The new season of The Trump Show starts now.
The Supreme Court, in an unsigned order, Monday allowed the Manhattan District Attorney to obtain Donald Trump’s tax returns and other financial documents for a grand jury investigation into hush-money payments, tax fraud, insurance fraud, and falsification of business records. Barring any post-final, final-final, but-really-final-this-time challenges from Trump’s lawyers, they could be turned over by his accountants, Mazars USA, this week.
And so it begins. Trump’s post-presidency promises to be a cascade of humiliating episodes: financial disclosures, embarrassing personal revelations, additionally damning evidence of conspiracy-mongering and insurrection-stoking, possibly even bankruptcy and criminal prosecution. Yes, maybe even jail time. Trump’s legal troubles will make Cersei’s walk of shame look like a warm Sunday in the park.
Just the Manhattan case, led by district attorney Cyrus Vance, raises a host of issues that could land Trump in hot water: fraudulent tax returns, doctored business records, and mismatches between those tax returns and documents that overvalued his business holdings in order to secure loans from Deutsche Bank. Vance has already deposed witnesses from Deutsche Bank and the Aon insurance company, and Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer, has testified under oath that Trump would manipulate his net worth upward to lenders (to get attention and perhaps to secure credit) and downward to the government (to avoid taxes). Vance’s response to the Supreme Court ruling was elegant in its brevity: “The work continues.”
Of course, Trump, like Cersei, won’t be easily defeated. If the Trump presidency has taught us nothing else, it is that reality does not matter to a reality television star—or to his fans. Trump will speak at the CPAC conference on Sunday, and his message, according to one senior aide, is “I’m still in charge” – if not of the country, then at least of the Republican Party.
Then again, Cersei said the same thing as dragons burned down her kingdom. At a certain point, reality defeats even the most ardent of reality-deniers – even Trump’s mentor, Roy Cohn, was finally taken down by AIDS, insisting on his deathbed that he was not gay and not dying of AIDS. He still died.
In this case, though, Trump might be right. After all, the damning details from Trump’s tax returns were already revealed in a New York Times investigation last fall. Everyone I know was outraged. But no one, it appears, changed their minds about whom to vote for. Perhaps the most truthful thing Donald Trump ever said was that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his fans would still support him.
Moreover, the public may still never see the tax returns. The context of today’s ruling is a grand jury investigation, and materials provided to a grand jury are kept secret. It’s quite possible, indeed likely, that this set of financial documents will remain under lock and key.
But, if I may, let me offer just a bit of non-cynicism here.
In Trump’s world, appearance is all that matters. It’s why he was such an effective politician. He knows how to read a crowd (or mob) and tell them what they want to hear, regardless of the truth. It’s why repeated instances of his stochastic terrorism were so effective, and why they warranted impeachment. From the “alternative facts” of the 2017 inauguration to the alternative reality of the 2020 election conspiracy theories, Trump proved that truth doesn’t matter when it comes to inciting a mob.
But he has lost, time and time again, in the courts. In fact, while many in my profession rightly bemoan the threats facing our democratic institutions, the courts, in particular, have endured fairly well. (Yes, they are now stacked with ultra-conservatives, but that trend is about to be reversed, and the stacking was done more or less according to the rule of law.)
Trump’s tax returns are a good example. Last Summer, the Supreme Court heard Trump’s primary challenge to releasing the returns: that sitting presidents need not comply with congressional subpoenas and grand jury investigations. That was a sweeping claim, and yet the Court rejected it decisively last July, by a vote of 7-2. Even Trump’s two appointees to the Court, Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, voted with the majority. Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito dissented.
There are many other court losses as well. Over 70 times, federal courts, including the Supreme Court, threw out Trump’s outrageous challenges to the election. The Supreme Court ruled against Trump edicts on the census, on DACA (the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) program, and on changes to administrative law that would have crippled the regulatory state.
Indeed, in addition to allowing the subpoena of Trump’s taxes, the Supreme Court on Monday dealt yet another posthumous death knell to Trump’s challenges to the election in Pennsylvania, dismissing them as moot. (Interestingly, Justice Thomas dissented from that decision, noting that while the specific challenge is moot, the broader challenge to the way Pennsylvania courts changed election rules in response to the pandemic remains live.)
The Court hasn’t always sided against Trump’s anti-reality, anti-law edicts; it upheld the “travel ban,” as well as attacks on voting rights and unions. But more often than not, when Trump’s fake reality collided with legal reality, it lost decisively.
So, while Trump takes some sort of Orwellian victory lap on Sunday – reports say he’s going to declare himself the “presumptive nominee” for 2024, likely to the cheers of the crowd – the bills are still coming due. Literally, in the form of bank loans, and figuratively, in the form of legal investigations on a host of matters, ranging from the tawdry to the treasonous. As John Lennon once sang after his main gig fell apart, “the dream is over.”
And often, reality bites.