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What Trump's business history can tell us about his criminal indictment

ADRIAN FLORIDO, HOST:

We don't yet know the specific charges filed against former President Donald Trump in Manhattan, but the part we do know - that his company went to some lengths to cover up a hush money payment - is echoed in other parts of Trump's business history. NPR's Andrea Bernstein wrote about this business history in her book "American Oligarchs: The Kushners, The Trumps, And The Marriage Of Money And Power." And she is with us now. Hi, Andrea.

ANDREA BERNSTEIN: Hey - great to join you.

FLORIDO: Let's start with the current indictment. What do we know about what's in it?

BERNSTEIN: So the indictment has not yet been unsealed. And typically, this does not happen until a defendant faces a judge. For Trump, it's scheduled for Tuesday at 2:15 p.m. We do know that Trump has been under investigation for falsifying business records, which is an E felony in New York. And specifically, we know that Trump's attorney at the time, Michael Cohen, personally paid a hush money payment to adult film star Stormy Daniels in the final days of the 2016 campaign. We know this in part because Cohen himself explained the whole scheme to Congress in 2019, and he had the receipts.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MICHAEL COHEN: I am providing a copy of a $35,000 check that President Trump personally signed from his personal bank account on August 1 of 2017, when he was president of the United States, pursuant to the cover-up, which was the basis of my guilty plea, to reimburse me - the word used by Mr. Trump's TV lawyer - for the illegal hush money I paid on his behalf.

BERNSTEIN: There is more. Cohen told Congress and the DA's office that he discussed the payments with Trump shortly after he was elected president in the White House.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

COHEN: And it's truly awe-inspiring. He's showing me all around and pointing to different paintings, and he says to me something to the effect of, don't worry, Michael. Your January and February reimbursement checks are coming. They were FedExed from New York. And it takes a while for that to get through the White House system.

FLORIDO: Andrea, so those January and February checks were to pay Cohen back for the hush money. That is the alleged falsification of business records here.

BERNSTEIN: Correct. And this is allegedly a pattern for Donald Trump. His company was just convicted last December in New York for multiple counts of felony fraud, for lying to tax authorities. Or take another case - in New York, a $250 million civil case brought by the attorney general, Letitia James, that is set to go to trial in the fall of 2023. She has presented evidence that Trump and his family over the course of years kept lying about the value of their assets. Like, when Trump wanted to get a loan, he allegedly boasted that his triplex in Trump Tower was three times as big as it was, worth hundreds of millions of dollars more. And then when he had to pay taxes, he would undervalue his properties to pay less, according to the AG.

FLORIDO: So this isn't new for Trump's company, then, is it?

BERNSTEIN: Nope. And it goes all the way back to Donald Trump's father, Fred Trump, who - in the 1950s, Fred was subpoenaed by the Senate Banking Committee to talk about business records he kept when he wanted to get federal loans. For example, when it came to a parcel of land by the beach in Brooklyn, Fred Trump told tax authorities it was worth $180,000. But when he wanted to get a federal loan, he said it was worth almost 10 times that amount. A decade later, Fred Trump was investigated for something similar. It was referred to the Brooklyn DA, but it went nowhere. And as one investigator acknowledged at the time, these people are untouchable.

FLORIDO: Well, like his father, Donald Trump has remained untouchable until now despite many investigations. How has he managed to pull that off?

BERNSTEIN: So sometimes it's been a charm offensive. Sometimes it's meant cozying up to prosecutors and judges, and sometimes it's meant bullying. So, for example, in the early 1970s, Donald Trump was investigated by federal prosecutors for his role in a land deal. And he charmed the FBI agents who were investigating it by inviting them down to his office, where his then-wife Ivana and toddler son Don Jr. were playing. The Trump business was investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for racial discrimination in the early 1970s, and Donald Trump, at the instructions of his lawyer Roy Cohn, told them to go to hell. That case was settled without any admission of guilt. Also, over the years, Trump has been very generous to prosecutors. He gave them campaign contributions. He took them to lunch. He donated to their favorite charities. He invited them to their - his daughter's wedding. And for five decades as a New York and New Jersey businessman, he was never charged with a crime until now.

FLORIDO: So let's talk about that. How has it finally caught up with him?

BERNSTEIN: So it might not have had he not stopped paying Michael Cohen's lawyers back in 2018 and started calling him a, quote, "rat." Cohen, as we just heard, just pleaded guilty or pleaded guilty in 2018. And he said at his sentencing that he was committed to, quote, "ensuring that history will not remember me as the villain in this story." Donald Trump has denied any wrongdoing, and, of course, he is innocent until proven guilty.

FLORIDO: What are you watching for next, Andrea?

BERNSTEIN: So next week there will be an unprecedented arraignment in Manhattan. We are looking at Donald Trump coming in, getting fingerprinted, walking down a long hallway in the New York City Criminal Courts building, which really has seen better years - it is a far cry from Trump Tower - and then appearing before a judge to hear the charges read and to enter his plea. After that, he is expected to - if past is prologue, to - his lawyers will be appealing this as much as they can. They've already said very clearly they think this is a weak case without really even seeing what the case is. But we expect them to appeal. We expect them to try to delay if past is prologue. Congress has gotten involved and says it will investigate this. And there's a campaign coming up to fit all of this into.

FLORIDO: Thank you so much. NPR's Andrea Bernstein.

BERNSTEIN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Andrea Bernstein