Last month, during a virtual debate between the eight candidates vying to be Manhattan’s top prosecutor, one final yes or no question rocked the group: would they pledge to prosecute the crimes committed by the former president Donald J. Trump and his company?
The candidates slipped away.
“In fact, I don’t think any of us should answer that question,” candidate Eliza Orlins said as her opponents expressed their agreement.
Despite the candidates’ efforts to avoid it, the question hangs over the hotly contested race to become Manhattan’s next prosecutor. The prestigious law enforcement office has been scrutinizing the former president for more than two years and has won a fierce legal battle this week in the Supreme Court to secure Mr. Trump’s tax returns.
Current district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who has headed the office since 2010, is unlikely to be re-elected, according to people with knowledge of his plans, although he has yet to officially announce the decision. He has until next month to decide, but is not actively fundraising and has not participated in campaign events.
If Mr. Vance lays criminal charges this year in the Trump inquiry, the next prosecutor will inherit a complicated case that could take years to resolve. Each major step would require the approval of the district attorney, from plea agreements to witnesses to additional charges.
But the most high-profile case in the Manhattan district attorney’s office is also one that all of the candidates running for office have been reluctant to discuss.
The eight suitors know that any statement they make could fuel Mr. Trump’s attacks on the investigation as a political “witch hunt,” potentially jeopardizing the case. Many of them said it was unethical to make promises about Mr. Trump’s fate without seeing the evidence first.
Yet the question comes up repeatedly in debates and forums, a sign of intense interest in the Trump inquiry in Manhattan, where President Biden won 86 percent of the vote in last year’s election.
The candidates are all Democrats, and anyone who wins the June 22 primary is almost certain to win the November general election. At the moment, no Republican is running. With no public poll available, there is no clear favorite in the race, and in such a busy field, a candidate can win with a small plurality of votes. The ranked choice vote, which will be presented for the first time in the mayor’s primary, will not be used in the race.
The candidates found themselves on a political tightrope: vowing to hold powerful people like Mr. Trump accountable, without saying too much to prejudge his guilt.
“I have been very active and expressed on my feelings about Trump’s abuse of the rule of law, his terrible policies, his indecency,” said Dan Quart, a member of the State Assembly from New York which is a candidate in the race. “But it’s different being a district attorney who has to judge every case on the merits.”
“It behooves me not to say things as a candidate for this post that could potentially threaten prosecution in the future,” he added.
The stakes are high. If Mr Trump were charged and the case had to go to trial, a judge could conclude that the statements made by the new district attorney on the election campaign tainted the jury panel and could transfer the case out of Manhattan – or even remove the attorney from the case, according to legal ethics experts.
Mr. Trump is already laying the groundwork for this argument. In a lengthy statement he issued on Monday condemning Mr Vance’s investigation and the Supreme Court ruling, he attacked potential prosecution in “far-left states and jurisdictions pledging to eliminate a political opponent ”.
“This is fascism, not justice,” the statement said. “And that’s exactly what they’re trying to do with me.”
Mr. Vance’s investigation came as a growing number of Democratic leaders demanded that Mr. Trump and his family be held accountable for actions they said violated the law.
After the Senate acquitted the former president for incitement to hatred in his second impeachment trial this month, public interest quickly turned to the Manhattan inquiry, one of two criminal inquiries. known that Mr. Trump is facing.
Mr Vance has been widely criticized after refusing in 2012 to indict Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. after another fraud investigation, then accepting a donation from their lawyer. The investigation examined whether leaders of the Trump Organization misled buyers of units in a Trump condominium in Lower Manhattan. (Mr. Vance returned the donation after the public outcry.)
Mr. Vance’s victory over the former Supreme Court president may temper this criticism. But many district attorney candidates have yet attacked his decision to shut down the previous Trump investigation, campaigning on the belief his office has given too many free passes to the rich and powerful.
In August, Ms Orlins, a former public defender, suggested on Twitter that if she became a district attorney, she would open an investigation into Ivanka Trump.
“You won’t get off that easily when I’m Manhattan DA,” she wrote, referring to the fraud investigation that Mr. Vance had closed. The post drew cheers from supporters, but raised eyebrows among some lawyers.
Erin Murphy, a professor who teaches professional liability in criminal practice at New York University Law School, said the post suggested Ms Orlins was more focused on a desired outcome than due process.
“It sounds like a vindictive thing,” said Ms Murphy, who backs rival candidate Alvin Bragg.
In an interview, Ms Orlins said she did not regret the tweet.
“I am passionate about what I believe,” she says. She argued that, if elected, she would still assess the evidence against the Trump family without prejudice.
Some candidates were more circumspect when addressing the elephant in the room, answering questions about Mr. Trump with an emphasis on their experience investigating powerful people.
Liz Crotty, who worked for Mr Vance’s predecessor Robert M. Morgenthau, said in an interview that she would be well equipped to oversee a complicated case because as a prosecutor she had investigated Saddam’s finances Hussein, the Iraqi dictator.
Diana Florence, a former Manhattan prosecutor, cited her history of real estate and construction fraud to demonstrate that she would not be afraid to sue the rich and influential.
Mr. Vance’s office began its current investigation of Mr. Trump in 2018, initially focusing on the role of the Trump organization in the silent payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign to two women who claimed to have had relationships with Mr. Trump.
Since then, prosecutors have suggested in court documents that their investigation has broadened to focus on potential financial crimes, including insurance and bank fraud. Mr. Vance did not disclose the scope of his investigation, citing grand jury secrecy.
In August 2019, Mr. Vance’s office sent a subpoena to Mr. Trump’s accounting firm asking for eight years of his tax returns. Mr. Trump has made several attempts to block the summons. On Monday, the Supreme Court halted its efforts, with a short unsigned order that required Mr. Trump’s accountants to release his records.
Tahanie Aboushi, a appearing civil rights lawyer, said that Mr. Vance’s failure to prosecute Mr. Trump reflected a central theme of his campaign. She sees the former president as the beneficiary of a system that allows powerful people to get away with mistakes for which the poor and people of color are harshly punished.
“None of my policies target Trump or constitute a direct response to Trump,” she said in an interview. “It’s the system as a whole and how it works historically.”
Other candidates focused on their experience in managing complex cases, in tacit recognition of the obstacles to come in a possible prosecution of a former president. Lucy Lang, a former prosecutor led by Mr. Vance in the race, has touted her familiarity with long-term cases in Manhattan courts, including her leadership of a two-year investigation into a Harlem drug gang.
Daniel R. Alonso, who was Mr Vance’s top deputy from 2010 to 2014 and is now in private practice, said any potential case would be an “uphill battle”.
“You can’t have an AD who doesn’t have the gravity and level of experience to know how to handle the case,” he says.
Several of the suitors already have experience of suing the Trump administration and facing the scrutiny that comes with it.