Jurisprudence

The Trump Organization Got Away With It

The real, pitiful meaning of the company’s tax fraud convictions.

Trump smirks at the microphone with USA flags behind him
Trump at the Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, on Nov. 15. Alon Skuy/AFP via Getty Images

Tuesday was another bad news day for Donald Trump, and 17 criminal convictions of Trump-owned entities on tax fraud and related charges might not have been the worst of it.

By day’s end, Trump’s hand-picked candidate, Herschel Walker, had lost a runoff for a U.S. Senate seat in Georgia—further evidence of Trump’s toxic effect on the Republican Party’s electoral prospects in purple states. And hours earlier, the Washington Post reported that the new Justice Department special counsel, Jack Smith, had sent a wave of subpoenas to local officials in Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin as part of an investigation into Trump’s efforts to reverse the results of the 2020 election—an investigation that could put the former president in criminal jeopardy.

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By contrast, the guilty verdict rendered Tuesday—which relates to charges that two Trump entities paid more than $1.7 million in off-the-books compensation to former Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg and other executives as part of a scheme to dodge federal and state income and payroll taxes—likely won’t have huge ramifications for Trump or his business empire.

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That the former president has more to worry about than those convictions says something about the mounting legal and political challenges facing him. But it also says a lot about the consequences of corporate criminal liability, which—in Trump’s case—might be little more than a nothingburger.

For one thing, the financial penalty in the New York case—the only legal consequence that’s more than symbolic—will be capped at $1.61 million ($250,000 for each of six tax counts, plus $10,000 for each of 11 nontax counts). That’s serious money for you and me, but peanuts for the former president, whose net worth, according to Forbes, was approximately $3.2 billion as of September 2022. To put the penalty in perspective, $1.61 million is only about one-fourth as much as Trump’s Truth Social network lost in the first half of 2022 alone. (The exact amount of the financial penalty will be determined by a judge at sentencing next month.)

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Moreover, while many headlines on Tuesday proclaimed that the “Trump Organization” had been found guilty, the convictions don’t apply to the entire Trump business empire. The Manhattan district attorney brought charges and obtained convictions against only two of Trump’s myriad entities: Trump Corporation, which employs senior managers of the Trump Organization; and Trump Payroll Corp., which processes paychecks for Trump Organization staff.

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Even for those two entities, conviction is not a death sentence. Plenty of other firms have rebounded from criminal convictions, including the retail giant Wal-Mart Stores; oil behemoth Exxon Mobil; the biopharmaceutical firms Abbott Laboratories, Bayer, Bristol Myers Squibb, Eli Lilly, and Pfizer; the carmaker Volkswagen; and financial institutions Citicorp, JPMorgan Chase, and UBS. The Zürich-headquartered bank Credit Suisse pleaded guilty in 2014 to criminal tax fraud charges far more serious than anything alleged against the two Trump entities—that it had helped U.S. clients hide potentially billions of dollars from the IRS—and it, too, survived the fallout.

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A criminal conviction can be devastating in an industry such as accounting, where a firm’s viability depends upon its reputation for trustworthiness. But it’s doubtful that the Trump Organization’s customers and counterparties—for example, tenants at its properties, patrons at its golf courses, and financial institutions that have extended credit to Trump-affiliated borrowers—believed before Tuesday that the Trump Organization was a paragon of virtue. Given all of Trump’s well-publicized misdeeds over the past several years, it boggles the mind to think that anyone who has continued to do business with Trump up until now would quit just because 12 jurors in a Manhattan courtroom concluded that two Trump subsidiaries perpetrated a 15-year-long tax fraud.

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To be sure, we don’t know what nuggets might be lurking inside Trump’s loan covenants, which theoretically could include terms that allow lenders to accelerate payments if Trump-affiliated entities are convicted criminally. The Trump Organization has had nearly a year and a half since the indictment of the two entities to prepare for any liquidity consequences of a conviction, though long-term planning isn’t exactly the former president’s forte.

Personally, though, Trump appears to have dodged another bullet: While Weisselberg pleaded guilty, testified against the Trump companies, and now faces five months in prison, Weisselberg didn’t directly implicate his longtime boss. It remains to be seen whether Trump could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue in New York and not lose any voters, as he once boasted, but he evidently can preside over entities that engage in brazen tax fraud—out of a Fifth Avenue office, no less—and for all practical purposes get away with it.

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Still, the famous teetotaler who happens to own a winery shouldn’t be toasting to his victory just yet.

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First, the tax fraud case that resulted in Tuesday’s guilty verdict isn’t the most significant legal threat that Trump faces in New York. The civil lawsuit filed in September by New York Attorney General Letitia James against Trump, three of his children, and a dozen other individuals and entities in the Trump orbit could lead to much larger financial consequences—up to $250 million in disgorgement—as well as a five-year bar on Trump engaging in commercial real estate acquisitions in the state and a lifetime ban against him serving as a director or officer of any New York–registered business entity. (The bank and insurance fraud allegations in that lawsuit are unrelated to the tax fraud charges that led to Tuesday’s convictions.) Meanwhile, Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg has reportedly resumed a criminal probe into hush-money payments to actress Stormy Daniels, though Bragg would face high legal hurdles if he sought to bring charges against Trump in that case.

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More worryingly for the former president, the subpoenas to local officials in Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin reported Tuesday—which ask for all communications from June 2020 through Inauguration Day in 2021 with Trump, Trump’s campaign, and a long list of Trump allies that includes former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani—are a further signal that special counsel Jack Smith’s inquiry is kicking into high gear. The famously aggressive Smith, who was named special counsel by U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland last month, has shown a willingness—even eagerness—to bring charges against high-profile defendants in the past.

So Trump still might face a criminal indictment in the next two years—in Smith’s Jan. 6–related inquiry or in an investigation by the D.A. in Georgia’s Fulton County regarding interference in that state’s 2020 vote count. On Tuesday, a Florida appeals court upheld a state trial judge’s order compelling former national security adviser Michael Flynn to testify before a grand jury in the Fulton County case.

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Finally, the Georgia runoff results—the last in a string of midterm setbacks for Trump-picked candidates—are likely to lead more voters and elected officials within the GOP to seek an alternate standard-bearer two years from now. Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, a Republican who has butted heads with Trump since 2020, waltzed to reelection last month by more than a 7 percentage point margin against Democrat Stacey Abrams. Meanwhile, Walker—who has gone all-in on the former president’s election fraud theories—lost Tuesday night in the same state by almost 3 percentage points (a margin that may change slightly as the last few ballots are tallied). If the Jan. 6 insurrection didn’t lead Republicans to dump Trump, it’s hard to see how criminal tax convictions for two of his companies would change the calculus. But the fact that he has become the GOP’s biggest loser at the ballot box in general elections—especially in swing states that are pivotal to the party’s Electoral College prospects—may be grounds for mutiny.

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So while criminal charges against the former president could endanger his future as a free private citizen, and the verdict from Georgia voters suggests that his political future is in doubt, too, Tuesday’s convictions in the New York tax fraud case won’t be Trump’s Waterloo.

And that fact is arguably as much of a scandal as the 15-year tax fraud scheme that the Manhattan D.A. uncovered. Corporate crime ought to be more than a nothingburger for the entities that perpetrate it, and maybe Tuesday’s verdict will motivate New York to revisit its low caps on financial penalties. The optimal penalty for corporate misdeeds might be hard to specify precisely, but it probably ought to be high enough to make a 17-count criminal conviction for a corporation the worst part of its owner’s day.

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