The Sovereign District Of New York

Trump can’t run the Mueller playbook on New York feds

Even as speculation mounts that special counsel Robert Mueller might be winding down his investigation, a parallel threat to President Donald Trump only seems to be growing within his own Justice Department: the Southern District of New York.

Manhattan-based federal prosecutors can challenge Trump in ways Mueller can’t. They have jurisdiction over the president’s political operation and businesses — subjects that aren’t protected by executive privilege, a tool Trump is considering invoking to block portions of Mueller’s report. From a PR perspective, Trump has been unable to run the same playbook on SDNY that he’s used to erode conservatives’ faith in Mueller, the former George W. Bush-appointed FBI director. Legal circles are also buzzing over whether SDNY might buck DOJ guidance and seek to indict a sitting president.

The threat was highlighted when SDNY prosecutors ordered officials from Trump’s inaugural committee to hand over donor and financial records. It was the latest aggressive move from an office that has launched investigations into the president’s company, former lawyer and campaign finance practices. New York prosecutors have even implicated Trump in a crime.

Add it all up and the result is a spate of hard-to-stymie, legally perilous probes that appears on track to drag on well into Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign. SDNY stands poised to carry on Mueller’s efforts whenever the special counsel’s office closes shop, and it’s likely to draw even more attention if freshly confirmed Attorney General William Barr — who now oversees the Russia probe as DOJ head — clamps down on the public release of Mueller’s findings.

“When you combine their experience with the traditional independence of the southern district and the reputation it has, this is like another Mueller investigation going on,” said Nick Akerman, a former SDNY assistant attorney who also worked on the Watergate prosecution team.

The New York federal prosecutors are far from finished. They’re still seeking interviews with Trump Organization executives, according to a source with knowledge of the probe. And Trump’s inaugural committee confirmed earlier this month that it had received a wide-ranging subpoena from SDNY for documents as part of a probe into how the group raised and doled out a record $107 million. Investigators are looking at everything from potential mail and wire fraud to illegal foreign contributions and money laundering.

“This is why I’ve been saying for months that the Southern District of New York investigation presents a much more serious threat to the administration, potentially, than what Bob Mueller is doing,” Chris Christie, a former New Jersey governor and former federal prosecutor, told ABC News earlier this month.

SDNY poses an potent threat because the office has accumulated a perfect storm of witnesses who have guided Trump throughout his career, from his businesses to his meteoric rise in presidential politics up through his inauguration to the White House.

The list of cooperators includes Allen Weisselberg, the Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer; David Pecker, the CEO of the National Enquirer’s parent company who has admitted to working with Trump for years to kill incriminating media stories; and Rick Gates, who served as Trump campaign deputy and then de facto leader of the inaugural committee. Gates pleaded guilty in the Mueller probe to lying to the FBI last February but his sentencing has been delayed while he cooperates in “several ongoing investigations,” according to a filing last month from the special counsel’s office.

Then there’s Cohen, Trump’s longtime fixer who is scheduled to begin serving a three-year prison sentence next month. Christie called Cohen a “tour guide” for SDNY investigators into the president’s orbit.

Alumni from the office have said SDNY’s investigative powers and independent streak are so robust that — depending on what it finds on Trump — the office could skirt DOJ legal protocol dating to Watergate that holds a sitting president can’t be indicted.

“I’m thoroughly convinced the SDNY will make its own evaluation. They will not say that’s a department policy,” said Jon Sale, a former SDNY and Watergate prosecutor who is close with Trump personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani. “They’re obviously looking at the president and I wouldn’t rule out that they could decide you can indict a sitting president.”

Trump’s attack-Mueller playbook can’t be replicated in New York. For starters, the bounds of what SDNY is looking at don’t deal with Trump’s tenure in the White House, meaning any push back on executive privilege grounds won’t fly. Trump’s lawyers have said they’ve resisted Mueller’s attempts to get the president to answer questions about potential obstruction of justice matters dealing with his time in the Oval Office. And they continue to signal the president’s team should be allowed to review the special counsel’s finished report to ensure it doesn’t violate the president’s rights.

Well, Bottomless Pinocchio is already an Unindicted Co-conspirator to Election Law Violations and Bank Fraud in the SDNY.