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Lawsuits could expose Trump business practices as voters consider 2022 midterms

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

As former President Donald Trump ponders another try at the White House in 2024, he faces a reckoning in at least two courtrooms in 2022. And the cases could provide a candid look inside Trump's business practices just as voters start to make decisions about the 2022 midterms.

NPR's Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz join us now for a look ahead. Andrea, let's start with you. In the last year, Trump's company and its chief financial officer were charged with a 15-year scheme to defraud taxpayers. The former president had to testify under oath in a civil lawsuit. So what do we know about what's coming in 2022?

ANDREA BERNSTEIN, BYLINE: There are so many investigations and cases, both civil and criminal, that they actually require their own system of organization. So we put them into three broad categories. Bucket one is business stuff. Trump's company is accused of years of tax fraud, including while he was president. And his business is under investigation for systematically lying to banks and tax authorities, overvaluing or undervaluing his properties, depending on which made him the most money. Then there are lawsuits around abuse of power - that is bucket two. The third and the last bucket involves Trump allegedly condoning or inciting violence, like on January 6. All these cases and investigations are at different stages. In each one, Trump has pushed back forcefully and denied any wrongdoing. He's also brought his own suits, including against his niece, Mary Trump, and against the New York attorney general.

MARTINEZ: So give us a little context here. Is there a precedent for so much legal activity surrounding an ex-president?

BERNSTEIN: So the short answer is no. The closest parallel was Richard Nixon, who was widely accused of committing criminal acts while president. But he was preemptively pardoned by President Gerald Ford. Historian Burton Kaufman, who wrote a book on post-presidencies, tells me Trump is in a category by himself. Trump has pushed so many boundaries so far that the legal system is often the only redress. And during the time he was president, Trump and his company were able to delay civil lawsuits and criminal cases. Now those cases are coming to fruition.

MARTINEZ: All right, let's talk about the different categories, starting with business fraud. There's now a criminal case brought by the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr. Ilya, what should we expect from that suit in 2022?

ILYA MARRITZ, BYLINE: It is going to get interesting pretty fast. The trial is right now set to begin in August. That means we could have pretrial motions and fights over what evidence is shown to the jury starting soon. The crux of this case, which was charged last July, is that the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer engaged in a conspiracy to cheat tax authorities out of millions of dollars over a decade and a half, and there could be more to come even before trial. This is an active grand jury investigation. And one of the defense lawyers said in court he expects more indictments. A sign of how advanced this investigation is - it was reported that Trump's banker and accountant were speaking to investigators just this month.

MARTINEZ: The prosecutor in Manhattan, Cyrus Vance Jr., is leaving office. What does that mean for the criminal case?

MARRITZ: Well, the case will continue under Vance's successor. His name is Alvin Bragg. Bragg hasn't said much publicly about the case, but one point on his resume is that he earlier worked in the New York Attorney General's Office, where he was involved in an earlier civil suit against Trump's family foundation. In the end, the foundation was dissolved. The Trump family were banned from taking leadership roles in New York charities. So Alvin Bragg, the new DA, is someone who has experience dealing with Trump in court.

MARTINEZ: All right, so that's bucket one - business. What about abuse of power?

MARRITZ: So a local prosecutor in Georgia, Fani Willis, is looking into whether Trump broke the law when he tried to get Georgia officials to overturn the vote there. You might remember a recording of a phone call that was released at the very beginning of this year, where Trump was urging the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, to find at least 11,779 votes for Trump - exactly enough to have him edge out the actual winner in Georgia, Joe Biden.

MARTINEZ: All right, so there are criminal and civil probes involving fraud and abuse of power, Andrea, then a whole bunch of civil cases involving the attack on the Capitol.

BERNSTEIN: There really is a pileup of cases in this area. There are two separate lawsuits brought by members of Congress and two other ones involving groups of police officers. They're suing some combination of the former president, his former attorney Rudy Giuliani, the Proud Boys and the Oath Keepers. And all of them rely on a little-used law, the KKK Act of 1871. This law allows plaintiffs to sue for civil damages when they say there is a conspiracy to prevent federal officers from carrying out their duties using threats or violence. Next month, there's a hearing set in federal court in Washington, D.C., and then after that, a judge will decide if these lawsuits can proceed to the discovery phase.

MARRITZ: And, you know, there's one more case involving violence that is slated for trial in May. This one is from before Trump was president. The allegation is that Donald Trump, quote, "authorized and approved" an assault by his own bodyguards against a group of protesters outside Trump Tower in 2015. It's a civil suit. Trump already gave video testimony under oath this past fall, and that testimony is expected to be part of the trial in the spring.

MARTINEZ: Ilya, we've been paying attention to Trump associates caught in the January 6 inquiry, but that's not the only legal headache for people close to the former president.

MARRITZ: No. Last April, the FBI searched the home of the former mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani. They took phones and computers. Our understanding is that this is part of a probe into Giuliani's dealings in Ukraine, where in 2019, he was pressuring Ukrainian officials to say things that could be harmful to the candidacy of Joe Biden. So prosecutors are now in possession of thousands and thousands of electronic files from Rudy Giuliani. And given how close Giuliani has been to Trump through two elections and two impeachments, this one is really, really interesting.

MARTINEZ: The 2022 elections are coming up fast, and Trump will be deciding soon whether he will mount a campaign for president. Andrea, what's important to keep in mind about all of these cases?

BERNSTEIN: So up to now, there really hasn't been a deep legal reckoning for the former president - the businessman - in a court of law. As of now, he and his company face actual trials next year for their business practices. And there is a process of truth-telling that occurs in a trial, one that is very different from the back-and-forth of politics. We learn things, and we could learn a lot more about Trump's business at the very same time that voters are making decisions at the polls.

MARTINEZ: That's NPR's Andrea Bernstein and Ilya Marritz. Thank you both for your time.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you.

MARRITZ: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUSE ON THE KEYS' "REFLEXION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.