Photo: Courtesy of Tristan Snell ’00

When Tristian Snell ’00 first began his investigation into Donald Trump’s Trump University in 2011, the former New York State assistant attorney general didn’t know whether he had a case. Six weeks into speaking with witnesses and examining evidence, and it was clear to Snell that he had a case. A big one.

Snell, who is a lawyer and frequent commentator on MSNBC, NPR, and CNN, went on to successfully prosecute Donald Trump for fraud in 2018, resulting in the former president having to shell out $25 million to his victims and representing his first major legal loss in half a century.

Now in his new book, Taking Down Trump: 12 Rules for Prosecuting Donald Trump by Someone Who Did It Successfully, Snell is revealing what it took to beat Trump — who is currently facing 88 felony counts as of mid-March. He presents tactics for success against Trump in court, including how voters and activists can hold prosecutors accountable and how to persevere in the face of legal stonewalling and counterattacks. PAW talked to Snell about his experience prosecuting Trump and the importance of restoring faith in the American judicial system.

Why did you decide to write this book?

In late 2022 and early 2023, it was clear to me that we were on a path where Trump was probably going to get indicted and tried, likely by multiple prosecutors. Yet it was equally clear to me that a very large percentage of my audience did not, and still does not, believe that he’s ever going to face any justice. There’s a lot of pessimism, if not outright cynicism, about whether justice is possible. I think that people have lost faith in the process. I wrote the book to give people a sense of hope and optimism, grounded in reality, to show that it really can be done — that it is possible to bring a major case like this against a powerful figure and win. It is painstaking and can be slow and seem frustrating to the outside observer, but often that is the kind of deliberate thoroughness that it takes to win.

Why do you think some people have lost faith in the U.S. judicial process?

There’s a number of high-profile people who have just been very, very, very difficult to bring down because they have a combination of money and ruthlessness — ruthless use of attorneys and a lot of unprofessional but effective tactics. These people have thereby been able to look like they’re evading the law. We aren’t really going to be able to have a system of “the rule of law” if we don’t believe that the law applies to everybody. That’s a bedrock principle that we cannot live without. If we can’t get that faith back, if we really believe that there’s a certain class of super oligarchs who are above the law, it’s going to be tough for us to continue as a country — and as a society.

What was the process of prosecuting Trump?

That case was just a grind. A slog. There’s no other way to put it. I think these things usually are. We just had to keep on chipping away. I talked to about a hundred people, witnesses, to get a very detailed portrait of what had happened. But it was just showing up, clocking your hours, looking at every single piece of material, figuring out where more material could be gotten from. Writing up the court papers. Crunching the numbers, sitting there with the spreadsheets, and figuring out what the numbers mean. You hardly ever go to court, and even if you do, the culture of the office really frowns on showboating of any kind. So you’re not going to get famous by doing that work.

You say that early on in your research for the case, you knew you were on to something. And this was in 2011, before anyone imagined that Trump would become president of the United States.

My job was to go see how “bad” the alleged fraud was, which was a different way of saying, how many more resources should we throw into this matter? I was able to report back about six weeks later that it was really horrible and I was able to say that with a great deal of detail. There was nothing political about doing this at all, simply the fact that a very big fraud had occurred and it was our job to try to get these people their money back.

You mention that the case stalled and almost died at several points along the way. What were the issues?

Most of them had to do with resistance up on the executive floor; Eric Schneiderman, who was then the attorney general, did not really want to go forward with the matter and was kind of on the fence a lot of the time. So sometimes we’d be able to go forward, sometimes we’d have to pull back. We finally won him over, and that’s what allowed us to go forward with the case. Then we had the frustrations with actually dealing with Trump’s lawyers and how much they were stonewalling us. We weren’t really getting much material out of Trump’s people, so we were unsure whether we were going to continue with the case. 

How did you manage to move forward?

We always had the witnesses. The witnesses were there from day one. Then we went and subpoenaed a whole bunch of other entities, who provided us with a lot of the material that we needed to make our case. Once we were able to do that, we were able to kind of break the case open with a lot more evidence to corroborate.

What are common mistakes that prosecutors make when trying big-name individuals, and what did your team do right that resulted in a conviction?

You have to understand that it’s going to be a marathon, not a sprint. It is going to take years and years and years to actually get to that outcome. You’ve got to be comfortable with that. You’ve got to fully commit and not think that there’s going to be some shortcut to a good settlement quickly. Also, it can’t just be that some people in the office think that it’s worth pursuing and other people are skeptical. Everybody has to be aligned and all in; it won’t go if you don’t have that. Then a bunch of things follow from that mindset. It guides you on pushing forward with your case. Should you just take what documents they give you and then call it a day? No, you should take the extra time to go subpoena all of these other vendors, for example.

The Trump Organization is actually a very small outfit. They outsource almost everything, so you can get a lot of what you need by going to the vendors. You’ve got to devote the extra resources and the extra time and take an attitude that this is a war of attrition and you’re not going to win right away. You have to take that same approach when you’re filing your documents because it’s also the moment at which you are starting to shape the narrative publicly. It’s not just your first crack at convincing the court, but it’s also your first crack at convincing the media and the public of the righteousness of your position as well. You’ve got to take the extra time to really keep on pushing and grind it out on those things, too.

Interview conducted and condensed by Agatha Bordonaro ’04