Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance is not expected to run for reelection, and with 10 months left in his third term, all eyes are on the New York Democrat and who will be elected to succeed him — adding another wrench in an unprecedented investigation.
One question that is being openly discussed among lawyers is whether Vance will move quickly and decide to charge a crime or close the investigation before he leaves office — or if he will leave those decisions to his successor.
“It’s likely that the case, if it is charged, would be charged before Vance leaves office,” says Anne Milgram, a former attorney general for New Jersey and former federal prosecutor. “That’s because that’s 10 months away — which is a long time in a criminal investigation — and because the DA’s office had previously noted that there were statute of limitations timing issues,” she said.
Vance’s team of prosecutors has been investigating the Trump Organization for more than two years and on Monday received a significant boost to the inquiry after the Supreme Court paved the way for investigators to receive tax returns, financial statements and other records from Trump’s long-time accountant, Mazars.
The DA received the records on Monday, the office confirmed, and sources say there are millions of pages of documents to analyze.
“I think Cy is a serious person who cares about getting this right — this is going to be an important part of his legacy at the office,” said Eric Soufer, a former senior counsel at the New York Attorney General’s office who is now at Tusk Strategies.
There are eight Democratic candidates competing in a June primary to succeed Vance — and the winner in Democratic-heavy Manhattan would likely win the race in the November general election.
The field of contenders is diverse and includes former prosecutors, a public defender who competed on the reality TV series Survivor, a civil rights attorney and a New York State Assemblyman.
They have been outspoken about criminal justice reform, overhauling the sex crimes unit and holding powerful people accountable, but the Trump investigation could hijack the race in a city that is decidedly against him.
“A race that can — on the one hand can be very focused, justly so, on criminal justice reform — all of a sudden begins to become a little bit more a more a referendum on how qualified are you to prosecute Donald Trump,” said Soufer.
Who could take over the investigation?
If the decision to charge the case falls to his successor, it will be a potentially thorny issue that he or she will have to tackle out of the gate.
Alvin Bragg, a former federal prosecutor in Manhattan US Attorney’s Office public corruption unit and chief deputy attorney general at the New York Attorney General’s Office, has wrangled with Trump world before.
At the AG’s office, he oversaw more than 100 suits against Trump administration policies from the travel ban to DACA, as well as the office’s suit against the Trump Foundation, which alleged that Trump, his children Eric, Donald Jr. and Ivanka, violated state charity and campaign finance rules and “was little more than a checkbook to serve Mr. Trump’s business and political interests,” according to the suit.
Trump was ordered to pay $2 million and the foundation agreed to dissolve as part of a settlement, which Trump reacted to by saying, “The New York Attorney General is deliberately mischaracterizing this settlement for political purposes.”
On the Manhattan DA’s criminal probe, Bragg said he could not comment specifically on what he’d do with the investigation, but said he’s “gone where the facts were taking me for 20 plus years.”
“We know what’s been reported,” he said. “But we don’t know the steps the office has taken in any complete measure so I wouldn’t want to make any assumptions.”
Others have been more vocal. Lucy Lang, who was a prosecutor at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for 12 years and left in 2018, called for Vance’s investigation into Trump to continue in December, saying “immunity is not a consolation prize to losing an election.”
“There have been a number of high-profile instances that give the appearance that there was some kind of special access. The next DA has to ensure that New Yorkers know that the powerful and well-connected are held to the same standards of justice,” Lang told CNN.
One of Lang’s advisers is Peirce Moser, a former prosecutor who led the office’s investigation into Trump Soho before it was dropped. Lang, who was not involved in the Trump SoHo investigation, would not comment on whether she would re-open it, if she won.
On the criticism, Vance has said, “At the end of the day, we operate in the courtroom of the law, not the courtroom of public opinion.”
Following the evidence
One thing several candidates can agree on is whoever takes over for Vance should have a strong understanding of complex investigations.
Diana Florence, who was at the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office for 25 years, says she wants to prioritize going after “crimes of power, not crimes of poverty” but wouldn’t go into detail about the Trump investigation.
“These cases never start the way they end, you always have to follow the evidence,” Florence told CNN.
Tali Farhadian Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor and more recently general counsel at the Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, says she’ll commit to holding anyone who violated laws accountable, even Trump, but she would approach those investigations with “an open mind.”
“Just to absolutely be clear, prosecuting Trump in the Manhattan DA office is not about politics. It’s not about holding him to account for what kind of president he was. Or what kind of policies he tried to put into the world,” Weinstein told CNN. “The question there is, did he violate the laws, or his associates … did they violate the laws of the state of New York and harm New Yorkers?”
Manhattan public defender Eliza Orlins — who was also on the Survivor series — has been tweeting about Trump since the election, including in December saying, “Presidents can’t pardon ANYONE for New York State crimes.”
“There’s nothing that I won’t look into, because I think that holding people who are rich and powerful and just think they can exert that power and wealth, to not be held accountable is, you know, simply unacceptable,” Orlins told CNN.
Civil rights attorney Tahani Aboushi rushed to JFK Airport in the wake of Trump’s travel ban where she spent days helping travelers, many of them detained, who were unaware of the new policy. “It was chaos,” Aboushi told CNN. “People were petrified.”
Yet, Aboushi says she wants to remain neutral when it comes to discussing the ongoing Trump probe, emphasizing that she would address investigations that have gone through the office.
“I think what people are hoping for with the response to Trump is, will the powerful and privileged be subject to the very same system that the rest of us are processed through?” Aboushi said. “And that’s what I commit to is not putting any badge or bank account above the law.”
Another candidate is Dan Quart, a tenants’ rights attorney and New York State assemblyman. Before he announced he was running for district attorney, he voted in favor of two bills in the state legislature that aimed to limit Trump’s authority while president: one was meant to weaken a president’s pardon power by closing a double jeopardy loophole in the state, and the other would allow the state to give Congress Trump’s tax returns.
He was also critical of Trump taking aim of whether he paid enough in taxes, after a 2018 New York Times report alleged Trump took part in “dubious tax schemes during the 1990s, including outright fraud.”
“For years, while millions of working people paid their fair share in taxes, Donald Trump was cheating the system, enriching himself and his family,” Quart told City and State in 2019. “The facts point to a consistent pattern of fraud and deception that warrants an investigation by the Manhattan DA.”
Now as a candidate in the race, Quart is more reserved about how he feels about the investigation.
“If there’s evidence of serious crime has been committed, I will prosecute, and that is true for former president as much as it’s true for anyone, for anyone else,” Quart told CNN.
For Liz Crotty, who spent six years at the Manhattan DA’s office, staying mum on the investigation into Trump Organization’s business dealings is what any candidate who is serious about taking over the office should do.
“I’m just gonna go with the party line (which) is that until I know the facts, I can’t commit to anything,” Crotty told CNN. “It’s the only responsible answer.”
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Liz Crotty’s professional experience. She never worked for Vance.