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New York civil suit against Trump could be a federal case

Donald Trump speaks behind a sign at

Donald Trump speaks behind a sign at a fundraiser in Des Moines, Iowa, during Trump's 2016 campaign for president. New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood filed a lawsuit accusing Trump of illegally using his charitable foundation to pay legal settlements related to his golf clubs and to bolster his presidential campaign. Credit: AP / Andrew Harnik

They say no good deed goes unpunished.

But what if the deeds weren’t good at all?

The New York attorney general’s office is no stranger to going after charities that have behaved badly. But current Attorney General Barbara Underwood’s extensive, extraordinary lawsuit against the Donald J. Trump Foundation brings the meaning of self-dealing to a new level.

If the suit’s allegations prove true — and the evidence cited is strong — the foundation existed as little more than Trump’s personal, professional and political piggy bank.

Underwood’s allegations of flagrant disregard for state and federal laws would be stupefying with respect to any charity, but are particularly disturbing given the foundation’s connections to the president and his campaign. In the filing, Trump’s foundation is described as “an empty shell” without a functioning board of directors since at least 1999. It alleges that Trump used his foundation to settle legal claims against his for-profit businesses, including one with a golfer who sought winnings for making a hole-in-one at Trump National Golf Club in Westchester.

The more alarming accusations claim the foundation engaged in political activities connected to and coordinated with Trump’s presidential campaign. If proved, that’s a clear violation of federal election law, as well as New York’s election law.

Remember Trump’s hyped fundraiser for veterans in Iowa before that state’s 2016 caucuses? In the days after the event, the lawsuit alleges, campaign staff, including then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, directed how and when charitable contributions from the foundation to veterans charities would be made. Large checks bearing the foundation’s name were presented at campaign rallies.

In a world where Trump’s many business interests are intertwined with his presidency, where his fixer, Michael Cohen, is accused of making payments through a shell company to hush a porn star who says she had an affair with Trump, and where Trump’s children’s business dealings have come under fire, this monkey business with his charitable foundation might seem like just another day at the office. It’s not.

In any other presidency, at any other time, these accusations would be enormously damaging. But this presidency is already overtaken by other controversies. Still, the accusations made against Trump and his foundation won’t be swept aside.

Trump has called the case “ridiculous” and promised not to settle. The state’s case certainly will play out for all to see, but it mustn’t stop there. Underwood made referrals to both the Internal Revenue Service and the Federal Election Commission, and sent her complaint to the U.S. Department of Justice’s criminal division. There’s enough evidence in the referrals alone to generate further investigation to see whether a federal civil or criminal case is appropriate and whether a new independent counsel should be appointed.

After all, even real estate developer Trump would know that if the foundation is cracked, and all that’s left is an empty shell, the house of self-dealing probably won’t stand for long. — The editorial board