The unsung hero behind Donald Trump’s crushing fraud case: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Progressive firebrand's first big win: Exposing Trump's fraud so Letitia James could bring down his company

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published October 3, 2023 6:01AM (EDT)

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

The main hero of the Donald Trump fraud trial that kicked off Monday is, of course, Letitia James. New York's attorney general has worked tirelessly for years on investigating Trump's decades of criminal and corrupt behavior, resulting in a $250 million lawsuit accusing Trump and his two grown sons of running a fraudulent business. Her case is so airtight, in fact, that New York Supreme Court Justice Arthur Engoron ruled Trump liable for fraud from the bench, rather than waste a jury's time figuring out what was indisputable from the evidence. The ensuing trial — which drew Trump himself into the Manhattan courtroom this week — is entirely about how serious the penalities will be

There are weeks, maybe months to go before we learn how much Trump will have to pay for defrauding investors, banks and insurance companies over several decades. So we'll have to wait a bit for James to get her virtual ticker-tape parade for kicking the most hated man in New York real estate out of town. In the meantime, however, there's another well-known New York City politician who is owed a debt of gratitude for bringing some accountability to Trump's gold-painted front door: Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. 

In our era of 24/7 media onslaught, four years can seem like like four lifetimes, so it's easy to forget that when Ocasio-Cortez arrived in Congress in January 2019, there was a lot of curiosity and outright skepticism about her among the Beltway press. She'd gotten there in improbable fashion, winning a 2018 primary against Rep. Joe Crowley — a power broker in Queens who chaired the House Democratic caucus and was seen as a possible successor to Nancy Pelosi. Before that, Ocasio-Cortez had been working as a bartender in a Manhattan taco joint. So the media was watching eagerly to see whether she'd rise to the occasion or fall flat on her face. 

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Ocasio-Cortez's first big test came in February 2019, when Trump's former personal attorney and "fixer," Michael Cohen, testified before the House Oversight Committee. Cohen was about to go to prison for a campaign finance crime committed at Trump's behest, and told a genuinely moving story of crime and betrayal. But most of the Democrats on the committee whiffed this opportunity to ask questions of a guy who had been nestled within the Trump gang for years. Instead, they devoted their time to grandstanding for the cameras, rather than learning any new information about Trump's illegal dealings. 

Except, of course, for the young congresswoman from a working-class, multiracial district in Queens and the Bronx. Much to the surprise and delight of mainstream journalists, Ocasio-Cortez was all business. She showed up with a long list of questions about how much Cohen knew about Trump's business dealings and whether the man currently in the White House had spent his previous career defrauding creditors and investors. Cohen's answer: Trump was criming all the time. The transcript is worth re-reading and relishing:

Ocasio-Cortez: To your knowledge, did the president ever provide inflated assets to an insurance company?

Cohen: Yes.

Ocasio-Cortez: Who else knows that the president did this?

Cohen: Allen Weisselberg, Ron Lieberman and Matthew Calamari.

Ocasio-Cortez: And where would the committee find more information on this? Do you think we need to review his financial statements and his tax returns in order to compare them?

Cohen: Yes, and you would find it at the Trump Org.

That line of questioning, in which Cohen confirmed that Trump routinely manipulated numbers to evade taxes while defrauding banks and insurance companies, was the first step on the long road to Trump making a stink-face in court on Monday morning. New York state regulators started to sniff around Trump's business. James had already been dealing with a smaller case involving Trump's charitable foundation, but Cohen's testimony opened the door to a much bigger investigation. 

Three years later, James came out with the stunning — and largely irrefutable — accusations she's presenting in court this week: Trump's wealth is built on a sandcastle of lies. He doubles, triples or quadruples the valuations of his assets in order to get loans from creditors, and drastically undervalues them to evade taxes. With this shell game, the four-times-indicted ex-president lives like a rich man despite his proven inability to make much money from his business ventures. Everything Cohen said before that committee has pretty much proven true, and only AOC even thought to ask him about it. 

The near-certainty that Trump's allegedly enormous wealth is an illusion has already been documented in reporting on his tax documents showing that he is deep in debt — perhaps as much $1 billion — even though inherited nearly half a billion from his father and earned another $427 million from his reality-TV star turn on "The Apprentice." All available evidence suggests Trump blew through that money and kept digging, creating a money pit so enormous that banks likely had given up hope of seeing any of it repaid. Yet Trump has kept up the illusion of immense wealth with his private jets and entourages, all paid for through dozens of opaque shell companies — and, as James' evidence suggests, through massive fraud.

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He might have gotten away with it, too, if not for that nosy congresswoman from the outer boroughs. I'm a little surprised that almost no one seems to remember the crucial role Ocasio-Cortez played in this. At the time of the hearing, after all, she got an avalanche of good coverage for her showing, especially from journalists who were sick of listening to politicians bloviate rather than perform their constitutional duties of legislative oversight. Her willingness to do her actual job, however, didn't just make her look good by comparison. It got a very big ball rolling that could eventually demollish Trump's "business" in New York. 

One reason AOC's role has been forgotten, I suspect, is that the Beltway press tends to think of "progressives" as entirely distinct from the people who really want to see Trump go to jail. Turn on MSNBC or CNN, after all, and the people talking on the Trump crime-and-punishment beat are often centrist Democrats and never-Trump Republicans, your Claire McCaskills and George Conways and the like. Progressive Democrats are usually called upon to talk about policy issues: health care, climate change, jobs programs and so on. So there's this unspoken assumption that progressives don't much care about corruption and accountability. 

In fact, there's substantial evidence that progressives may put an even higher value on opposing corruption than their more moderate colleagues. For instance, progressives like Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. John Fetterman of Pennsylvania were among the first to call for the resignation of Sen. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., after his recent indictment on bribery and corruption charges. This isn't just about political progressives also being people of conscience. I think they understand how intertwined corruption and authoritarian politics are, and understand you can't fight one without fighting the other. 

Authoritarians like Trump gain power by exploiting public cynicism. The more that voters believe that all politicians cheat the system, the more decent citizens will give up engaging meaningfully in politics at all. Eventually, the only people left in politics are the ones with no vision of a better world beyond a bitter desire to stick it to racial minorities, LGBTQ people and women. Getting people to believe in equal justice and functional government is a necessary prerequisite if folks like Fetterman and Ocasio-Cortez are to make any progress on the social and economic issues that matter most to them. It makes sense that AOC opened the door for the massive lawsuit that may bring Donald Trump's business empire crashing down. Maybe the main reason she's not taking more credit for that is that in the here and now she's busy trying to expose the corruption of House Republicans

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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Alexandria Ocasio-cortez Commentary Donald Trump Letitia James Michael Cohen New York Trump Fraud