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Turns Out, Trump Isn’t Above the Law
“Ladies and Gentlemen! Tonight, for the main event in the center ring…”!
The indictment of former President Donald Trump, on 34 felony charges stemming from hush money payments to an adult film actor, more than anything else, has a numbing effect. We simply cannot expel this egomaniac from the center of our national debate, so we sigh, shake our heads, and try to move along through the noise.
The media circus surrounding the indictment hasn’t been this frenzied over celebrity crime since O.J. Simpson got into his Ford Bronco nearly 30 years ago. It doesn’t help that Trump has been eating up the coverage, raising money off of his persecution complex, and getting a polling boost for his run to be reelected in 2024. At least, until the photographers printed those unflattering pictures of him sulking through his arraignment hearing.
The charges themselves, brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, are rather mundane. Each charge points to a single falsified business record, in relation to payments Trump made through shell companies; his lawyer, Michael Cohen; and the National Enquirer to two unnamed women, presumably the adult film actor Stormy Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, and to an unnamed doorman who tried to shop a story about an illegitimate child. (The Enquirer eventually concluded that story wasn’t true, but paid to keep it quiet until after the election anyway.)
The national media loves to talk about Trump’s “tawdry” actions at the root of the charges, but that’s missing the mark. This case will sink or swim based on those very narrow charges under New York state’s business laws, but that’s nowhere near as sexy as the “hush money to a porn star” angle. And when the media finds the circus isn’t interesting enough, they’ll put on clown makeup and get in the ring themselves.
Everyone has an opinion of Trump’s indictment, usually formed before reading any of the charges. Should he be indicted at all? Was it smart to have the Manhattan D.A. file charges first? Isn’t this setting us up for more disappointment/violence/Trump’s reelection in 2024? And why is Bragg bringing these charges when he walked away from a more compelling tax fraud case?
At the end of the day, most of those questions are moot. A person commits a crime, a prosecutor or grand jury determines there is probable cause to bring charges, an indictment or arrest follows, and then comes a trial. That’s the procedure. The fact that the suspect in question is the former president of the United States, or that he’s simultaneously being investigated for serious crimes in multiple jurisdictions, is beside the point. A charge is a charge is a charge, and that’s the way the justice system is supposed to operate: focused only on the facts at hand, independent of any outside factors.
Trump has escaped personal accountability for his behavior his entire life.
The reality is that our justice system often falls quite short of that ideal, as any fair-minded observer would note. Just look to our nation’s history of state-sanctioned violence against Black and Indigenous people from the 1500s to the present, labor unions and organizers, communists and suspected sympathizers of left-wing causes, anti-war demonstrators, women in general (including victims of rape and domestic violence, sex workers (of all genders), and women seeking abortions), LGTBQ+ people (whether while incarcerated, demanding rights in the public square, or just trying to have a drink in a private bar with their friends), and more. The difference with Trump is a matter of degree: In just seven years, his administration and followers have targeted all of the above, plus the media that reported on that violence.
We shouldn’t kid ourselves that Trump will ever spend a day in prison—the sheer logistical challenge of securing the personal safety of a former president, even in a “Club Fed”-style light-security facility, makes that nearly impossible. The best possible outcome would be to have him banned from public office for life, but the Republican Party already decided to give him a pass on that one. He might have his assets seized, his businesses closed, his family shunned forever. He might get an ankle monitor and detention in his gilded Florida “prison,” but he’ll never be looking at the rest of the world through bars. Hundreds of thousands of people have suffered worse for lesser crimes, or for none at all.
But we can expect Trump to use his time-proven tactics of filing countless frivolous pretrial motions to delay the case in an effort to run out the clock until he wins the 2024 presidential election. After which, he’ll pardon himself and then fight to delay any reckoning on that violation of all that is good and lawful until long after he’s dead.
And if the worst of all possible outcomes occurs, and Trump does find himself ensconced in the Oval Office on Jan. 21, 2025, it’s easy to imagine that the first thing he’d do is order his interim attorney general to arrest Joe Biden, legal reasoning be damned, plus anyone else who he believes wronged him during his spectacular failure of his first term: Robert Mueller, Nancy Pelosi, Hillary Clinton a hundred times over, Barack Obama. There is no depth to which Trump will not sink to satisfy his bottomless, foundational hunger for revenge.
But even as we dread that possibility (and we’d be foolish to think it couldn’t happen), the flaws of our justice system do not begin and end with Trump’s unique ability to manipulate them. Trump didn’t do anything new (aside from launching an attempted coup to remain in power after he lost reelection), he just pushed to new heights every unconscionable behavior we’d seen in previous presidents, from paying to cover up affairs to betraying Americans to hostile foreign powers to stealing an election from the winner of the vote. Our presidents, congresspeople, governors, police, CEOs, and other powers in our society have always pushed the boundaries of legality and often gotten away with it.
Trump has escaped personal accountability for his behavior his entire life (his company, however, not so much), so there’s no reason why the most un-self-reflective politician in U.S. history should believe the outcome of his current morass would be any different.
Granted, no U.S. president has ever tried to overthrow our democracy before. And there’s good evidence that charges related to the Jan. 6 insurrection are forthcoming from Special Counsel Jack Smith. As are potential charges around Trump’s retention (i.e., theft) of classified documents, and from Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis around his caught-on-tape attempt to commit election fraud.
And if Manhattan D.A. Bragg’s indictment over hush payments to Stormy Daniels and others seems somewhat deaf to the political reality we’re facing, again, that’s by design. Prosecutors from separate jurisdictions filing separate criminal cases aren’t supposed to collaborate to achieve the most ideal political outcome.
If Trump has to burn jet fuel flying between court dates in New York, Washington, and Atlanta, well, that’s on him. But it’s also on us to deal with the fallout from the justice system in the political sphere.
And if Trump gets a ratings or funding boost as his unhinged minions triple-down on their persecution complex, well, they were going to do that anyway. As a nation that is allegedly rooted in certain principles of fairness and equality (no matter how imperfectly applied), we can’t refrain from applying our standards of justice equally because we’re worried about what other people might do in response.
Another way of looking at the current situation is this: The Prohibition-era mobster Al Capone has been plausibly linked to anywhere from a few dozen to hundreds of murders, plus all the other crimes a racketeer of the age would be privy to. Yet Capone was put away for income tax evasion, which had the same effect as putting him away for murder would have done—he lost control of his gang and businesses, and by the time he was released, he was too sick (with neurosyphilis, contracted in the days before penicillin) to be a threat anymore.
The Capone case also helped create the judicial precedent that illegal income is still taxable income under federal law, which is something we can appreciate more as Trump’s empire continues to unravel. And, like Trump, Capone was also prone to bragging about those crimes, believing he was above the law.
History will account for the true toll of Trump’s perfidy (turning COVID-19 into a political issue probably led to hundreds of thousands of preventable deaths from the disease, for example). But by the mere act of filing criminal charges against him, the nation is saying he is not, after all, above the law. A majority of Americans would agree.
In the case of l’affaire Stormie, it is possible prosecutors have finally caught up to Trump’s pre-presidential crimes and are soon moving on to those committed while in office. From the perspective of the media circus, the main act is about to begin.
Chris Winters is a senior editor at YES!, where he specializes in covering democracy and the economy. Chris has been a journalist for more than 20 years, writing for newspapers and magazines in the Seattle area. He’s covered everything from city council meetings to natural disasters, local to national news, and won numerous awards for his work. He is based in Seattle, and speaks English and Hungarian.