Clip: Can Trump survive investigations as legal trouble accumulates?

Sep. 23, 2022 AT 5:28 p.m. EDT

Former President Donald Trump had to endure a week of legal blows. The New York attorney general announced the state is suing Trump and his children for fraud, an appeals court ruled the Justice Department can resume reviewing classified documents seized from his home and the special master appointed to review the files gave Trump a deadline to back up his claim that the FBI planted evidence.

Get Washington Week in your inbox


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Yamiche Alcindor : This week, former President Donald Trump had to endure a number of legal challenges. On Wednesday, New York Attorney General Letitia James announced the state is suing the former president and his three eldest children for fraud. The civil lawsuit alleges Trump and senior management at the Trump Organization fraudulently inflated the value of his real estate assets for financial benefit.

The A.G.'s office is requesting that Trump, Don Jr., Eric, and Ivanka all be barred from borrowing money or conducting business in the state. They would also have to pay back the $250 million they allegedly obtained illegally. James also warned her investigation may lead to criminal charges for the former president.

Letitia James : We believe the conduct alleged in this action also violates federal criminal law, including issuing false statements to financial institutions and bank fraud. And we are referring those criminal violations that we have uncovered to the United States attorney for the Southern District of New York and the Internal Revenue Service.

Yamiche Alcindor : In an interview with FOX News, former President Trump responded to the charges.

Donald Trump : She campaigned on it four years ago. It was a vicious campaign. And she just talked about Trump and we're going to indict him, we're going to get him.

This was just a continuation of a witch-hunt that began when I came down the escalator at Trump Tower.

Yamiche Alcindor : And also on Wednesday, an appeals court ruled the Justice Department can resume reviewing classified documents seized from Trump's Mar-a-Lago home.

This all comes as a special master appointed to review the files has given Trump until next Friday to back up his claims that he declassified the documents and that the FBI planted evidence in the search.

Joining me to discuss this and more, Peter Baker, the chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and co-author of the new book "The Divider," Hugo Lowell, a congressional reporter for The Guardian, and Vivian Salama, national security reporter for The Wall Street Journal. And joining me here in studio, just the two of us, Nancy Cordes, the chief White House correspondent for CBS News.

So, thank you all for being here you go.

Hugo, it's your first time on "Washington Week," so I'm going to start with you, also, of course, because of your expertise on all of these legal challenges.

When you look at the problems that -- the legal problems that former President Trump is facing, just looking at this week, what do you think are possibly the most serious right now and in the long term?

Hugo Lowell, Congressional Reporter, The Guardian : I mean, the two charges, the potential charges that came up this week, I think, are really significant, both the New York state A.G. civil suit, but also the DOJ's criminal investigation into his mishandling of classified documents which were kind of stashed around at Mar-a-Lago.

I think they're both equally quite potent. I mean, if you look at the state A.G. suit, that would really end the Trump Organization in its current form, right? I mean, it would permanently bar Trump and his adult children from holding executive office in any company in New York. And that would basically end the family real estate empire.

And, of course, now that there's a referral to the Southern District of New York, there's potential federal charges. But the fact that the DOJ has now regained access to those 100 documents marked classified in that Mar-a-Lago investigation is also really significant, because that's the primary evidence when they're investigating the potential willful retention of national defense information and the obstruction of justice charges that are really on Trump's doorstep now.

And I think the combination of those two really were a double whammy for him this week.

Yamiche Alcindor : There's -- that is definitely a double whammy.

And, Peter, I want to come to you. First, congratulations on your new book with your wife, Susan.

In your book "The Divider," you conclude that Trump -- quote -- "emerged from a seven-million vote defeat, two impeachments, and the January 6 insurrection as the dominant force in the Republican Party."

When you look at all of the reporting that you did on how Trump operates, how does that connect to the legal challenges that he's facing right now, and the fact that he's accused of fraud and of, of course, allegedly unfairly and illegally taking these classified documents to his home?

Peter Baker, White House Correspondent, The New York Times : Yes, it's rather extraordinary, right, that, through all these troubles, he actually seems to be perfectly healthy within the Republican Party, that he still has such a strong base there.

Look, what's really interesting, in the through line in our book "The Divider," what we saw again and again was a president who tried to bend reality to shape what he wanted it to be, right?

And this is the heart of what Letitia James is accusing him of in these -- in this lawsuit, that, basically, he makes up facts to suit whatever his interests are at the moment. I want to sell -- you think my apartment is only 10,000 square feet? I'm telling you, it's 30,000 square feet. You think it's only worth X? I'm going to tell you, it's worth 10 times that.

Whatever facts he tried to put into the public space he insists are really and he insists that people bend to his desires. We saw that in his presidency, from day one, when he told us there were larger crowd sizes at his inauguration than ever in history, which wasn't true, all the way to the end, when he told us the election was stolen, which also wasn't true.

So, this is a through line, I think. But you're right. He continues to be very strong among Republicans, maybe not quite as strong as he was. There may be some fatigue factor setting in. And it depends on where these investigations go. But what he has done successfully -- this is why we called the book "The Divider" -- is to make this about dividing the country, by telling his base they're out to get me because they're out to get you.

That's been his successful approach now for five, six years.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, Hugo, I want to come back to you when you're -- when we're thinking of -- Peter's laying out sort of the approach that Trump has.

There -- it's a two-part question about the future. One, if Letitia James is successful, can't he just move his businesses to Florida? And then how important is the criminal referral that she's talking about, even if he can move his businesses?

Hugo Lowell : Well, he can try move his businesses.

I think the -- I think what Letitia James was saying at her press conference, and kind of we spoke to her team afterwards, is that, certainly, his business empire in New York would be at an end. And he can still move his businesses to Florida, but he wouldn't be able to do any sort of business dealings in New York. He still couldn't get any commercial real estate.

If he wanted to have an outpost there, he couldn't get any sort of loans. But I think the fact that that referral has gone out to the Southern District kind of complicates things, even if he wanted to move to somewhere like Florida, because then he has to answer kind of federal charges if Bragg's office decides to investigate.

I mean, bank fraud is the referral that's been made to the Southern District of New York. That's really serious. I mean, that's a potential 30-year -- maximum 30-year jail sentence if he's convicted on something like that. And as kind of Peter mentions, the 11,000 to 30,000 square feet, that gaps in valuations, I mean, either your apartment is 11,000 square feet or it's 30,000 square feet. It's one or the other.

And if you're using that to make material misrepresentations to financial institutions, I mean, that's as clear-cut as it gets. And I think that's what's going to kind of cause him problems down the line.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, Nancy, talking about sort of former President Trump, we have to talk about his response.

He went on FOX News, but he also went online and wrote this about New York Attorney General Letitia James. He said: "Another witch-hunt by a racist attorney general. She's a fraud who campaigned on a get-Trump platform" -- end quote.

What do you make of Trump's response, given sort of what we know about who he is and what -- how serious these legal challenges are?

Nancy Cordes, CBS News Chief White House Correspondent : Well, I mean, some of the claims are laughable, right?

The fact that he can declassify documents with his mind, it's obviously not true. But it speaks, Democrats would say, to the increasing desperation of a man who is kind of running out of excuses, and certainly is running right up against the special master, who his team asked for, who is asking very basic questions, like, did you declassify these documents? Who saw you declassify them? When did you declassify them? What process did you go through?

And his legal team is not providing answers. This is all bumping up, of course, against the reality of a midterm election and a former president who is suddenly becoming a much bigger issue in that midterm election than a lot of Republicans would have hoped.

Yes, as Peter pointed out, he's got his stalwart supporters who are going to be with him no matter what. But he is a turnoff to independents. And what is happening for him, not just in Florida, but now in New York and all the legal challenges he's facing, are propelling him into the spotlight at a time when Republicans would vastly prefer for the economy to be the spotlight in the midterm elections, particularly with some of the big drops in the stock market that we saw this week.

Yamiche Alcindor Certainly.

And, Vivian, to get at, of course, now the Justice Department case that you have been covering very closely, the Justice Department won some big wins this week. You have them winning the appeal. You also have a lower court now amending the appointment of the special master, saying -- taking out the classified documents.

What is the sort of significance of these developments, these legal blows, as we put it, for former President Trump?

Vivian Salama, The Wall Street Journal : Well, they're obviously very significant, in the fact that the Justice Department can now continue its investigation without having to worry, A, about someone who is not legitimately qualified to be looking at such highly classified documents, to be looking at them specifically, the Trump team lawyers.

They were saying that even some officials at DOJ have not even gotten the proper classification that's needed, the proper -- the proper classification that they need to be able to look at those documents. And so it is a really intricate process that obviously goes to the heart of grave national security interests, according to the Department of Justice.

And so that is obviously a win for them. But, more broadly, it's interesting to see that the federal courts are essentially going and saying that this is a matter that cannot continue, as far as the president going on and saying that he has declassified something at whim.

Obviously, there are very technical issues that the president has been citing as far as his ability to declassify. And this is something that the Biden administration is definitely going to be looking at in the coming months, because presidents do have a lot of discretion when it comes to declassification.

But, at the end of the day, the U.S. Court of Appeals, the 11th Circuit, said, you know what? Prove it. You have to prove that you did something to declassify this. You can't just go out there and say: I declassified all of this.

One last point, Yamiche. Remember that all of this was brought on by the former president himself. None of these issues would have come to light. The DOJ would have prevented a lot of these details from coming to light and going into the public had President Trump not actually gone after them and sued following the search of Mar-a-Lago.

And, so, so many of these details that we now know are coming and being exposed to the public only because of that lawsuit and because of the fact that there was so much political tension around this particular case.

Nancy Cordes : Yes. Yes.

Vivian Salama : And so then we're seeing it litigated in public.

Yamiche Alcindor : Nancy, you wanted to...

Nancy Cordes : And I think it's really important, in addition to what Vivian is saying, to point out that, even if he were able to produce some kind of proof that he had declassified these documents, that doesn't put him outside the realm of legal jeopardy...

Yamiche Alcindor : Yes.

Nancy Cordes : ... because that still doesn't explain why he had these documents that were the property of the U.S. government that both DOJ and the National Archives had asked for, for nearly a year.

It doesn't explain why they were sort of in boxes unsecured at Mar-a-Lago...

Yamiche Alcindor : Yes.

Nancy Cordes : ... a place that a lot of people had access to.

Yamiche Alcindor : And, Peter, there's a lot of discretion, as Vivian put it, in terms of classification and what the president could do.

But you have covered a number of administrations, so I just have to ask you, can presidents declassify documents by thinking about them?

Peter Baker : Yes, that's the well-known mental telepathy exception to the classification rules. Yes.

No, obviously not. A president obviously does have vast powers, as the chief executive, in terms of classification, no question. But I think that Nancy's point is exactly right. In some ways, this is a red herring. Obviously, it's important, the classification level of these documents. It's important the special master now is challenging President Trump to put up or shut up when he says he declassified it.

But it does not get him off the hook. He does not own these documents, whether they're classified or not. He was not entitled to them. And he was not entitled to tell the government that he didn't have them...

Yamiche Alcindor : Yes.

Peter Baker : ... which what he did, two lawyers who signed a statement to that -- to that effect.

That brings the issue of obstruction to the core, which is not just about classification. And I think we ought to not forget that.

Yamiche Alcindor : Well, Hugo, we also should not forget, to Peter's point, the fact that this is moving pretty quickly.

There are so many people who were saying that Trump was trying to delay this process. And now there's a special master who is setting deadlines aggressively. What do you make of the timeline here and also the idea that Trump is being asked to provide real evidence to his claims?

Hugo Lowell : Look, I mean, Trump went and tried to get a special master because he thought, in part, it could kind of slow down this investigation.

I mean, if you talk to people close to the former president, a lot of his advisers and aides were quite worried about perilously fast that criminal investigation seemed to be moving. I mean, certainly, the lawyers were taken by surprise when Mar-a-Lago got searched. And in kind of the immediate aftermath, they were kind of searching around for -- if they could get any insight into what DOJ had and where they were going next.

And that was kind of what birthed this whole special master request several weeks late. And the fact of the matter is, he tried to delay it. But then this 11th Circuit Court ruling has kind of upended all of that. He and his lawyers were hoping that, if the 100 classified documents remained in the play with the special master, then that could take weeks to resolve, right, because then the lawyers need potential security clearances

There needs to be a way to kind of handle them that the special master can see them. And the Trump lawyers have to be able to see them. And so they were hoping that could remain in play, and this could be stretched on for weeks, if not months.

And the fact that the 11th Circuit has now taken these out means the extent of the delay that Trump has been able to get has amounted to nothing more than 2.5 weeks, right? I mean, now the DOJ can resume that investigation. And that's really significant.

I mean, two weeks is nothing. I mean, I spoke to a couple of former U.S. attorneys, and they say kind of the length of time it would take to screw up an investigation of this nature is probably several months. Two weeks just is not going to cut it. And the fact of the matter is, now he's going to have to, as you say, go before a -- before the court and say whether or not he actually declassified them, and if he can bring any evidence that the FBI planted those materials, as he's claiming in public.

And my understanding is that he probably can't.

Yamiche Alcindor : Well, it's a lot to watch. We're definitely going to be seeing what evidence, if any, they can bring forward.

Thank you, Hugo, for sharing your reporting. And thanks for coming on for the first time. We're definitely going to have you back on WASHINGTON WEEK.


Support our journalism

Washington Week Logo

© 1996 - 2024 WETA. All Rights Reserved.

PBS is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization

Support our journalism


Contact: Kathy Connolly,

Vice President Major and Planned Giving or 703-998-2064