WASHINGTON ― In Detroit, General Motors has a board of directors that oversees the company’s management. In Bentonville, Walmart has shareholders who can ultimately hold its board accountable.
And in Manhattan, the Trump Organization has, basically, only Donald Trump.
Which means that even as Trump and his various defenders attempt to claim that Trump personally is in the clear because only his company is facing charges, in this case it is largely a distinction without a difference.
“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 printing that his net worth was a fraction of what he had claimed. “The core company is a mom-and-pop shop on Fifth Avenue.”
It’s a company that was also hit with a fraud indictment on July 1. Prosecutors say the Trump Organization, along with its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, dodged taxes by improperly treating salaried income for top employees as fringe benefits or as contractor compensation.
Trump himself was not personally charged, but O’Brien said it was inconceivable that Trump would not have known about the scheme described in the 25-page indictment, given that only a handful of employees there had any decision-making authority. “None of those others would dare tie their shoes without asking Trump,” he said.
But showing that Trump personally profits from and is involved in every aspect of the business does not necessarily mean that prosecutors can convict him for its illegal actions.
To do that, the state of New York, through district attorneys in Manhattan and possibly the state attorney general’s office, would have to show that Trump knew that what his company was doing when it arranged payments to employees to avoid taxes was illegal, but approved it anyway.
“There has to be personal, specific knowledge,” said Danya Perry, a former federal prosecutor in New York City. “You can’t just impute knowledge.”
Neither Trump’s spokesperson nor the Trump Organization responded to HuffPost’s queries on this topic.
That Trump is the central figure in his companies is made clear in the annual financial disclosures Trump was forced to file during his presidency. Those documents show elaborate, interlocking links among the Trump Corp., Trump Payroll Corp. and the hundreds of “limited liability companies” that Trump created to hold his various assets.
O’Brien said the impulse to form a different LLC for each different asset Trump 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 said, in the end it essentially all comes back to Trump. “This is basically a corner grocery with a guy behind the counter munching on a hamburger. And he’s the owner of the store,” O’Brien said.
If the intent of the various entities, each with its own governance structure, is to obfuscate their ownership and control, the strategy has clearly succeeded.
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, had bought a beachfront house across Highway A1A from Mar-a-Lago from their father’s sister, Maryanne Trump Barry, for $18 million. Its address: 1125 South Ocean Blvd.
But in May 2019, when Trump filed his annual financial disclosure, a new company, 1125 South Ocean LLC, showed up with assets between $5 million and $25 million. Elsewhere in the document, it states that the new LLC was 100% owned by DJT Holdings LLC.
DJT Holdings LLC is, in turn, owned 1% by DJT Holdings Managing Member LLC and 99% by Donald J. Trump Revocable Trust, which also owns 100% of DJT Holdings Managing Member LLC.
“The argument that [Trump] was unaware of these funds being given to Weisselberg or others is pure nonsense.”
And that trust ― which Trump created to give the false appearance of separating himself from his businesses when he took office ― benefits Trump personally.
“There’s nothing that went on at the Trump Organization that did not pass through Donald’s desk,” said his longtime former lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, who served time in federal prison for helping Trump arrange hush-money payments to women who said they’d had affairs with him.
Notwithstanding Trump’s obvious control over his family business, he, his children and his supporters have made efforts to separate themselves from Weisselberg and the accusations against him.
In a deposition last year in a case looking into the 2017 inaugural committee’s finances, for example, 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.”
And Weisselberg, following his indictment, in recent weeks has been removed as an officer from dozens of the Trump enterprises under the Trump Organization umbrella.
Whether publicly excommunicating Weisselberg will work, though, is unclear. The indictment spells out that bonus checks to Weisselberg and other employees ― labeled as payments to contractors, rather than salary, thus letting the Trump Corp. avoid paying federal payroll taxes ― came from various Trump companies, such as Trump International Golf Club and the Mar-a-Lago Club. And both of those entities are owned by Trump, through a similar series of steps as the beach house.
Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics lawyer in the Barack Obama White House and more recently worked for the House committee overseeing Trump’s first impeachment, said trying to blame Weisselberg for everything would be a tough sell.
“It would be beyond implausible. It would be 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. “The argument that he was unaware of these funds being given to Weisselberg or others is pure nonsense.”
If Trump does, in fact, intend to claim that he did not know that such payments were illegal, he may have offered the first clue 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 to know whether you have to pay taxes on such benefits: “I don’t even know. Do you have to? Does anybody know the answer to that stuff?”
Perry said that while Trump may have been trying to lay the groundwork for a defense, he also wound up revealing that he knew quite a bit about the payments in question. “It certainly could be seen an admission,” she said. “I’m sure the prosecutors are watching him very closely.”
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story referred to Little Rock, Arkansas, as the location of Walmart’s headquarters. They’re located in Bentonville, Arkansas.