Could Civil Asset Forfeiture Haunt Trump?
Kira Lerner at ThinkProgress today wrote about how the New York Attorney General is looking into state-based solutions to deal with the emoluments issue with Trump. In short, the state can investigate the payments not from the point of view of the President, but instead focus on the Trump Organisation aspect. This got me thinking a little about an incident in the news last week when Trump threatened a state senator because that legislator wanted to place some more safeguards on civil asset forfeiture. Could Trump — who values his wealth as a sign of power — be substantially hit (and possibly learn a lesson) if he were subject to the very thing he seems to champion?
An alternate legal route, when impeachment isn’t possible.thinkprogress.org
I admit upfront, I know little of the process of the law, and about criminal investigations, except what I’ve picked up first-hand from cases I’ve reported on or assisted with. However, let’s assume Lerner’s piece on the NY Attorney General’s actions play out, and they do indeed start proceedings. When reading it this incident from last week popped into my head
Civil asset forfeiture is HORRIBLY over-used in the US, mainly now as a way to fund police departments while cutting taxes, or to pay for toys and bonuses without legislative oversight. Usually, there’s no need to actually convict, just suspect, and then officers can take money, cars, or other items. Then, because it’s a civil suit, it’s on preponderance of the evidence, and not ‘beyond doubt’, plus you have to fund your own side, and you’re not even named as a defendant, the seized item is.
John Oliver explains things far better than I can.
So, we have a potential where the NY State AG is investigating Trump for illegal payments, and he is, by his own accounts ‘very rich’, and judging by last week, an unabashed supporter of asset forfeiture for dealing with *ahem* “bad hombres” (and a guy who takes an oath saying he “will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.” and then violates it for personal gain is clearly a bad hombre)
Now, New York has some fairly sane criminal asset forfeiture laws, (somewhat), in requiring a conviction, butt hey’re heavy civil forfeiture users. The majority of that is with federal laws and federal asset sharing and it’s unlikely that the DOJ would go along with this. So it’s down to state civil asset forfeiture.
So, the question becomes not if NY can (because they clearly seem to be able to) but IF they will use these laws. It seems the answer should be yes, and Eric Schneiderman doesn’t seem to have too much of an issue standing up to Trump (except he settled far too easily and early dealing with Trump University).
Given Trump’s obsession with wealth and his perception of it as a measure of personal success, this kind of blow to his wallet may be a massive confidence shaker, and wake-up call.
Sure, he may be able to call on the sort of resources most people can’t (such as well known lawsuit financier Peter Thiel, or son-in-law Jared Kushner) and be able to successfully recover the items (yet given what we know about his ego, would he ask for help?), but given the many and varied actions we already know Trump has done that he has been able to ‘settle’ his way out of (not just the aforementioned University, but self-dealing with his foundation, the constant contract violations, etc.) taking away his ability to buy his way out of liability using a portion of the money that was made from the litigated activity would be something that at least resembles — in many people’s minds — the traditional definition of justice.
More importantly, as the late Sir Terry Pratchett has put it, “A Leopard can not change his shorts”, and a 70yo who has spent the last 40 years committing (and profiting from) acts of what could be described as ‘dubious legality’, and who has undoubtedly taught his sons to practice business in the same way. That potentially puts ALL their assets at risk.
When I first floated this on twitter a few hours ago, I got a response that needs a little expansion.
While Trump is famously swimming in debt (although he refuses to admit it) it doesn’t make any difference if he’s upside-down, right-side up or completely debt free. if a car is seized under asset forfeiture, the number of payments on it is irrelevant, a debt on the asset doesn’t stop the asset being seized, it just means you no longer have the asset to secure the loan, or any collateral (assuming you’re not upside down) available to use.
However, without anything securing the loan you can bet that those owning the debt will call it in ASAP, which may require liquidating any assets that have no been seized. It could be the downfall of the entire Trump ‘Empire’ as the pyramid of shell companies designed to inoculate Trump from individual company losses can’t deal with that sort of issue.
It could be the complete financial meltdown (triggering the psychological meltdown) of President Trump. It would also almost certainly precipitate a swift and rapid change to asset forfeiture laws, to make them more sane, because no matter how much Trump professes to love ‘Law and Order Policing’, he loves his own gaudy baubles more.