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Death & Taxes

His trial is underway but the verdict is already in. Use caution when declaring your taxes.

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The People of New York v. Donald Trump
Sunday Morning / April 21, 2024

Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, went to criminal trial this week in the matter of The People of the State of New York v. Donald J. Trump.

Trump faces 34 felony charges of falsifying business records relating to payments made to pornographic film actress Stormy Daniels to ensure her silence about an alleged affair between them. Trump is accused of falsifying these business records with the intent to violate federal campaign finance limits, unlawfully influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, and commit tax fraud. The charges carry a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison if Trump is convicted on five or more counts.

Trump is the GOP frontrunner in the 2024 US Presidential election, and the first former U.S. president to be indicted in American history. Neither the indictment nor a conviction will disqualify his candidacy. At the heart of this case lies a state putting a question to a nation:

Is the state-level falsification of tax records an obstruction of federal campaign finance law? If yes, is it within the county’s jurisdiction to prosecute a political candidate in the nation’s behalf?

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance notoriously scrutinized a $130K payment Trump jotted down in 2006 as a “legal expense,” though never brought charges. In part, because winning a conviction would rely on an untested legal strategy, according to a new book by a former prosecutor in the office, Mark Pomerantz.

In “People vs. Donald Trump,” Pomerantz says "doubts arose as to whether state felony charges could be brought against a political candidate for federal office, and whether that conduct could be considered money laundering, a federal campaign violation."

According to Pomerantz, Vance's office twice looked into the payment in 2019 after Micheal Cohen, Trump’s former personal attorney, pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations, testifying that Trump directed him to pay Daniels and another woman. Under New York state law, falsification of business records is a misdemeanor. But was it done to obstruct campaign finance law?

Such a theory asserts that Cohen's payment was a ‘campaign contribution’ because Daniels' disclosure of the alleged affair would have harmed Trump's prospects at the polls. However, Trump was merely a candidate for federal office, and Pomerantz contends it was legally uncertain whether the intent to advance or conceal a federal crime could convert a state-level falsification of records charge into a felony.

"These types of crimes don't necessarily have a clean fit into the applicable law," says Sarah Krissoff, a partner at Day Pitney and a former federal prosecutor. So when Pomerantz joined Vance's team in 2021, he revived the hush money inquiry under a different theory:

If Daniels had been extorting Trump, the money could be considered criminal proceeds, and efforts to conceal that it could constitute money laundering.

For an utterly forgettable affair nearly 20 years ago, was Stormy Daniels trying to “extort” candidate Trump in 2016, or did she merely acquiesce to a tabloid’s unsolicited six figure exclusive for her story? As in life, at the core of this case lies an illusion.

People vs. Donald Trump

In February 2022, Mark Pomerantz resigned from the Manhattan DA’s office describing his new boss Alvin Bragg as reluctant to bring charges against Trump.

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Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg

Liberal billionaire Democratic donor George Soros donated $1 million to Color of Change, a national racial justice group who in turn funneled that money to Bragg’s DA campaign. Bragg outlines their policy initiatives in an interoffice memo on Day 1, intentionally or otherwise burying the Trump file at the bottom of the pile.

However, a year on Bragg prioritizes a criminal indictment for Donald Trump. In January 2023, he begins parading witnesses before a grand jury, even inviting Trump to testify, a sure sign the inquiry is in its final stages.

While jury selection began on Monday, only 1 in 3 U.S. adults think Trump acted illegally in New York hush money case, according to an AP-NORC poll. (The poll of 1,204 adults was conducted April 4-8, 2024 and purports to be representative of the U.S. population). Moreover, the nation’s evenly divided on the remaining three criminal cases pending against him. They’re skeptical he’s getting a fair shake from the prosecutors, or that a judge and jurors can be objective.

Rebecca Roiphe, a New York Law School professor of legal ethics, says she considers a falsification of business records charge an important tool that has and continues to hold Wall Street accountable. “I don’t think it’s a minor crime. I don’t think it’s trivial,” she says, “but I think there is a cost to indicting a former president. The benefit of deterrence against the value of the prosecution is outweighed by the civic cost.”

Catch and Kill

If Barack Obama was correct in 2016 when he said, “a vote for Donald Trump is a repudiation of my presidency,” then Bragg plays to a cliché. Is this really a low-key, politics-averse prosecutor taking on a brash, media savvy former president? And to both Mr. Trump and Bragg a question: Can the tyranny of your virtues serve and protect us all?

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, 49, is the first to indict a former American president, and both are from two very different sides of the street in New York City. One emerges from Jamaica Estates and tree lined Queens with million dollar homes. The other, from Striver’s Row, has come face to face with a gun six times in Harlem.

Determined to take on white collar crime, Bragg went on to the highly selective Trinity School, Harvard, and Harvard Law School before landing as Chief Deputy Attorney General of New York in 2017. As a United States Attorney in the Southern District of New York, Bragg ran both the criminal justice and social justice divisions, even finding time to moonlight as a professor at New York Law School and co-direct of the Racial Justice Project in his spare time.

If civics is the rights and obligations of citizens in society, speaking truth to power may be a decoy. In an appearance on CSNBC, Bragg raised that concern in the public square. “We live in a world of pundits,” he told Al Sharpton on PoliticsNation. “My focus is the evidence and the law.” The philosopher Jacques Ellul offers an analogy:

If a ruler wants to play the game by himself and follow secret policies, he must present a decoy to the masses. He can’t escape the mass; but he can draw between himself and that mass an invisible curtain, a screen, on which the mass will see projected the mirage of some politics, while the real politics are being made behind it.

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Donald Trump / U.S. Presidential Election 2024

On Friday, a man traveled from Florida to New York and into the Collect Pond Park outside the Lower Manhattan Courthouse. The final alternates had just been selected for the criminal trial of former President Donald J. Trump.

At 1:35 pm he threw leaflets espousing anti-government conspiracy theories into the air; doused himself with accelerant; and burst into bright orange flames whilst onlookers screamed and ran from the courthouse. While Bragg insists that prosecuting Trump is motivated by “evidence and law,” Trump persists to his cost that he wants to “Make America Great Again.”

"Our new Constitution has an appearance that promises permanency," Benjamin Franklin once said, "but in this world nothing can be said to be certain except death and taxes." Though politics may rely on illusions, Max Azzarello, 37, of St. Augustine Florida was first and foremost a disciple of Peter Thiel; pronounced dead on Friday night after his pyro demonstration; and the provocateur of conspiracies befalling the opening statements of Trump's historic tax fraud trial tomorrow.

"There are a lot of things I got wrong,” says Thiel, who now runs Palantir, a secretive data analytics company. At issue for voters is a free and fair Election 2024. For the nation, as Franklin puts it, "A republic—if you can keep it."

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