The possibility that former President Donald Trump, his business associates or his company could face criminal charges began to seem more real this week when The Washington Post broke the news that a special grand jury had been empaneled in New York City to hear evidence from prosecutors investigating Trump’s business dealings.
The grand jury is expected to serve a six-month term, far longer than the one-month tenure of most grand juries. It will hear evidence gathered in an investigation that has been going on for two years and involved two Supreme Court decisions giving the office of the Manhattan district attorney access to the former president’s tax returns.
The length of the grand jury’s term indicates that prosecutors are preparing to present a complex and lengthy case, said Rebecca Roiphe, a professor at New York Law School who formerly served as a prosecutor in Manhattan.
This is the beginning of a process, Roiphe said, that typically leads to a criminal prosecution. “It’s unlikely that we won’t see an indictment when this is over,” she said. State-level data are difficult to obtain, but a Washington Post analysis of federal grand juries in 2014 found that they return indictments in 99.99% of cases.
What is a grand jury?
In the U.S. federal justice system as well as in many states, including New York, a criminal charge is brought after a grand jury determines that there is “probable cause” to believe that an individual or entity has committed a criminal offense.
A grand jury proceeding is not like a trial; nobody represents the person suspected of a crime. The standard joke about grand juries in the U.S. is that the evidentiary standard is so low that a competent prosecutor could get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich.
But according to Roiphe, it is important to note that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr.’s office has made a point of not taking borderline cases to prosecution. “They won’t go to a grand jury with just the bare minimum to get an indictment,” she said. Additionally, she noted, New York’s grand jury rules are stricter than federal rules when it comes to evidence, making hearsay testimony inadmissible.
Who is investigating Trump?
Vance, the son of former U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance, had been looking into Trump’s business practices for two years or more. Last week, Letitia James, the New York state attorney general, announced that a separate investigation, originally civil in nature, had been turned into a criminal inquiry and that her office would be sharing resources with Vance, essentially joining the two investigations.
The combined prosecutorial might of Vance’s and James’ offices is being supplemented by outside assistance. Vance took the unusual step of hiring Mark Pomerantz, a white collar criminal defense attorney who formerly served as the head of the criminal division in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, where he led multiple high-profile organized crime investigations.
What do we know about the investigation?
The details of the investigation are not public and Trump has battled to discredit it.
"We've known for some time that the district attorney's office in Manhattan has been investigating him for a host of possible criminal violations, including tax fraud, insurance fraud, falsification of records and the like,” said attorney Danya Perry, who previously served as deputy attorney general in the state of New York and as a federal prosecutor.
Trump’s son Eric Trump has been subpoenaed to testify, and there are reports that investigators are looking into payments the Trump Organization made to his daughter Ivanka Trump that were written off as consulting fees.
Who is Allen Weisselberg?
Prosecutors seem to be particularly interested in Allen Weisselberg, the longtime chief financial officer of the Trump Organization. Among other things, prosecutors are believed to be examining whether Weisselberg received compensation from Trump that wasn’t reported to the Internal Revenue Service.
There is widespread speculation that the focus on Weisselberg is an effort to pressure him into a deal with prosecutors that would secure his testimony against the former president.
Weisselberg, who worked for Trump’s father, Fred Trump, before Donald Trump took over the company, has been the CFO since 2000.
Could Trump go to jail?
The former president is a private citizen, and much of the activity being investigated took place before he took office, meaning that his service as chief executive is no shield.