Defense attorneys don’t like their clients talking to the press. The Trump Organization will not be so lucky
Less than five hours after the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization was led into a Manhattan courtroom in handcuffs to face criminal fraud charges, the company’s executive vice president was on Fox News, railing against the prosecution.
That was Donald Trump Jr., known these days first as his father’s son and only then as an executive at the family’s eponymous company. But Fox News host Jesse Watters made very clear that Trump Jr. was speaking at least in part as a representative of the firm, introducing him as “the executive V.P. of the Trump Organization.”
That’s not quite right; he’s an executive vice president. At the same time that Trump Jr. was on Fox, his brother Eric Trump was on Newsmax, making the same pitch and with the same title appearing on-screen. Eric Trump himself would stop by Fox later in the evening; for the second time in as many hours, a Trump Organization executive vice president would join the network to speak about the criminal charges being faced by the Trump Organization.
Of course, the man primarily associated with that company has not been silent. Former president Donald Trump — whose actual relationship to the company is somewhat murky at the moment — released a lengthy, Trump-y statement about the indictment of CFO Allen Weisselberg. The first two words in the statement are “Radical Left.”
This is not surprising, given what we know about Donald Trump and his family. Trump’s approach to criticism and investigations has always been denial and fighting back. But now things are a bit different: He and his sons are speaking not in the context of political wrestling but as parties to a criminal allegation.
So when Eric Trump says things like “these are employment perks” about the compensation that Weisselberg is alleged to have received under the table — like “a corporate car, which everybody has” — he’s not simply pushing back on an anti-Trump narrative, he’s potentially making claims on behalf of a criminal defendant that could be cited in court.
I spoke with Michael Bachner, a criminal defense attorney in New York and a former prosecutor in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office. He was direct in his assessment.
“Generally speaking, in white collar cases — or frankly, in any type of litigation, particularly where there’s a high media visibility, as there is in a case like this — criminal lawyers will invariably, almost invariably tell their clients, ‘Do not make any statements regarding the case to the press,’ ” Bachner explained. “ … The reason is fairly obvious: Statements made by people who can be construed as corporate representatives could be deemed as admissions of the corporation in the litigation.”
In other words, if Trump Jr. had told Watters that the firm kept a second set of books to document Weisselberg’s untaxed income, as has been alleged, you can be confident that interview snippet would end up being played in front of a jury.
Well, come on, you think. No one is simply going to cop to doing the things they’re accused of doing. To which I say: How did Donald Trump characterize his phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, the one at the center of his first impeachment trial. He did not say that he was perhaps a bit inappropriate in his requests. Instead, he insisted over and over that the call was “perfect.” This is what Trump does, he rejects entirely any insinuation that he’s done anything wrong, even if that means embracing the wrongs he did as being right.
Perhaps understanding the unique approach the Trump family takes to such fights, attorney Alan Futerfas offered an extensive statement outside the courthouse on Thursday afternoon, Bachner said, in an effort to “get the corporation’s position out there.”
Bachner also noted, though, that the case against the organization may not yet have been completely revealed. There may be other individuals — including the Trumps — who are potentially facing charges and for whom public statements about what did or didn’t happen would be detrimental. There’s a reason that the Miranda rights include the reminder that anything you say can and will be used against you: Prosecutors will take anything you say and use it in any way they can, fairly or not. It may be the case that in six months’ time, Eric Trump’s attorneys will try to argue that he had no idea about Weisselberg’s car payments from the company. That Fox interview would clearly make that argument harder to defend.
The heart of the company’s defense centers on politics, of course. Trump’s excoriation of the “Radical Left” was focused at Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D) and New York Attorney General Letitia James (D). Futerfas explicitly argued that, were the company called something other than the “Trump Organization,” no charges would have been filed. So it may be the case that the Trumps are hoping to exacerbate that sense of political motivation to put pressure on Vance and James or, perhaps, to influence potential jurors.
There are a few problems with that. The first is that Vance and James are probably not going to be influenced much by anger in the Republican base. Vance is retiring at the end of the year; James won election in part — as the Trumps and Futerfas have pointed out in the past 24 hours — on a promise to scrutinize the Trump Organization. Another problem noted by Bachner is that the median Manhattan juror is probably neither particularly likely to be sympathetic to the former president nor to be watching Fox News or Newsmax.
At a fundamental level, the long-standing tension between the Trump family’s political and business goals has reached a particularly difficult moment with this week’s indictments.
For the Trump Organization, “it’s going to impact greatly on their bank loans, their ability to do business with the city, their brand,” Bachner said. “A whole lot of very, very significant fallout for the corporation.”
But the Trumps may be inclined to approach the situation politically, using the same sort of broad pushback that helped Trump so often when he faced challenges on the campaign trail or in the White House. Having a few of the company’s executive vice presidents go on Fox News to discuss criminal charges may not help the Trump Organization, but having Eric Trump and his older brother go on Fox News may help Donald Trump. That seems to be the bet.
There’s an additional problem with this strategy, of course. Prosecutors seem to hope that Weisselberg will turn against the Trumps, aiding any case against members of the family. If the Trumps are out there making statements that are designed more at protecting their own political position than the company’s — and Weisselberg’s — legal positions, what message does that send?