‘Teflon Don’ no more
It is historic, it is unprecedented, it is front-page news all over the country. The Teflon has been stripped away: Former President Trump has been indicted in the New York state courts.
We don’t know what the charges are, as the indictment is under seal until Trump is arraigned. But it is said to contain 34 counts of business fraud arising from a coverup, in the runup to the 2016 election, of a 2006tryst with a porn actress. We also don’t know what the evidence is, but politicians, like everyone else, are talking about the case.
Trump called the indictment “the darkest day in American history,” profaning memories of Antietam, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, not to mention Jan. 6. Trump’s attorneys have publicly argued that the prosecution is selective. But when are we likely to see someone else falsifying business records to conceal a $130,000 hush-money payment from a candidate to a porn actress in the waning days of a presidential campaign?
The charges had been aired before. The U.S. attorney’s office for the Southern District of New York under Biden’s Justice Department vetted the transaction in 2021 and decided not to indict, as the case paled by comparison to other alleged crimes Trump may have committed. Cy Vance, the immediate predecessor of New York County District Attorney Alvin Bragg, presented the case to the grand jury, which passed on this particular business fraud but was reportedly poised to prosecute Trump for fraud based on false financial statements submitted to banks to get loans.
To indict means to formally accuse, and while it commonly means the formal indictment by a grand jury, it may also mean accused in the court of public opinion. In the larger sense, Trump has long been indicted in the court of public opinion:
- Trump tried to extort Ukrainian President Zelensky to provide dirt on Joe Biden and his family in exchange for U.S. military assistance. He was impeached (indicted, in a sense) for that but not removed from office.
- He pressured Georgia’s secretary of state to “find” some 11,000 votes that would overturn his 2020 defeat in that state, and, when that failed, he solicited the Republican legislature in that state to ignore the will of the people and appoint a slate of electors who would keep him in office.
- He fomented a violent attack on the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. He was also impeached for this, but the charges fell short of conviction in the Senate.
- He mishandled classified documents that he illegally removed to his home at Mar-a-Lago, and he allegedly lied to his lawyers about their location in order to obstruct the government’s efforts to retrieve them.
For years Trump has been the “Teflon Donald,” evading legal accountability for his conduct. His ability to escape has been nothing short of miraculous. Using techniques of counterattack, deflection and delay, he has outwitted his adversaries at every turn. This time, it is different. It should come as no surprise that our legal system will act to hold any person to account for their crimes irrespective of their station or prior station in life. It is declared on the façade of the Supreme Court: “Equal Justice Under Law,” and I have always believed that is not an empty or outdated shibboleth.
Trump, last I checked, controls the Republican Party’s essential MAGA base, and GOP leaders were quick to spring to Trump’s defense, not knowing what the charges are and oblivious to the evidence.
House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) accused Bragg of “irreparably” damaging the country by interfering in a presidential election — a classic example of the kettle calling the pot black.
Fiery Congressman Jim Jordan (R-Ohio) sought to haul Bragg before the House Judiciary Committee. Sen. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) piled on, declaring, “This is going to destroy America.”
The indication is that Trump will surrender to authorities in New York next week to face the charges. How can he not if he wants to campaign in states other than Florida? He could hunker down in Florida and try to fight extradition.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, a possible rival for the GOP nomination, offered Trump criminal sanctuary, saying that he will not assist New York in extraditing Trump. “The weaponization of the legal system to advance a political agenda turns the rule of law on its head,” DeSantis tweeted, “It is un-American.”
DeSantis went on to attack Bragg: “Florida will not assist in an extradition request given the questionable circumstances at issue with this … Manhattan prosecutor and his political agenda.”
We are a government of laws, and the DeSantis position is contrary to Article IV of the Constitution, federal law and Supreme Court precedent.
Then there is the argument that we have become a banana republic by indicting our former leaders for political crimes after they leave office. The counter to this is the rule of law — that if the law and the facts warrant, no one is above the law.
And then there is the argument that any indictment of Trump will foment civil unrest and tear the country apart. So far, demonstrations, even near Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home, have been relatively small. The American people seem prepared to let the issue play out in the courts.
But there have been threats of violence, largely inspired by Trump himself. Trump earlier tweeted a photoshopped image of himself readying a baseball bat in the vicinity of Bragg’s head, promising “death and destruction” should he be indicted. There was a death threat in an envelope addressed to Bragg containing a white powder that wound up in Bragg’s mailroom.
The prosecution is not un-American and may spur other prosecutors, such as special counsel Jack Smith at the Department of Justice and Georgia state prosecutor Fani Willis, to conclude their investigations and bring other, more serious charges. Whatever happens, we must let the legal system play out.
James D. Zirin is a former federal prosecutor in the Southern District of New York.
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