What Donald Trump Criminal Probe Grand Jury Means for Former President

Manhattan's district attorney has convened a grand jury to consider evidence in a criminal investigation into former President Donald Trump's business dealings. The panel is expected to decide whether to indict the former Republican president, other executives at his company or his business, the Trump Organization.

Cyrus Vance Jr., the Manhattan district attorney, is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into a variety of matters including hush-money payments made on Trump's behalf, as well as whether the Trump Organization misreported the value of its New York properties for financial gain. The organization may also have illegally compensated employees in ways meant to avoid taxes.

In February, the Supreme Court rejected Trump's attempt to block Vance from viewing eight years of his tax returns. The former president has previously made several legal attempts to keep his tax history hidden.

Vance's grand jury has been working through the COVID-19 pandemic to issue subpoenas and obtain documents. The jury is examining Trump's relationship with his financial lenders; a land donation he made to qualify for an income tax break, and tax write-offs his company claimed on millions of dollars in consulting fees it paid.

In a statement on Tuesday, Trump called the seating of the grand jury "a continuation of the greatest Witch Hunt in American history."

"This is purely political, and an affront to the almost 75 million voters who supported me in the Presidential Election, and it's being driven by highly partisan Democrat prosecutors," Trump said. "Our Country is broken, our elections are rigged, corrupt, and stolen, our prosecutors are politicized, and I will just have to keep on fighting like I have been for the last five years!"

What the Grand Jury Could Mean For Trump

The move to convene a grand jury signals that New York prosecutors are moving to seek criminal charges as a result of its two-year investigation into Trump. Although it suggests that Vance believes there is sufficient evidence of a crime, it is unclear whether Trump, his business or his associates are implicated. Or all or none of them.

Trump has never been criminally charged, and no former U.S. head of state has been either.

The Washington Post reported on Wednesday that Vance's panel was convened "recently" and will sit three days a week for six months. Citing sources, the newspaper said that it was likely the secretive proceeding had already begun.

Trump's longtime lawyer Michael Cohen is a key person in the two investigations into the former president's business practices in New York, which seem to be converging. Once a dogged loyalist to the president, Cohen turned on Trump in November 2018 after he pleaded guilty to making hush-money payoffs on Trump's behalf to women who said they had had affairs with the president years before. Trump denies he made those payments. His former lawyer also pleaded guilty to lying to Congress. After Cohen's plea, Vance's criminal investigation began, and it soon expanded to look into the former president's tax records.

Separately, Democrat New York Attorney General Letitia James began a civil investigation of the Trump Organization in 2019 triggered by Cohen's testimony to Congress, where he alleged Trump had misled lenders and tax authorities with manipulated asset valuations.

James's office told CNN last week that her civil investigation had broadened to also be a criminal one. Her office did not explain her reason for this, but reports indicate that James and Vance's team are now working together. Two lawyers from James' office have been told to join Vance's team after the attorney general's civil investigation developed some evidence suggesting a possible crime, NBC News reported, citing an official familiar with the matter. Both teams of investigators have sought documents related to a Trump estate in suburban New York, The Washington Post reported, citing court records and a source familiar with the matter.

Dennis Vacco, a former New York attorney general, told Newsweek that the grand jury has power to indict, fail to indict or issue a report without filing charges.

Vacco warned it should not be assumed that an indictment will be issued against anyone, let alone Trump.

"Along those lines, one should wonder why Cy Vance didn't review the same circumstances before Donald Trump was elected President or why did he wait until 2020 to initiate his probe. Nonetheless, the commencement of the grand jury proceeding can mean that they have assembled sufficient evidence to file charges, but only a grand jury can bring an indictment or this step might signal that the DA's (District Attorney's) office still needs additional evidence and therefore must turn to the power of the grand jury to compel the production of evidence," Vacco said.

Vacco added that he expects any eventual charges to be "vigorously challenged."

"Furthermore, the presumption of innocence cloaks any accused even as a grand jury is reviewing evidence and issuing an indictment. An indictment is not evidence and the burden of proving the charges in an indictment falls squarely on the DA's shoulders," he added. "The empaneling of a grand jury is just the first step in what will be a complicated legal battle, if an indictment is forthcoming."

Newsweek has contacted Trump's teams to comment on the investigation. Vance's team declined to comment.

Donald Trump steps out of Trump Tower
Former U.S. President Donald Trump leaves Trump Tower in Manhattan on May 18, 2021 in New York City. Manhattan’s district attorney has convened a grand jury to consider evidence in a criminal investigation into former U.S. president's business dealings. James Devaney/GC Images