WASHINGTON — Former President Donald Trump has set up his office on the second floor of his Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida as part replica of the Oval Office and part homage to his time in the real White House.
On the wall during a visit last year were six favorite photographs, including ones with Queen Elizabeth II and Kim Jong Un. On display were challenge coins, a plaque commemorating his border wall and a portrait of the former president fashioned out of bullet casings, a present from Jair Bolsonaro, the so-called Trump of Brazil.
This has become Trump’s fortress in exile and his war room, the headquarters for the wide-ranging and rapidly escalating conflict with investigators that has come to consume his post-presidency. It is a multifront war, with battlefields in New York, Georgia and the nation’s capital, featuring a shifting roster of lawyers and a blizzard of allegations of wrongdoing that are hard to keep straight.
Never before has a former president faced an array of federal, state and congressional investigations as extensive as Trump has, the cumulative consequences of a career in business and eventually politics lived on the edge, or perhaps over the edge. Whether it be his misleading business practices or his efforts to overturn a democratic election or his refusal to hand over sensitive government documents that did not belong to him, Trump’s disparate legal troubles stem from the same sense that rules constraining others did not apply to him.
The story of how he got to this point is historically unique and eminently predictable. Trump has been fending off investigators and legal troubles for a half century, since the Justice Department sued his family business for racial discrimination and through the myriad inquiries that followed over the years. He has a remarkable track record of sidestepping the worst outcomes, but even he may now find so many inquiries pointing in his direction that escape is uncertain.
His view of the legal system has always been transactional; it is a weapon to be used, by him or against him, and he has rarely been intimidated by the kinds of subpoenas and affidavits that would chill a less litigious character. On the civil side, he has been involved in thousands of lawsuits with business partners, vendors and others, many of them suing him because he refused to pay his bills.
While president, he once explained his view of the legal system to some aides, saying that he would go to court to intimidate adversaries because just threatening to sue was not enough.
“When you threaten to sue, they don’t do anything,” Trump told aides. “They say, ‘Psshh!’” — he waved his hand in the air — “and keep doing what they want. But when you sue them, they go, ‘Oooh!’” — here he made a cringing face — “and they settle. It’s as easy as that.”
When he began losing legal battles as president with regularity, he lashed out. At one point when the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, a traditionally liberal bench based in California, ruled against one of his policies, he demanded that aides get rid of the court altogether. “Let’s just cancel it,” he said, as if it were a campaign event, not a court system established under law. If it required legislation, then draft a bill to “get rid” of the judges, he said, using an expletive.
But his aides ignored him and now he finds himself without the power of the presidency, staring at a host of prosecutors and lawyers who have him and his associates in their sights. Some of the issues at hand go back years, but many of the seeds for his current legal jeopardy were planted in those frenetic final days in office when he sought to overturn the will of the voters and hold onto power through a series of lies about election fraud that did not exist.
Many Americans could be forgiven if they have lost the thread of all the investigations amid the blizzard of motions and hearings and rulings of recent weeks. But they essentially break down this way.
New York State
Long before he became president, by many accounts, Trump played it fast and loose in business. The question is whether any of that violated the law. For years, according to his own associates, he inflated the value of his various properties to obtain loans.
Letitia James, the New York state attorney general, has been examining his business practices for more than three years to determine if they constituted fraud. When she summoned Trump to testify in a deposition, he invoked his Fifth Amendment right not to respond to questions on the grounds that his answers might incriminate him more than 400 times.
Trump has assailed James as a partisan Democrat who is coming after him for political reasons. As a candidate in 2018, she was an outspoken critic of Trump, calling him an “illegitimate president” and suggesting that foreign governments channeled money to his family’s real estate holdings, which she characterized as a “pattern and practice of money laundering.”
But Trump’s lawyers recently sought to settle the case, which could indicate concern about his legal risk, only to have their bid rejected by James. Because her investigation is civil, not criminal, she would have to decide whether her findings warrant a lawsuit accusing the former president of fraud.
The Manhattan district attorney’s office, now led by Alvin L. Bragg, has looked into some of the same issues as part of a criminal investigation and is about to bring the Trump Organization, the former president’s family business, to trial on charges of fraud and tax evasion starting Oct. 24.
Allen H. Weisselberg, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization, has pleaded guilty to 15 felonies, admitting that he conspired with the company to carry out a scheme to avoid paying taxes on lavish perks. Weisselberg is obliged as part of his plea agreement to testify at the upcoming trial. But Trump is not a defendant, and Weisselberg has refused to cooperate with the broader investigation.
But Bragg has indicated skepticism that there is sufficient evidence to convict Trump. The district attorney’s public suggestion that Trump would probably not face charges led to the resignation of two prosecutors leading the investigation, one of whom said in a resignation letter that the former president was “guilty of numerous felony violations” and that it was “a grave failure of justice” not to hold him accountable.
Trump put himself in possible legal jeopardy in the swing state of Georgia on Jan. 2, 2021, when he called Brad Raffensperger, the secretary of state, and demanded that he “find 11,780 votes,” just enough to reverse the outcome and take the state away from Joe Biden. During the call, Trump warned Raffensperger, a Republican, that he faced a “big risk” if he failed to find those votes, an implied threat the Georgian defied.
Trump’s allies likewise sought to pressure state officials to change the results and, as they did in other key states that went for his opponent, tried to orchestrate a slate of fake electors to send to Washington to cast Electoral College votes for the defeated president instead of Biden, who won Georgia’s popular vote.
Fani T. Willis, the Fulton County district attorney, has cast a wide net, pressing for testimony by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and informing Rudy Giuliani, the former president’s lawyer, that he is a target of her investigation.
Willis appears to be building a possible case of conspiracy to commit election fraud or racketeering through a coordinated effort to undermine the election. In addition to Giuliani, multiple allies of the former president have been told they are targets, including the state party chair and members of the slate of fake electors.
Trump has dismissed Willis, a Democrat who was elected in the same 2020 balloting that he lost, saying her inquiry is, in the words of a spokesperson last year, “simply the Democrats’ latest attempt to score political points by continuing their witch hunt against President Trump.”
The House committee investigating the Capitol attack of Jan. 6, 2021, composed of seven Democrats and two Republicans, has done more to lay out a possible criminal case against Trump in the public space than any of the former president’s pursuers.
Its series of hearings over the summer, which could resume Sept. 28, showcased testimony by Trump’s own advisers indicating that he was repeatedly informed that the 2020 election was not stolen, that what he was telling the public was not true, that there was no basis to challenge the outcome and even that the crowd he summoned on Jan. 6 included some armed people.
The committee documented just how wide-ranging Trump’s efforts to hold onto power were — how he pressured not just Raffensperger but officials in multiple states to change the outcomes, how he contemplated declaring martial law and seizing voting machines, how he tried to force the Justice Department to intervene even though he was told there was no case, how he plotted with congressional allies to orchestrate fake electors and ultimately how he sought to strong-arm his own vice president into blocking Biden’s victory.
The committee has no power to prosecute, but it has gone to court to enforce subpoenas to testify and prompted criminal charges of contempt of Congress by the Justice Department against Steve Bannon and Peter Navarro, two former Trump aides. Bannon has been convicted and is awaiting sentencing; Navarro has asked a court to throw out his case.
But though lawmakers cannot indict Trump, they are debating whether to make a criminal referral recommending that the Justice Department do so. That has little substantive meaning, but it would raise the stakes for Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Jan. 6, 2021
Garland remains in some ways the biggest mystery as Trump seeks to thwart investigators. An even-tempered, widely respected former prosecutor and appellate judge, Garland has said little to tip his hand, but his department is clearly pursuing multiple strands in its investigation of what happened leading up to and on Jan. 6.
The department has interviewed or brought before a grand jury former White House aides like Pat A. Cipollone and Marc Short; seized the phones or electronic devices of Trump’s allies like John Eastman, Jeffrey Clark and Mike Lindell, and even a member of Congress; and blitzed out some 40 subpoenas recently to former White House aides like Stephen Miller and Dan Scavino and others close to the former president.
After spending much of the last 18 months prosecuting hundreds of Trump supporters who stormed the Capitol, Garland’s team now seems to be examining multiple angles, including the fake electors plan, Trump’s fundraising operation as he promoted false claims about election fraud and the former president’s own role in seeking to overturn the election.
What remains unclear is if Garland has a theory of the case yet. While the subpoenas indicated that investigators were looking at, among other things, efforts to “obstruct, influence, impede or delay” the certification of the presidential election, the department has yet to charge people around Trump and therefore has not laid out any legal conclusions about the actions taken by his camp.
One person who is not known to have been subpoenaed yet is Trump, but it remains a possibility. Bracing for the day the investigators show up on his own doorstep, Trump has been busy looking for lawyers to represent him because so many of his past lawyers no longer want to be involved with him or face legal trouble of their own.
In case Trump did not expose himself to enough legal trouble in his final days in office, he made decisions as he left the White House that would come back to haunt him as well.
The latest threat to the former president stems from his insistence on flying home with thousands of documents owned by the government, including hundreds marked with varying classified designations, and his failure to give them all back when asked.
Garland’s team has indicated in court filings that it is looking at not only criminal charges related to mishandling classified documents but also obstruction of justice. A lawyer for Trump signed a document stating that he had returned all classified papers in his possession, which proved to be false when FBI agents searched Mar-a-Lago and found boxes of them. Investigators indicated the files were most likely concealed and moved rather than turned over.
Trump’s legal strategy in the papers case mirrors the approach he has often taken over the years — find ways to delay and throw his adversaries off balance. By persuading a federal judge he got confirmed in the last days of his presidency to block investigators from using the retrieved documents while they are examined by a special master, he has hindered prosecutors for now.
But that may not last forever. He said this past week that “I can’t imagine being indicted” but conceded that it was “always possible” because prosecutors are “just sick and deranged.” He went on to assert that he declassified the papers he took, even though there is no known record of that.
But his real strategy was clear — this is a political battle as much as a legal one, and he warned darkly that there would be “big problems” if he were indicted because his supporters, “I just don’t think they’d stand for it.”
Told by radio host Hugh Hewitt that his critics would interpret that as inciting violence, Trump said: “That’s not inciting. I’m just saying what my opinion is. I don’t think the people of this country would stand for it.”
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.