The Candidates To Replace Cy Vance Have To Walk A Fine Line On Trump

on January 19, 2018 in Washington, DC.
President Donald Trump stands in the White House colonnade as he is introduced to speak to March for Life participants and pro-life leaders on January 19, 2018. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
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June 4, 2021 1:51 p.m.

Months before Manhattan district attorney Cy Vance announced that he would not seek reelection for a role in which he oversees a criminal investigation into Trump and his company, a public defender and former reality TV star who had already been angling to replace him was tweeting about the DA office’s investigation into Trump.

“A friendly reminder from your future Manhattan DA: Presidents can’t pardon themselves for New York State crimes,” Eliza Orlins wrote weeks after the 2020 presidential election, as Trump reportedly mulled a self-pardon.

Her stance is emblematic of the statements put forward by a crowded field of Democrats who have promised to ensure Trump is held accountable. Since Vance’s announcement in March, a scramble took off to fill the impending void that will be left behind by a prosecutor who, after an almost two year court battle, scored copies of the former president’s tax records.

But as they campaign, the candidates have to do a difficult dance: They have to signal toughness without assuming guilt. And it’s unclear just how far they should go lest they risk the future of the case, Columbia Law professor Richard Briffault warned TPM.

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“They have a duty to enforce the law fairly and objectively and the more you talk about specific cases, and you begin to lock yourself into something, the more you’re kind of undermining your ability to do your job,” he said. 

“I think to go in and say, this is going to be my priority or to make it a campaign platform would be a mistake,” he added.

Briffault suggested that a promise to indict or even to prioritize Trump’s case could add risk for any potential indictment to be thrown out on account of bad faith. Trump has, predictably, already called the inquiry “purely political” and said that “our prosecutors are politicized.”

Many of the Democratic candidates have walked that Trump tightrope with varying levels of cautiousness. Here’s how seven of the candidates have tried to thread the needle:

The One Who Sued Trump ‘Over A Hundred Times’

While he has sought to avoid over-promising, Alvin Bragg, who previously served as first chief deputy at the state attorney general’s office, has cited his experience successfully suing the Trump Foundation for illegally using campaign funds. When asked about the probe, he cites previous Trump lawsuits as among his top qualifiers for the job.

“I’m the candidate in the race who has the experience with Donald Trump,” Bragg said during a local radio interview in January. He has bragged of suing the Trump administration “over a hundred times.”

“We sued them not because we were litigious or just liked suing the Trump administration, we sued them because we had meritory cases that the administration was time and time again violating the law,” he told TPM. 

When pressed on Trump during the January radio interview, Bragg called out a “pattern of lawlessness,” that he has observed from the former president over the past two decades.

Adding that he needed to see the facts to concretely determine the future of the investigation, he said during the January interview that he is inclined to believe “that there’s a path forward there to make a case.”  

The One Who Will ‘Absolutely Continue’ The Investigation

Diana Florence, a former top deputy in Vance’s office, meanwhile has carved out a niche touting her unique experience taking on the city’s real estate interests. Laura Acosta, a spokesperson for the campaign, told TPM in an email that Florence is ethically prohibited from commenting on an open case.

But, Acosta said, “she will absolutely continue the investigation and follow the facts without fear or favor.” 

“She is the only person, the only candidate in this race, who has taken on big real estate and construction fraud — the very same industry that Trump works in,” Acosta said in a statement.

The One Who Has The ‘Political Will’ To See Justice Served

During an interview with TPM, Orlins suggested Vance, who she soon hopes to call her predecessor, hadn’t gone far enough to prosecute the Trumps in the past.

“If Trump committed crimes in Manhattan I will prosecute him,” Orlins said. 

“Cy Vance has not taken on these things because of his political motivation — his politically-motivated decisions — not to hold Trump accountable when it wasn’t advantageous for him,” she said, referring to an earlier decision by Vance not to prosecute the Trump family for fraud in 2012.

“I have the political will to do what it takes to see justice served,” she said.

The One Who Won’t Let The Probe Get ‘Swept Under The Rug’

Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights attorney whose past experience with Trump has included co-leading the legal team that filed petitions at JFK airport when Trump issued his Muslim ban to release people from detention, emphasized to TPM that she won’t be making a predetermined decision.

“The build up that the public is being walked through at this time with the Trump investigation — there’s an anticipation that something big will come out of it and that is criminal charges,” Aboushi said. It’s a logical next question to ask what will happen given recent revelations that Vance might submit the case to a grand jury, she said.

Emphasizing her commitment to neutrality, she said the most important thing she can commit to voters is that “this is not going to be something that’s going to be swept under the rug.” 

The One Who Won’t Allow Trump A ‘Consolation Prize’

Like Aboushi, former Manhattan prosecutor Lucy Lang has been more reserved about the investigation. But she hasn’t shied from at least showing her support for the continuation of the probe, egging it on after Trump lost the election in November.

“Immunity is not a consolation prize to losing an election, and no one is above the law,” she wrote on Twitter at the time. “We can’t allow Donald Trump’s failed presidential campaign to absolve him of responsibility.” 

Since then she’s challenged opponents who she said have bragged about past “wranglings” with Trump.

“Manhattan deserves a District Attorney who will never put personal or political gain above the public’s trust or in any way jeopardize the integrity of ongoing investigations,” Lang said in a statement Wednesday. “I am the only candidate with the experience and judgement necessary to effectively oversee all of the investigations and cases in the Manhattan DA’s office, and ensure they remain uncompromised.”

The One Who Would Rather Keep Quiet

Tali Farhadian Weinstein previously worked for the Brooklyn District Attorney’s office, and has kept fairly quiet about Trump — neither talking frequently about her involvement in a successful lawsuit against the Trump administration nor pointedly addressing a past attempt first reported by The New York Times to interview with Trump administration officials for a federal judgeship early in Trump’s term. (Although her campaign has defended that move).

A campaign spokesperson told TPM in an email that Farhadian Weinstein was unable to talk about any open case that she may inherit once becoming DA. 

“Any instance of pre-judgement could have the next district attorney removed from the case,” the spokesperson, Jennifer Blatus said. “Many of her opponents in the race have not followed this code of ethics.”

The One Who Says His Feelings Won’t Get In The Way

Dan Quart, a New York assemblyman, has critiqued the former President and Vance’s decision not to prosecute the Trumps for fraud earlier. But his criticism isn’t disqualifying, he said.

“My feelings on the former president are fairly well known,” Quart told TPM, referring to past statements suggesting that Trump had conducted himself “in a dishonorable way” and had shown “a lack of respect for the rule of law.” 

“But as district attorney I have a different responsibility to evaluate and judge each case on its own merits and own facts,” Quart said. 

“I’ll evaluate the case at 12:01 on January 1st, and we’ll see where we go from there,” he added.

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