— General Motors
has a board of directors
that oversees the company's management, whereas Walmart
has shareholders who can ultimately hold the board accountable.
, the Trump Organization
is essentially comprised of Donald Trump.
That is, even though Trump and his various defenders claim that Trump is exonerated because only his company is under investigation
, in this case, the distinction is largely meaningless.
“The Trump Organization is an avatar for Donald Trump in every way imaginable: financially, emotionally, and psychologically,” said Tim O’Brien, a Trump biographer whom Trump unsuccessfully sued for publishing that his net worth was a fraction of what he claimed. “The core company is a mom-and-pop shop on Fifth Avenue.”
On July 1, the Trump Organization, along with its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg
, was indicted on charges of tax evasion for improperly treating top employees' salary as fringe benefits or contractor compensation.
Trump was not personally charged, but O'Brien said it was impossible for Trump to have been unaware of the scheme described in the 25-page indictment
, given that only a handful of employees there had decision-making authority. "None of those others would dare tie their shoes without asking Trump," he said.
However, proving that Trump personally profits from and is involved in all aspects of the business
does not automatically mean that prosecutors will be able to convict him for the company's illegal actions.
To do so, the state of New York would have to show that Trump knew what his company was doing when it arranged payments to employees to avoid taxes
was illegal, but approved it anyway, via district attorneys in Manhattan and possibly the state attorney general
“There has to be personal, specific knowledge,” Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor in New York City
, explained. “You can’t just impute knowledge.”
In response to Stardia's questions, neither Trump's spokesperson nor the Trump Organization responded.
The annual financial disclosures Trump was required to file during his presidency
show elaborate, interlocking links between the Trump Corp., Trump Payroll Corp., and the hundreds of “limited liability companies” he formed to hold his various assets.
O'Brien believes Trump's decision to form a separate LLC for each asset he owned, down to individual condo units in various buildings, was an overreaction to his near personal bankruptcy
in the 1990s, when he pledged his personal wealth
to back business loans. Despite the Byzantine structure, O'Brien believes it all comes back to Trump.
If the goal of the various entities, each with its own governance structure, is to obscure their ownership and control, the strategy clearly succeeds.
In 2018, for example, the local newspaper in Palm Beach, Florida
, reported that a company run by Trump's elder sons, Donald Trump Jr
. and Eric Trump
, paid $18 million for a beachfront house across Highway A1A from Mar-a-Lago
from their father
's sister, Maryanne Trump Barry.
However, when Trump filed his annual financial disclosure in May 2019, a new company, 1125 South Ocean
LLC, appeared with assets ranging from $5 million to $25 million, and it is stated elsewhere in the document that the new LLC is 100% owned by DJT Holdings LLC.
DJT Holdings LLC, in turn, is owned 1% by DJT Holdings Managing Member LLC and 99% by Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, which owns 100% of DJT Holdings Managing Member LLC.
The claim that [Trump] was unaware that these funds were being given to Weisselberg or others is nonsense.
, Trump's former lawyer
And that trust, which Trump created when he took office to give the false appearance of separating himself from his businesses, benefits Trump personally.
“There was nothing that happened at the Trump Organization that didn’t go through Donald’s desk,” said his longtime former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, who served time in federal prison
for assisting Trump in arranging hush-money payments to women
who claimed to have had affairs with him.
Despite Trump's obvious control over his family
business, he, his children
, and his supporters have attempted to distance themselves from Weisselberg and the allegations leveled against him.
In a deposition last year in a case investigating the finances of the 2017 inaugural committee, Trump's daughter Ivanka Trump
said of Weisselberg: "I don't know what his exact job title is, but he's an executive at the company."
Following his indictment, Weisselberg has been removed as an officer from dozens of Trump enterprises under the Trump Organization umbrella in recent weeks.
The indictment states
that bonus checks
to Weisselberg and other employees were labeled as payments to contractors rather than salary, allowing the Trump Corp. to avoid paying federal payroll taxes.
Norm Eisen, who worked as an ethics
lawyer in Barack Obama
's White House
and more recently for the House committee overseeing Trump's first impeachment
, said it would be difficult to blame Weisselberg for everything.
“It would be beyond implausible, ridiculous,” he said. “Prosecutors have built the framework for a future case targeting Trump personally.... Prosecutors are on the hunt.”
“The checks for bonuses were all signed by Trump,” Cohen said, adding that “the argument that he was unaware of these funds being given to Weisselberg or others is nonsense.”
If Trump does intend to claim that he was unaware that such payments were illegal, he may have given the first hint at a rally he held in Sarasota
, Florida, two days after the indictments were unsealed. After attacking the prosecutions as politically motivated and defending the payments in question as examples of his generosity, he wondered aloud to the audience whether it was possible that he was unaware that such payments were illegal.
While Trump may have been laying the groundwork for a defense, he also ended up revealing that he knew quite a bit about the payments in question, according to Perry. “It certainly could be seen as an admission,” she said, adding that she is sure prosecutors are watching him very closely.