but just as importantly, it was watched with great interest by officials in the New York attorney general’s office.
Indeed, James specifically told reporters today, “I will remind everyone that this investigation only started after Michael Cohen, the former lawyer, his former lawyer testified before Congress shed light on this misconduct.”
In other words, had it not been for the illegal hush-money payment to Daniels, Cohen would not have been criminally charged. And if he hadn’t been charged, Cohen might not have turned against Trump. And if the lawyer hadn’t turned on the former president, Cohen might not have exposed financial irregularities inside Trump World, which in turn wouldn’t have produced today’s lawsuit in New York.
A Times reporter added this afternoon, “In crediting Michael Cohen, Trump’s former personal lawyer, James is hitting on a very sore subject for Trump.”
Soon after, Cohen himself added via Twitter, “I want to personally thank you [the New York attorney general] for acknowledging my participation and assistance in bringing accountability to the Mandarin Mussolini! My journey to the truth has been filled with sadness, pain and anger. Today’s announcement makes it all worth it!”