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Explainer: Citizen Trump will face legal woes

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Since taking office in January 2017, President Donald Trump has been besieged by civil lawsuits and criminal investigations of his inner circle.

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump is reflected as he departs after speaking about the 2020 U.S. presidential election results in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., November 5, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

With Democrat Joe Biden capturing the presidency on Saturday, according to all major U.S. television networks, Trump’s legal woes are likely to deepen because in January he will lose the protections the U.S. legal system affords to a sitting president, former prosecutors said.

Here are some of the lawsuits and criminal probes that may haunt Trump as he leaves office.

A NEW YORK PROSECUTOR

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, who enforces New York state laws, has been conducting a criminal investigation into Trump and the Trump Organization for more than two years.

The probe originally focused on hush money payments that Trump’s former lawyer and self-described fixer Michael Cohen paid before the 2016 election to two women who said they had sexual encounters with Trump, which the president has denied.

Vance, a Democrat, has suggested in recent court filings that his probe is now broader and could focus on bank, tax and insurance fraud, as well as falsification of business records.

Republican Trump has called Vance’s case politically motivated harassment.

The case has drawn attention because of Vance’s efforts to obtain eight years of Trump’s tax returns. In July, the U.S. Supreme Court, denying Trump’s bid to keep the returns under wraps, said the president was not immune from state criminal probes while in office, but could raise other defenses to Vance’s subpoena.

Vance will likely ultimately prevail in obtaining Trump’s financial records, legal experts said.

The U.S. Justice Department has said a sitting president cannot be indicted. Vance is not bound by that policy because he is not a federal prosecutor, but he may still have been reluctant to charge Trump because of uncertainty over whether the case was constitutional, said Harry Sandick, a former prosecutor in New York.

“Those concerns will disappear when Trump leaves office,” Sandick said.

The investigation poses a threat to Trump, said Corey Brettschneider, a professor of political science at Brown University.

“The fact that they have issued the subpoenas and have litigated all the way to the Supreme Court suggests that this is a very serious criminal investigation of the president,” Brettschneider said.

Related Coverage

JUSTICE DEPARTMENT PROBE?

Trump could conceivably face a criminal prosecution brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, led by a new U.S. Attorney General.

Some legal experts have said Trump could face federal income tax evasion charges, pointing to a New York Times report that Trump paid $750 in federal income taxes in both 2016 and 2017.

“You’ve got the stuff that has come out of the New York Times that has all kind of indicia of tax fraud,” Nick Akerman, a lawyer at Dorsey & Whitney and a former federal prosecutor.

Akerman cautioned that it is not possible to know for certain until seeing all of the evidence.

Trump has rejected findings from the Times report, tweeting that he had paid many millions of dollars in taxes but was entitled to depreciation and tax credits.

Such a prosecution would be deeply controversial, and the Justice Department could decide charging Trump is not in the public interest even if there is evidence of criminal wrongdoing.

Biden has approached that question very carefully, saying he would not interfere with his Justice Department’s judgment.

Biden told National Public Radio in August that pursuing criminal charges against his predecessor would be “a very, very unusual thing and probably not very - how can I say it? - good for democracy.”

A lawyer for Trump did not return requests for comment.

NEW YORK CIVIL FRAUD INVESTIGATION

New York’s Attorney General, Letitia James, has an active tax fraud investigation into Trump and his family company, the Trump Organization.

The inquiry by James, a Democrat, began after Trump’s former lawyer Cohen told Congress the president inflated asset values to save money on loans and insurance and deflated them to reduce real estate taxes.

The Trump Organization has argued the case is politically motivated.

The inquiry is a civil investigation, meaning it could result in financial penalties but not jail time.

Trump’s son, Eric Trump, an executive vice president for the firm, was deposed in October because of what the attorney general described as his close involvement in one or more transactions being reviewed.

E. JEAN CARROLL

E. Jean Carroll, a former Elle magazine writer, sued Trump for defamation in 2019 after the president denied Carroll’s allegation that he raped her in the 1990s in a New York department store and accused her of lying to drum up sales for a book.

In August, a state judge allowed the case to go forward, meaning Carroll’s lawyers could seek a DNA sample from Trump to match against a dress she said she wore at the store.

A federal judge in Manhattan rejected a bid by the U.S. Justice Department to substitute the federal government for Trump as defendant in the case. U.S. District Judge Lewis Kaplan in Manhattan said that Trump did not make his statements about Carroll in the scope of his employment as president.

Barbara McQuade, a law professor at the University of Michigan, said she expected Biden’s Justice Department to abandon the effort to shield Trump from the case.

“It would seem unlikely for DOJ to continue to pursue what I see as a frivolous argument in a new administration,” said McQuade, a former federal prosecutor.

SUMMER ZERVOS

Trump also faces a lawsuit by Summer Zervos, a 2005 contestant on Trump’s reality television show “The Apprentice,” who says Trump kissed her against her will at a 2007 meeting and later groped her at a hotel.

After Trump called Zervos a liar, she sued him for defamation.

Trump said he is immune from the lawsuit because he is president.

The case here has been on hold while a New York state appeals court reviewed a March 2019 decision that Trump had to face the case while he is in office. Trump's immunity argument would no longer apply once he is out of office.

(This story refiles to insert first reference to New York department store, paragraph 32)

Reporting by Makini Brice and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Noeleen Walder and Grant McCool

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