"No question about it": Former Watergate prosecutor predicts Trump and Ivanka may end up behind bars

"Any decent prosecutor" could make a "pretty viable" case, Nick Akerman, who investigated Nixon's tax returns, says

Published September 30, 2020 5:00AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Ivanka Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

A former federal prosecutor during the Watergate investigation, which uncovered criminal activity that led to former President Richard Nixon's resignation, said the bombshell New York Times report on President Donald Trump's taxes suggests that he could ultimately face time behind bars along with his daughter, senior White House adviser Ivanka Trump.

"No question about it," Nick Akerman told CNN's Erin Burnett in a Monday interview. "And his daughter could go to jail, too. Tax evasion is a five-year felony. It's a pretty serious crime, and the more money that's stolen, the longer you go to jail."

Akerman, who investigated Nixon's taxes during the Watergate probe, said The Times report revealed that he was a "rookie amateur" compared to Trump.

"What Nixon did was essentially backdate one deed for a gift of papers to the U.S. government. He basically created a phony deed," said Akerman, whose investigation prompted the political precedent of every major-party presidential candidate publicizing his or her tax returns — until Trump.

The Times report, he said, laid out "a whole series of activities that could qualify as tax fraud — not tax avoidance." While the headline read, "Trump Tax Avoidance," Akerman said there is "a key difference" when it comes to fraud — a more serious crime.

Tax avoidance means trying to get the most deductions legally permissible under the tax code. 

"Tax fraud is lying about what your income was," Akerman said. "Lying about what your deductions are."

Akerman said the report suggested multiple instances of fraud — the "most glaring" example being an allegation involving consultant fees that Trump appears to have paid to Ivanka, but which he later wrote off as a tax deduction.

Ivanka's 2017 financial disclosures show she received a $747,622 payment from a consulting company called "TTT Consulting," which she apparently co-owned with other family members. That figure matches the exact amount that her father wrote off as tax deductions for consulting fees on two Trump Organization hotel projects from the same year.

The arrangement, Akerman said, raises questions about a possible effort on the president's part to reduce his business' tax liability by not compensating family members directly. Because Ivanka was already an employee of the Trump Organization, he said, he could think of "no legitimate reason" as to why her father would have paid her in such a manner.

And there may be only one reason why the Trump family would not face criminal liability, Akerman said: the same as-yet untested constitutional provision that stymied former special counsel Robert Mueller.

A grand jury empaneled by Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance has subpoenaed Trump's tax returns in order to help inform charging decisions in a broad inquiry into his finances — including possible criminal tax fraud.

"The only thing that's saving [Trump] at this point is the Department of Justice's guideline that says you can't indict a sitting president," Akerman said. "Once he's no longer a sitting president, he is subject to being indicted."

"Any decent prosecutor" could make a "pretty viable" case, Akerman concluded.

By Roger Sollenberger

Roger Sollenberger was a staff writer at Salon (2020-21). Follow him on Twitter @SollenbergerRC.

MORE FROM Roger Sollenberger

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Donald Trump Ivanka Trump New York Times Politics Republicans Richard Nixon Robert Mueller Trump Taxes