In her press conference announcing a lawsuit against former President Donald Trump, the Trump Organization, executives of the business, and three out of four of Trump’s adult children, New York Attorney General Letitia James poetically characterized the massive allegations of fraud as telling “a tale of two justice systems. One for everyday working people and one for the elite, rich and powerful.” On the surface this may seem like the standard statement of a crusading prosecutor seeking to bring down an allegedly corrupt businessman, but it resonates more deeply than that and asks the troubling question of who really helped Trump perpetrate such alleged fraud?
The lawsuit, which requires 220 pages to detail the full alleged scheme, describes the fraud as “staggering,” with assets being overvalued by billions of dollars. For example, Trump’s current residence at Mar-a-Lago was claimed to be worth $739 million but James’ lawsuit alleges the true worth was only $75 million. A group of rent-stabilized apartments were valued at almost $50 million even though an outside expert had considered them to be only worth $750,000. And Trump’s easily measurable penthouse apartment was claimed to be 30,000 square feet when it supposedly measures only 10,000 square feet.
This enormous amount of financial detail that supports the lawsuit was obtained through years of hard-fought legal battles with Trump’s lawyers in New York state trial and appellate courts that included Trump being held in contempt for failing to turn over documents as well as the real estate firm of Cushman Wakefield being held in contempt before it turned over documents.
Cushman Wakefield appraised several of the Trump properties at issue in the lawsuit, including 40 Wall Street in Manhattan, Seven Springs Estate in Westchester County, New York, and the Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles.
The investigation also resulted in Trump’s accounting firm, Mazars, disavowing their work for him and instructing the business to inform anyone who may have relied on their work of the disavowal.
This is not the first time the New York Attorney General’s office has sued a Trump business over what appears in hindsight to be flagrant violations. In 2018, Trump’s nonprofit foundation was sued for violating nonprofit laws by being used for such purposes as settling legal claims, paying for a $10,000 portrait of Trump, and becoming an arm of Trump’s presidential campaign. As a result of the millions of dollars being improperly used, the nonprofit was dissolved and Trump and three of his children, Ivanka, Don Jr. and Eric, were all temporarily barred from serving on any New York state nonprofit.
So how does such a pattern manage to escape undetected for so many years on such a large scale? Part of the answer lay buried in one answer given by New York AG James during her press conference. Asked how such behavior could go on for decades and how the large institutions that Trump dealt with could be misled, James referenced the Mazars accounting firm, Cushman Wakefield—the real estate company—and Deutsche Bank, one of Trump’s favorite loan sources. About Mazars, James stated that Mazars has said they did not audit the financial statements prepared for Trump. Actions by Cushman Wakefield, according to James, were part of an ongoing investigation into Cushman Wakefield. And Deutsche Bank, per James, had been fully cooperative.
But such answers by James do not fully explain how possible fraud on this scale occurs and none of us should be satisfied with them even though they may be factually true. Institutions like Mazars, Cushman Wakefield, and Deutsche Bank are enormously powerful and sophisticated entities who did not amass their wealth by being naïve.
Indeed, among Trump’s likely legal defenses to the lawsuit will be that such institutions would not have relied merely upon financial statements – meaning that they were too smart to be defrauded and therefore he must not have engaged in fraud.
The three referenced businesses are representative of the numerous businesses that Trump dealt with over the years who all may have turned a blind eye to suspicious valuation and practices so long as they were making money with Trump. In that sense, and as Trump’s legal team will likely argue, they were hardly victims. All of them were the little piggy that went to market.
No, the real victims here are the everyday working people—us—that must play by different rules, the ones James said cannot lie to banks. Trump’s lawsuit and Trump himself should make us examine ourselves more deeply as well for the idea that “the world is divided into two groups: the common people and a privileged elite” is itself a “populist confection” and one that Trump utilizes extraordinarily well.
His appeal to so many plays upon what has been described as a “cult of democratic aspiration,” meaning he wears both the appearance of the common man and that of the privileged elite—a costume that allows him to be a stand-in for all those who yearn for what they don’t have.
As a young politician, Sarah Palin—no stranger to populist rhetoric—once recalled going to see Ivana Trump “because we are so desperate in Alaska for a semblance of glamour and culture.” A bit of Palin’s vision of Alaska is in all of us and that envy and longing is what we must guard against in ourselves to accurately see through the mirages created by great wealth and privilege.