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Opinion | We Are Talking About the Manhattan Case Against Trump All Wrong

BusinessOpinion | We Are Talking About the Manhattan Case Against Trump All Wrong


It would hardly make for a dramatic opening statement or cable news sound bite, but the case is about preventing wealthy people from using their businesses to commit crimes and hide from accountability. Manhattan prosecutors have long considered it their province to ensure the integrity of the financial markets. As Robert Morgenthau, a former Manhattan district attorney, liked to say, “You cannot prosecute crime in the streets without prosecuting crime in the suites.”

Lawmakers in New York, the financial capital of the world, consider access to markets and industry in New York a privilege for businesspeople. It is a felony to abuse that privilege by doctoring records to commit or conceal crimes, even if the businessman never accomplishes the goal and even if the false records never see the light of day. The idea is that an organization’s records should reflect an honest accounting. It is not a crime to make a mistake, but lying is a different story. It is easy to evade accountability by turning a business into a cover, providing a false trail for whichever regulator might care to look. The law (falsification of business records) deprives wealthy, powerful businessmen of the ability to do so with impunity, at least when they’re conducting business in the city.

Prosecutors and New York courts have interpreted this law generously, with its general purpose in mind. The element of intent to defraud carries a broad meaning, which is not limited to the intent of cheating someone out of money or property. Further, intent is often proved with circumstantial evidence, as is common in white-collar cases. After presenting evidence, prosecutors ask jurors to use their common sense to infer what the possible intent may be, and New York jurors frequently conclude that a defendant must have gone to the trouble of creating this false paper trail for a reason.

Mr. Trump is accused of creating 11 false invoices, 12 false ledger entries and 11 false checks and check stubs, with the intent to violate federal election laws, state election laws or state tax laws. The number of lies it took to create this false record itself helps prove intent. His defense attorneys will claim that he was merely trying to bury a false story to protect his family from embarrassment. The timing of the payments — immediately after the potentially damaging “Access Hollywood” tape was released and right before the election — makes that claim implausible.

As many have pointed out, Michael Cohen, Mr. Trump’s former lawyer and fixer, is a witness with a remarkable amount of baggage. But as with most business records cases, his testimony will largely add color to the tweets, handwritten notes, bank documents and shell corporations. Documents don’t lie.



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