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Around Washington and in political salons, a favorite guessing game is about what threads of evidence are known to which prosecutors and when—if ever—someone will hold ex-President Donald Trump to account for any number of alleged crimes. We went through it with Robert Mueller’s investigation and two-volume report—and a tell-all book about it, of course, when it was over—which whetted D.C.’s appetite for everyone to suddenly act like they were stars of a Beltway version of the Law & Order franchise.
The latest entry is from Mark Pomerantz, who did what a columnist at The Washington Post put so perfectly as “litigate and tell.” And the veteran lawyer did so with an eruption that caught his former colleagues off guard, likely complicated the case he was ostensibly chasing before a very public resignation, and perhaps gave his swan-song case’s target—former President Donald Trump—an unexpected if ad hominem defense. His incendiary device: a Grisham-esque score-settling tome bound together as People vs. Donald Trump: An Inside Account, which came out Tuesday.
Let’s go back to the start of the tape. Pomerantz was a happily retired former federal prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer, living in the New York suburbs during the heyday of the COVID-19 crisis when his phone rang with a solicitation for him to come in as a part-time, outside adviser to the New York District Attorney’s Office, the front-line local prosecutors in Manhattan. Cyrus Vance Jr., the soon-to-be-outgoing top prosecutor, was looking for some counsel on the case he and his colleagues were building against Trump and his businesses. Federal prosecutors in New York and Washington had their own interests in the same set of facts, and the New York state attorney general was also proceeding along a parallel track. The recruitment of an outside panel of advisers for a local jurisdiction “seemed a bit odd,” but Pomerantz joined—and then escalated.
Pomerantz started poring over case material and eventually won an appointment as an unpaid member of the team of prosecutors. He says he tended to lean into “creative theorizing” and “novel” ideas about potential articles of indictment. But it’s clear he increasingly convinced himself and more than a few others that they could not only build a case against Trump, but they could win. Yet the conservative—with a lower-case C—culture in the city office proved frustrating for Pomerantz, who felt his junior colleagues weren’t listening. And here’s where personalities clashed with facts.
The Pomerantz book has bullet points that aren’t really in dispute. Trump used an intermediary-turned-cooperating witness to pay off an adult film star, an act that Pomerantz weighs as potential extortion from the side of Stormy Daniels but “not illegal in itself” from where Trump sat. Trump was an unrepentant fudger of facts who inflated the value of his properties to secure loans, used dodgy donations of undevelopable land to claim tax deductions, and misled taxing authorities to avoid paying the full bill when it came due, according to Pomerantz’s account, which reads like an unofficial indictment of the former President. (In the official one the New York DA’s office brought against the Trump Organization, jurors found the companies guilty on tax charges, but Trump himself was not indicted.) In one particularly telling piece of Pomerantz’s story, public documents prove Trump wrongly claimed his home in Trump Tower was 30,000 square feet when it actually measures at 11,000.
Ultimately, Pomerantz likens Trump to John Gotti, a former mob boss who used every trick to avoid culpability and maintain one degree of deniability while building a massive criminal enterprise. It’s compelling, to be sure, but amid numerous sprawling criminal investigations and allegations of both personal and financial impropriety, Trump still won the White House in 2016 and captured more votes than any incumbent President in history when he tried to keep it in 2020.
Pomerantz is the first to acknowledge he and his team didn’t always have visibility into what other prosecutors were up to and that his team was vastly understaffed. “We simply did not know all that they had been doing,” he writes, leading to some crossed messages, occasionally unofficial back-channel talks, and frequent competitive jockeying. Internal fights among his team were also aplenty. “A mini-revolt” came that pitted the interlopers with the career prosecutors, there was a tense transition between Vance and his successor, Alvin Bragg, and then Pomerantz and a colleague drafted coordinated resignations to protest Bragg’s slow-walking of the Trump case once he took over the office..
And then he wrote this book, which served his cause well. At least at some point. “Donald Trump had managed to dance between the raindrops of accountability,” Pomerantz laments in a closing chapter. Bragg’s choice, he said, would be proven “historically bad.”
Setting aside the ongoing drama about whether Pomerantz violated a non-disclosure agreement, broke with decades of norms, and sidestepped ethics rules for lawyers in writing this book, the text on its own carries a tranche of caveats. For instance, by his own admission, Pomerantz and Bragg never jelled. They didn’t have the same rapport that Pomerantz, Vance, and his trusted adviser Carey Dunne enjoyed based on decades of professional familiarity if not friendship. By contrast, Pomerantz at one point notes that he was graduating law school when Bragg was born, just one of the asides that leaves a little bit of petty reside on the face of his otherwise meritorious argument.
Pomerantz is never so filled with hubris to assert that his case was a slam-dunk set of facts, but his meticulously detailed retelling leads readers to that conclusion. In fact, according to Pomerantz, even the objectors inside the New York District Attorney’s Office never said they thought Trump was innocent; their protests were about the politicization of a prosecution and what the case—win or lose—would do to the country and its fragile democracy. After all, it’s one thing to catch Trump’s businesses valuing one Manhattan property at $527 million on one paper and then telling tax authorities that it was worth as little as $16 million; it’s another to fret about sparking another Jan. 6, 2021-style uprising by being the first prosecutors in history to indict a former President.
While many of the facts in the book are already known to careful trackers of the Trump legal saga, the behind-the-scenes jostling was only intimated in real time. Thanks to Pomerantz, we now have plenty of—admittedly, self-serving—insights into the choices made to build a case against Trump and then to let it simmer under a new district attorney. Because much of the juiciest evidence had been presented in secret to a grand jury, Pomerantz has to rely on what has already leaked to build his public case. There’s plenty there, for sure, and there are other little nuggets he hints at, both in his writing and the publication of emails and memos sent up the chain of command.
The book’s biggest problem is that it assumed the status quo would hold, and that didn’t happen. The prosecution that Pomerantz sought didn’t come on his timeline, but it appears to be moving forward now, a development that emerged between the manuscript’s submission and its arrival on Washington’s doorstep. There are broad pronouncements to be made here about instant gratification and the merits of its delay, about betraying colleagues’ confidences and taking a messy intra-office squabble public.
But the more germane is the practical: things change, and they change rapidly when the potential defendant is the former—and perhaps future—President of the United States. Now with Pomerantz’s grievances printed, Trump may have more grist for his gripes about “witch hunts” and biased prosecution. Writing a definitive history in real time is difficult, if not impossible. To borrow an analogy from Pomerantz, sometimes it takes a minute to boil an ocean. Pomerantz didn’t like his boss’s pace and took his candle back to the suburbs. What he missed was that perhaps a flamethrower was waiting in the wings of the DA’s office, and his fanning a conflagration from afar was unlikely to be helpful. Which is why it’s entirely likely that Pomerantz, who is hawking his book where he can, may soon find himself helping the P.R. case of the very man he spent a year chasing as a criminal: Trump.
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