Last month, during a virtual debate Among the eight candidates running to be Manhattan’s top prosecutor, a final question yes or no shook the group: would they commit to prosecute crimes committed by former President Donald J. Trump and his company?
The candidates dodged.
“Actually, I don’t think any of us should answer that question,” said a contender, Eliza Orlins, while her opponents agreed.
Despite candidates’ efforts to avoid it, the question hangs over the disputed race to become the next public prosecutor in Manhattan. The prestigious law enforcement office has been examining the former president for more than two years and won a highly disputed court battle this week at the Supreme Court to get Trump’s tax returns.
The current district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., who has led the office since 2010, should not seek re-election, according to people who know his plans, although he has not yet formally announced the decision. He has until next month to decide, but he is not actively raising money and has not participated in campaign events.
If Mr. Vance presents criminal charges this year in the Trump investigation, the next prosecutor will inherit a complicated case that can take years to resolve. Every important step would need the approval of the district attorney, ranging from witness plea agreements and additional charges.
But the best-known case in the Manhattan district attorney’s office is also one that all candidates running for office are reluctant to discuss.
The eight contenders know that any statements they make can feed Mr. Trump attacks on investigation as a political “witch hunt”, potentially damaging the case. Many of them said it is unethical to make promises about Mr. Trump’s fate without first seeing the evidence.
Still, the issue comes up repeatedly in debates and forums, a sign of intense interest in Trump’s investigation in Manhattan, where President Biden won 86 percent of the vote in last year’s election.
The candidates are all Democrats, and whoever wins the June 22 primaries will almost certainly win the November general election. No Republicans are currently running. With no public vote available, there is no clear favorite in the race, and in such a crowded field, a candidate can win with a small plurality of votes. The classified choice vote, which will be presented for the first time in the primaries for mayor, will not be used in the race.
Candidates found themselves walking the political tightrope: vowing to hold powerful people like Trump accountable, without saying much to judge their guilt.
“I have been very active and expressed in my feelings about Trump’s abuses of the rule of law, his terrible policies, his indecency,” said Dan Quart, a New York state deputy who is a candidate in the race. “But this is different from being a public prosecutor who has to judge each case on the basis of merit.”
“It is my responsibility not to say things, as a candidate for this position, that could potentially threaten a lawsuit in the future,” he added.
The stakes are high. If Mr. Trump is charged and the case goes to trial, a judge may find that the statements made by the new district attorney in the campaign have contaminated the jury and may transfer the case outside Manhattan – or even remove the prosecutor from the case, from according to legal ethics experts.
Mr. Trump is already laying the groundwork for this argument. In a lengthy statement he released on Monday condemning Vance’s investigation and the Supreme Court decision, he attacked prosecutors in “far-left states and jurisdictions that promised to remove a political opponent.”
“This is fascism, not justice,” the statement said. “And that is exactly what they are trying to do about me.”
Vance’s investigation unfolded as an increasing number of Democratic leaders urged Trump and his family to be held responsible for actions they believe to break the law.
After the Senate acquitted the ex-president on charges of incitement in his second impeachment trial this month, public interest quickly shifted to the inquiry in Manhattan, one of the two known criminal investigations facing Mr. Trump.
Vance was widely criticized after he refused in 2012 to accuse Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. after a separate fraud investigation and then accepted a donation from his lawyer. The investigation examined whether Trump Organization executives deceived unit buyers in a Trump condominium building in Lower Manhattan. (Mr. Vance returned the donation after the public outcry.)
Vance’s victory over the former president at the Supreme Court may ease these criticisms. But many of the candidates for district prosecutors still criticized his decision to close Trump’s previous investigation, campaigning based on the belief that his office gave too many free passes to the rich and powerful.
In August, Orlins, a former public defender, suggested on Twitter that if she became a prosecutor, she would open an investigation into Ivanka Trump.
“You won’t get away with it so easily when I’m in Manhattan D.A.” she wrote, referring to the fraud investigation that Mr. Vance has closed. The message drew applause from his supporters, but raised eyebrows among some lawyers.
Erin Murphy, a professor who teaches professional responsibility in criminal practice at New York University School of Law, said the message suggested that Orlins was more focused on the desired outcome than on due process.
“It looks like a vindictive thing,” said Murphy, who supports a rival candidate, Alvin Bragg.
In an interview, Mrs. Orlins said she did not regret the tweet.
“I’m passionate about what I believe in,” she said. She said that if elected, she would still evaluate the evidence against the Trump family without prejudice.
Some candidates were more circumspect when approaching the elephant in the room, answering questions about Mr. Trump, emphasizing his experience in investigating powerful people.
Liz Crotty, who worked for 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 investigated the finances of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator.
Diana Florence, a former Manhattan prosecutor, cited her story of taking on real estate and construction fraud to demonstrate that she would not be afraid to pursue the wealthy and influential.
Mr. Vance’s office began his current investigation of Mr. Trump in 2018, initially focusing on the Trump Organization’s role in silent cash payments made during the 2016 presidential campaign for two women who claimed to have had affairs with Mr. Trump.
Since then, prosecutors have suggested in lawsuits that their investigation has expanded to focus on potential financial crimes, including insurance and bank fraud. Mr. Vance did not reveal the scope of his investigation, citing the secrecy of the grand jury.
In August 2019, Mr. Vance’s office sent a summons to Mr. Trump’s accounting firm requesting eight years of his tax returns. Mr. Trump repeatedly tried to block the subpoena. On Monday, the Federal Supreme Court put an end to your efforts, with a short, unsigned order that required Mr. Trump’s accountants to release their records.
Tahanie Aboushi, a civil rights lawyer who is competing, said Vance’s failure to sue Trump previously 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 improper conduct, for which the poor and blacks are severely punished.
“None of my policies are directed at Trump or a direct response to Trump,” she said in an interview. “It is the system as a whole and how it is operated historically.”
Other candidates have focused on their experience in managing complex cases, on a tacit recognition of the obstacles ahead in a possible lawsuit against a former president. Lucy Lang, a former Vance government prosecutor in the dispute, praised her familiarity with long-term cases in Manhattan courts, including his leadership in a two-year investigation into a gang of Harlem dealers.
Daniel R. Alonso, who was Mr. Vance’s vice president from 2010 to 2014 and is now in private practice, said any potential case would be a “difficult battle”.
“You cannot have an AAD that does not have the severity and level of experience to know how to handle the case,” he said.
Several of the contenders already have experience in suing the Trump administration and handling the scrutiny that comes with it.