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The candidates who could end up prosecuting Trump weigh in on New York's criminal investigation

Status of N.Y. investigation into Trump
Manhattan DA candidates weigh in on investigation into Trump's finances 05:03

When President Trump leaves office, a slew of investigations promise to cause him legal headaches, including congressional inquiries and probes by the Attorneys General of New York and Washington, D.C. But there's just one publicly known investigation that could lead to criminal charges for Mr. Trump, and it's being led by a district attorney whose office is up for grabs in 2021.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. is overseeing the investigation, which initially targeted hush-money payments made during the 2016 campaign to adult film star Stormy Daniels by former Trump attorney Michael Cohen. However, Vance's office has indicated in court filings that the investigation has since widened to look at possible crimes as wide-ranging as fraud and tax evasion.

A grand jury is conducting an investigation and will eventually determine whether charges are warranted. The timetable is unclear, but even if Mr. Trump were charged, the case is unlikely to be resolved before the next Manhattan district attorney is elected next November.

The investigation is one of several being run out of agencies in New York and Washington that target Mr. Trump, his associates and his company. The attorney general for New York State, who has already twice sued and settled with Trump's company and foundation, is investigating whether Mr. Trump falsely reported property values to obtain tax breaks and loans, and has deposed his son Eric

Federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York already secured a guilty plea from Mr. Trump's former lawyer, Michael Cohen, and have charged Mr. Trump's former chief strategist Steve Bannon in an unrelated case. The same office has an ongoing investigation into associates of Mr. Trump's attorney Rudy Giuliani, but there's no indication the president is a target in that probe. 

A lawsuit filed by Mr. Trump has slowed Vance's criminal investigation to a crawl.

Mr. Trump challenged the Manhattan grand jury's right to subpoena his tax returns — a case that led to a landmark Supreme Court decision affirming that state investigators can issue criminal subpoenas to sitting presidents for conduct preceding their time in office. While Mr. Trump has repeatedly challenged subpoenas with the claim that presidents enjoy broad immunity from criminal investigation, he will no longer have that tool after his term ends. And presidential pardon power – his own or that of future presidents – applies only to federal crimes, not state ones. 

Vance hasn't said if he'll seek reelection and his office declined comment when asked by CBS News if he will. He has not participated in candidate forums, has updated his campaign website just once in the last year, with no posts during that time to its Facebook page, and has done very little fundraising, pulling in just $3,601 in the first half of this year, according to campaign finance disclosures. He raised millions for previous elections.

Vance has faced withering criticism of his initial handling of allegations against high-profile figures, including members of the Trump family in a potential fraud case in 2012 involving a New York hotel; Harvey Weinstein; Jeffrey Epstein; and gynecologist Robert Hadden, who in 2016 agreed to a no-jail plea deal with Vance's office on three sexual misconduct charges, but has since been accused of sexually assaulting dozens of patients, including Evelyn Yang, whose husband Andrew sought the Democratic nomination for president.

Meanwhile, at least nine challengers, all Democrats, have entered the race, an election whose winner may immediately be thrust to the center of one of the most scrutinized legal cases in American history. 

The candidates have little to lose in promising to be tough on Mr. Trump, who is particularly unpopular in Manhattan, where he received just 14% of the vote on November 3. Democrats have occupied the Manhattan District Attorney's Office uninterrupted since 1942, which means even if the Republican Party fields a candidate — itself a rarity — the winner of the June 22, 2021 Democratic primary is all but assured of being the next district attorney. 

Where the Manhattan DA candidates stand

CBS News asked those nine candidates for their thoughts on the case. They each stressed their bona fides for handling what could be the tax fraud trial of the century — an unprecedented prosecution of an ex-president — while many carefully avoided speculation on what the grand jury might ultimately find.

Tax fraud trials are often dry, tiresome affairs, so tedious that prosecutors have to contend with jurors who can't stay awake. But a case of this magnitude, with a defendant like Mr. Trump, would be anything but dull, said one candidate, Tali Farhadian Weinstein.

"I've done tax evasion cases as a federal prosecutor and one of the things the prosecutors sometimes worry about bringing tax cases is that they're boring. You literally will have jurors falling asleep as you're trying to explain what happened. But if this were to develop into a prosecution, I think it would probably be safe to say that people would be paying attention," said Farhadian Weinstein, who previously worked for the U.S. Department of Justice and the Brooklyn District Attorney's Office.

Another candidate, former New York State Deputy Attorney General Alvin Bragg, was involved in the civil lawsuits against the Trump Foundation, which accused the president and his children of using the nonprofit as a "personal checkbook," and the now-shuttered Trump University, which claimed the school used illegal business practices and made false claims to potential students. In a settlement with the office, the Trump Foundation agreed to shut down and distribute its assets to court-approved charities. A judge in the case also ordered Mr. Trump to personally pay $2 million for distribution to the charities. In a $25 million settlement, Trump University agreed to pay restitution to former students.

"I would emphasize that I have the know-how to do it. I've handled tax fraud cases. I've had mortgage fraud cases. I handled public corruption cases, spanning from bribery to government procurement fraud," Bragg said. "I want to emphasize and underscore the significance of the conduct, and my professional ability and experience doing that type of investigation."

Of the three candidates for whom campaign finance data is available, Bragg leads in early fundraising. He raised more than $309,000 in the first half of 2020.

The candidates all agreed that the pursuit of a criminal case against Mr. Trump, should the grand jury recommend charges, would be important for the reputation of an office many said was tarnished by allegations that it previously let the wealthy and powerful off the hook. 

Vance's office initially began its investigation into Mr. Trump's taxes in August 2018, but stood down to avoid overstepping a federal investigation into allegations of campaign finance violations that was underway. The office relaunched the investigation in July 2019 after learning the federal investigation had concluded, according to a Supreme Court filing. 

Vance's office declined to comment when sent questions about the candidates' criticisms.

Manhattan public defender and DA candidate Eliza Orlins claims Vance's office wouldn't have hesitated to pursue charges against less powerful defendants faced with the same evidence.

"It's kind of a signature of the Vance administration, if you look at the recorded evidence you had in the Weinstein case, for example, and the fact that they declined to prosecute that case. Now I can tell you exactly what kinds of cases they were prosecuting at that exact same time, because I've spent my entire career as a public defender going up against the Manhattan district attorney's office," said Orlins, who previously was a contestant on two CBS reality shows, "Survivor" and "The Amazing Race."

Orlins is already campaigning on the prospect of prosecuting Mr. Trump: On Tuesday, she tweeted, "A friendly reminder from your future Manhattan DA: Presidents can't pardon themselves for New York State crimes."

Several candidates commended the current investigation into Mr. Trump, while saying it should have come sooner. 

"Those who have the power that Trump had, even before he was president, are not above the law and they need to be held accountable for their actions. The current district attorney had an opportunity to make that message very clear before Trump ever ran for office. And I think that's something that should not be swept under the rug," said candidate Tahanie Aboushi, a private attorney who is a board member of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

Former assistant district attorney Lucy Lang tweeted on November 9 that Mr. Trump's electoral defeat shouldn't mean an end to investigations started during his presidency.

"Today I called for the #ManhattanDA investigations into Donald Trump to continue. Immunity is not a consolation prize to losing an election, and no one is above the law. We can't allow Donald Trump's failed presidential campaign to absolve him of responsibility," tweeted Lang, who until recently was director of the Institute for Innovation in Prosecution at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

Lang said if she wins she won't take meetings with high-priced attorneys who have clients under investigation — something for which Vance has been widely criticized. 

"I am the only candidate who has an equal access policy that I had from Day One of my campaign. It makes it very clear that no matter who someone is, or who their lawyer is, there will be no backroom meetings in which well-heeled lawyers get to meet with the district attorney or members of senior staff," Lang said.

The candidates said a commitment to prosecuting the powerful goes hand-in-hand with a focus on criminal justice reform. They're unanimous in saying that it reinforces a message that if they're elected the Manhattan District Attorney's Office won't be focused on jailing people who lack the resources to contest their cases.

"We need to prioritize going after what I call crimes of power, because not only does it hold the powerful accountable in the short term, but it also refills our tax coffers. When white collar and complicated corporate crime is committed, it effectively denies everyday New Yorkers our tax dollars, which can go to making our schools better, making the subways run faster," said Diana Florence, a former prosecutor with the Manhattan District Attorney's Office.

Assemblyman Dan Quart was among several who said an investigation of Mr. Trump was important to show that "the rule of law" could be evenly applied.

"If there is evidence a serious crime has been committed, we will prosecute. That is true for the President as much as it's true for anyone else," Quart said in a statement to CBS News.

In grand jury investigations, a prosecutor presents evidence and witnesses to a panel of civilians, who decide whether to indict suspects. The proceedings are secretive by law, and are rarely enmeshed in the kind of public litigation brought on by Mr. Trump's lawsuit against Vance. While most candidates declined to speculate on what, if any, charges might come from the grand jury investigation, Liz Crotty, a defense attorney and former Manhattan prosecutor, said that the public record shows a few obvious risks for Mr. Trump.

"He's looking at tax fraud, he's looking at grand larceny. I think he's looking at offering a false instrument for filing, that's the crime where you file false instruments, knowingly false instruments with a public office. ... Those I think would be the three big crimes that I would look at in terms of what the subpoena would be," said Crotty.

Former ACLU attorney Janos Marton said he wishes the Manhattan District Attorney's Office had convened its grand jury "a little bit earlier so that (Trump) might not have been as successful in running out the clock before the 2020 election, but what I think from everything I've read, the litigation's been going really well and eventually we will be able to bring Donald Trump to justice."

"It would be shocking to me if when an actual prosecutorial team can get into the records, they wouldn't find something problematic about his companies," Marton said. "I'm confident that given everything that we know about Donald Trump, it's likely that there's some illegal behavior that they've been masking for years."

Marc Mukasey, an attorney who represents Mr. Trump in his lawsuit against Vance, dismissed the candidates' comments as campaign rhetoric.

"The comments of candidates for any office are inherently political. My work is legal. I fight to the end for my clients no matter who occupies political office," Mukasey said.

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