Trump Russia: Six potential legal problems for the president
Investigations into Donald Trump’s election-eve hush money payments and any possible ties between his presidential campaign and Russia have been dominating headlines. But there are other legal woes too.
In New York and Washington, the list of inquiries into the Trump world are expanding – any of which could produce serious headaches for the president.
Here’s a look at the latest collection of eyeballs scrutinising the president – and what it all could mean.
1. The presidential inauguration cash
On Thursday the Wall Street Journal reported that the committee in charge of Mr Trump’s 2017 presidential inauguration has come under federal criminal investigation.
The committee raised in a record $107m (£85m) in donations, including $14m from donors who worked for securities and investment companies and nearly $10m from those with real-estate industry ties.
The total is nearly double the amount of the previous record for inaugural fundraising, set by Barack Obama in 2009.
The probe will look into how that inaugural money was spent and whether contributors sought to gain access to the new administration.
A ProPublica report on Friday detailed concerns by a “top inaugural planner” that the Trump International Hotel in Washington was overcharging the inaugural committee for rooms, meals and facilities, which could be a violation of tax law.
The US attorney’s office in Southern Manhattan is handling the inquiry – the same team involved in the various Cohen investigations.
According to the Journal, this new investigation was prompted, in part, by evidence unearthed by federal agents when they raided Cohen’s offices in April.
Presidential exposure: White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said “this doesn’t have anything to do with the president or the first lady” when asked about the Wall Street Journal report. That may be the case, but some of the president’s closest friends and associates – and his daughter, Ivanka – were deeply involved in the inaugural planning.
The central focus of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation is to uncover any ties between Russia and the Trump presidential campaign, but according to recent reports the inquiry may have expanded to include connections to other countries.
A Daily Beast article reported that “phase two” of the special counsel’s investigation will begin early in the next year and include court filings – and possible indictments – outlining connections between the Trump campaign and Saudi Arabia, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The New York Times also tied this news to the inauguration investigation, noting that federal investigators in New York are looking into whether any foreigners illegally made donations to the inaugural committee. Mr Mueller’s team is also reportedly scrutinising a pro-Trump group to see if it received contributions from overseas during the 2016 campaign.
Saudi Arabia and UAE were once again mentioned, as was Qatar.
The president has called the entire Mueller investigation a “witch hunt” and is sure to vehemently object to any expansion of the probe.
Presidential exposure: Mr Trump has been more than accommodating toward Saudi Arabia as president – making the nation his first foreign visit, siding with it in a dispute with Qatar and offering a forceful defence of Prince Mohammed bin Salman after Jamal Khashoggi’s murder. The special counsel’s office could be doing more than just wondering why.
3. Trump hotel
Shortly after being elected president, Mr Trump announced that his businesses would donate all income derived from foreign governments to the US Treasury.
In March the Trump Organization donated $151,470 in profits from foreign governments accrued during 2017 – although it offered no further details.
This procedure was designed to avoid running afoul of the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the US Constitution, which prohibits federal officials from receiving gifts or payments from foreign rulers or representatives.
Although the president’s lawyers said such donations were not required, Mr Trump pledged to do so “to eliminate any distractions by going beyond what the Constitution requires”.
In June, however, attorneys general for the District of Columbia and Maryland sued Mr Trump, alleging that the president is continuing to profit from foreign government spending at his properties – particularly his eponymous hotel just blocks from the White House in Washington, DC.
A similar legal challenge was dismissed, and a third – filed by Democratic lawmakers – is also winding its way through the court system.
So much for no distractions.
Since the Maryland/DC lawsuit was filed, Mr Trump’s lawyers have tried to block it from proceeding, setting up what could be the first in a series of legal decisions on the breadth of the Emoluments Clause.
Last week, however, the judge overseeing the case allowed DC and Maryland to issue 30 subpoenas for business records from the Trump organisation and affiliated groups – an evidence gathering process that will continue until August 2019.
Presidential exposure: The case could end up being a ticking political time bomb that reveals embarrassing details about the president’s business empire just as his presidential re-election campaign is kicking into gear.
4. Trump Foundation
In addition to the ongoing federal probes of the president and his interests, New York state investigators are conducting a review of the president’s charitable foundation.
New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood has alleged that the Trump Foundation effectively served as means to advance the president’s political and business interests in violation of state laws governing the tax-free status of charitable organisations. The president, in response, called the investigation the work of “sleazy New York Democrats” and lauded his charity for giving out more than $19m.
Mr Trump’s lawyers attempted to have the case dismissed, but in late November a New York judge ruled that the allegations “sufficiently support a claim that Mr Trump intentionally used foundation assets for his private interests knowing that it may not be in the foundation’s best interests”.
During the 2016 campaign, Washington Post reporter David Fahrenthold detailed how Mr Trump used money from his charitable foundation – funded in large part by contributions from friends and associates – to settle business lawsuits and make donations to build support for his presidential bid.
Presidential exposure: New York is seeking nearly $3m in restitution, additional financial penalties, a 10-year ban on Mr Trump serving as the head of any New York non-profit organisations and a one-year ban for his three oldest children, Eric, Ivanka and Donald Jr.
5. Hush-money payments
These four areas of potential legal jeopardy have not consumed a fraction of the attention that two other subjects have commanded.
On Wednesday Michael Cohen, the president’s former personal lawyer, explained how he helped arrange payments to two women who were poised to talk about their sexual relationships with Mr Trump during the election campaign.
As part of a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in New York, he admitted charges of campaign-finance law violations.
In court filings and subsequent statements he has said he was acting at the direction of Mr Trump himself – something the president has vehemently denied.
Presidential exposure: Mr Trump has been directly implicated in a campaign finance violation – one of several charges for which his long-time personal attorney has received a prison sentence. The National Enquirer, which facilitated one of the payments, corroborates Cohen’s account. This is serious business.
6. Russian interference
Meanwhile Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 US presidential election, and possible ties to the Trump campaign, grinds on.
Mr Cohen has helped with that inquiry as well, recently asserting that negotiations on a proposed multimillion-dollar Trump real estate venture in Moscow continued well into the presidential election season and included contacts with Russian officials.
The special counsel’s office, in court filings involving the sentencing of former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn, has also revealed the existence of a previously undisclosed criminal probe and continued extensive Russia-related efforts.
President Trump has maintained there was no collusion with Russia and dismissed the investigation as a Democratic conspiracy.
Presidential exposure: Multiple individuals involved with the Trump campaign had contacts with Russians at the same time as the Russian government has been accused of engaging in cyber-warfare to support Mr Trump’s presidential candidacy. Was there collusion? If so, did it involve the president? These are the fundamental questions Mr Mueller was hired to answer. Everything else is window dressing.