Just before I arrive for lunch with Cyrus Vance Jr, New York’s doughty district attorney, there is a “ping” on my cell phone. I glance idly and see a headline: “Trump 2024: could he win?”
Could he, I wonder, as I walk through the security cordon at the imposing downtown skyscraper that houses the DA’s office.
Many in America are wondering the same. Back in January, when rioters stormed Washington’s Congress to protest against Donald Trump’s defeat in the 2020 election, it seemed hard to imagine that the president could stage a comeback. Never mind his loss in the vote; horror about the assault on democratic and legal norms caused most Republicans to flinch.
But American politics in 2021 is a treacherous place — and in a polarised nation, even the word “law” is divisive. Nine months later, Trump still has a strong base of support and is giving signals that he could run in the next presidential race.
All this has unexpectedly tossed my lunchtime companion into the historical spotlight. On July 1, Vance revealed that he is pressing charges against the Trump Organization and Allen Weisselberg, its chief financial officer, over issues such as tax evasion.
Trump supporters deride this as an unwarranted, politically driven attack. Democrats, however, view it as a sign that even the president cannot sit above the law, and many consider it the last best hope of halting his election bid. Either way, Vance’s case — and record as DA — is under scrutiny, along with the question of whether the process of law can still be impartial and effective in America today.
Pret A Manger
Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, One Hogan Place, New York, New York 10013
Chicken Caesar salad $8.49
Chicken avocado salad $9.99
Perrier supplied by the office
As I walk into Vance’s office on the eighth floor, my first thought is that he seems a most unlikely man to challenge Trump. Grey-haired and with a face that flushes easily, the 67-year-old has a surprisingly self-effacing air. His office is equally unassuming: strip lighting, cheap chairs, a jumble of mementos from legal meetings — and, of course, an American flag.
Vance’s staff have insisted on us meeting here, supposedly to minimise Covid-19 risks. However, I suspect another motive: the DA is forbidden from accepting any external gifts whatsoever — including a free lunch from the FT. So Vance has bought our meal: two cardboard bowls of salad from Pret A Manger and a bottle of Perrier.
“Ten dollars,” Vance says, gesturing at my lunch with defiant pride as we sit down.
I remove the lid of my bowl, made of recycled cardboard, and poke some avocado and chicken with a plastic fork. It is the most low-key fare I have encountered for this column, the ultimate anti-Trump, anti-graft lunch. But can this style slay a flamboyant populist?
“You know that I can’t talk about the facts of the [Trump] case,” Vance tells me, when I ask. American prosecutors are forbidden from discussing their cases and Vance has always been a stickler for rules. He hails from a sprawling patrician East Coast family that has supplied three generations of public servants, including his father, Cyrus Vance Sr, who was secretary of state under Democratic president Jimmy Carter.
In his youth, Vance junior was so desperate to escape the family shadow that he moved to Seattle to build a career in private sector law. But then duty called: in the early years of the 21st century he returned east and ran in an election for the Manhattan DA post. He lacked the charisma or passion for politics of some other high-profile New York legal figures, but triumphed by pledging sober civic duty. He has maintained that tone ever since.
So what is the process around the Trump case, I ask. He explains that 12 members of the Manhattan public are currently meeting in secret “two or three times a week” to examine the evidence that Vance’s office holds against the Trump Organization, and will then decide whether to proceed to trial or not. “This is a six-month grand jury, an extended grand jury,” he notes, and points out that the jury will be looking for a strong standard of evidence. “The standard of proof in the grand jury [about whether to hold a trial] is not the standard of proof of trial, it’s essentially probable cause.”
The jury can also embark on additional investigation, he adds. This matters. To non-lawyers, Vance’s case against the Trump group seems as uninspiring as our salad: the organisation is charged with having put in place a scheme to pay top employees with off-the-books perks, with the knowledge of the 74-year-old Weisselberg, who is charged alongside the company.
However, New York prosecutors often use technical infractions to start bigger probes and snare criminals, and there is speculation that prosecutors hope to use tax charges to “flip” Weisselberg — and thus start investigating and charging Trump and his family, too.
So when might a trial happen? Vance is due to leave office at the end of the year because, when he was elected in 2009, he pledged to only serve three terms. Some Democrats think he should have broken that promise to follow through with the Trump case. But, Vance tells me, “it is important that I keep my word”.
Doesn’t the national interest override that? “My goal is to complete decisions about charging before I leave and I’m very comfortable with the team that’s on the case — I chose the team,” he insists. His successor is slated to be Alvin Bragg, who won the vote to become the Democratic candidate for DA and is all but certain to win the election in November.
During his private-sector career, Trump was adept at avoiding damage from legal assaults. He also fended off a probe by Robert Mueller two years ago. Nevertheless, recent history shows how the long and slow-moving arm of the law can sometimes fell seemingly untouchable figures. Andrew Cuomo, the former New York governor, was last month forced to resign after a sexual harassment investigation.
And Vance himself has scored some unexpected victories before: he brought charges against Harvey Weinstein, which ended in the former Hollywood mogul’s conviction for rape and sexual assault. As we push around our salads, Vance admits that this remarkable coup almost did not happen.
When Covid hit, in the spring of 2020, the law courts were shut down for months. “It’s been a really difficult, stressful time for our justice system,” he says. However, due to a piece of “sheer dumb luck”, Weinstein was sentenced just before the courts closed. “Thank God we got sentencing,” Vance remarks, pointing out that if the Weinstein case had sat in limbo for a year “it might have been a different story”.
He was lucky in another sense, too: New York prosecutors were first told about Weinstein’s abuse back in 2015 but did not proceed with a case — partly because they feared that the credibility of his accuser would be challenged by a jury. By 2020, however, the #MeToo movement had made society more ready to listen to victims who had complex relations with their abusers.
“If we tried [Weinstein’s] case in 2015, I suspect that we might not have gotten the verdict that we got. There was sort of an evolution around understanding the prevalence of work-based sexual violence and aggression between 2012 and 2017,” Vance notes. “Attitudes have changed.”
Could a Trump investigation benefit from a similar shift in attitudes? Vance will not be drawn. So I ask him about other, less successful moments in his career. One involved another sex offender: Jeffrey Epstein, a powerful financier and fixer who died in jail in 2019 after being accused of paedophile offences. Vance’s office was urged by victims to investigate Epstein many years ago, but failed to do so, and when a Florida court imposed a sentence on Epstein, the DA’s office in New York initially imposed loose levels of surveillance on him when he returned to the city. That sparked speculation that Vance either faced political pressure or was nervous about sticking his neck out because he had previously suffered an embarrassing defeat in another sex-linked case, against Dominique Strauss-Kahn, former head of the IMF.
Was that true? Vance looks indignant. “There’s no conspiracy. You have folks making good-faith decisions based on their view of the law, and a very straightforward analysis of what the evidence is. These are facts and law-based decisions,” he says. “People don’t understand that most of these cases are being handled by career female prosecutors who have zero interest in protecting anybody who is accused of sexual predation.”
Really? He nods. “Probably 60 per cent of the DA lawyers now are women, and among my senior advisers around 80 per cent are women.” It is an astonishing change during his tenure: he tells me that when he took office, the majority of DA lawyers were men. He attributes the shift to diversity initiatives and the fact that the working hours in public service are more family-friendly than in private practices.
I notice that Vance has barely touched his salad and looks a little flushed, if not defensive. So I switch to less contentious topics that do not involve Trump — or sex.
One of these, which he is eager to talk about, is the question of how to tackle rising levels of gang violence and crime in New York. He ran for office pledging to combat this with community-based initiatives and has funded a host of them during his time as DA, partly because he successfully prosecuted foreign banks, such as Barclays and Standard Chartered, for money laundering — and was given some of the proceeds when these cases produced $14bn in settlements and fines. “No DA in the country has ever had money like that before,” he admits, with a cautious smile, explaining how he poured funds into civic ventures. “We wanted to be good stewards.”
Another topic he likes to talk about is a set of initiatives he started to foster more co-operation with his counterparts in cities around the world to fight cyber crime and terrorism. In his office there are drinks coasters from Scotland Yard and a framed certificate of “free entry” from the City of London. “It says I can drive sheep through the city, or something from history,” he laughs.
Then there is another cause: race relations. Until last year, Vance had assumed he had a good record on this front, since when he was elected DA he pledged to stop prosecuting New Yorkers for minor misdemeanours such as marijuana possession — a move that mostly benefited minority communities. But when the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in the summer of 2020, he discovered that his own staff were far angrier about racial inequalities than he had realised.
“In the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and the protests, it was clear that assistants in our office, particularly those of colour, were deeply affected. Some were questioning what they were doing in this job,” Vance says. “I had not realised that before. I had to do a lot of soul searching. I regret that — it is an area where I don’t think I was paying enough attention.”
Like many other well-meaning white progressives, Vance is trying to make amends: a big stack of books about racial justice is displayed prominently behind him. However, the hard truth is that the biggest change he can make is to leave: Bragg, his successor, will be the first African-American in the post. “It is time for this, and I welcome it,” he says. “I cannot lead on these issues in the same way as a black prosecutor. So it’s good.”
The sentiment sounds noble. Yet we both know that it is not sentiments such as these that will really define his career or legacy. Instead, what will shape how he is viewed is a man who never seemed to care much for BLM, gender rights or any other community justice issue: Donald Trump. I ask him if he thinks it is possible to conduct the investigation in a non-political way, given America’s divisions.
He sighs. “Without tying it to the Trump case, I absolutely have seen in my time here a [political] fracture in society. We have sort of lost the middle ground — there is a very strong left and a very strong right, but not necessarily a very strong centre. That has made some aspects of this job more difficult.” Did he know Trump personally? He nods. New York’s social circles are small, gossip-filled places and they sometimes bumped into each other before Trump became president. “But my interactions were cordial, but not personal. I have no personal friendship or enemies. It’s law.”
I ask what he plans to do after leaving office. He talks about returning to the private sector; his DA salary during the past dozen years has been modest by high-society standards. He also hopes to volunteer on panels to study the causes of crime. “But I can’t say more,” he tells me.
I wonder, once again, whether a mild-mannered bureaucrat who is a stickler for process-orientated law really has the mettle to challenge somebody such as Trump. The issue is not simply about character and clout; it is also about whether the law can sit apart from politics.
What do you do for fun, I ask in the closing minutes of our lunch. I brace myself for some bland comments about golf. But instead he flushes again with a shyly confessional air. “I ride motorbikes. In fact, I just came back from a 700-mile road trip this weekend up to Maine.”
“You’re a biker?” I ask, incredulous. It seems utterly out of character. “Do you wear leathers?”
“Sometimes.” I am so disbelieving that he pulls out his cell phone to show me a recent picture of him, with his bike, somewhere in a field. Sadly, there is no Hells Angels jacket; instead, he sports a fluorescent green jumpsuit. He tells me that his bike is a BMW R 1250 GS, and that he hopes to do some road trips across Africa and down America’s West Coast when he finally leaves office.
I suddenly wonder if I have completely misjudged the man. Does his Boy Scout manner conceal a wannabe warrior after all? Could he unleash a similar surprise against Trump? As I walk out on to the street after our lunch, still feeling hungry, I am unsure. But we now have two months to find out.
Gillian Tett is chair of the FT editorial board and editor-at-large, US
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