Dystopia Journal #20: A Criminal President

Dystopia Journal #20: A Criminal President August 27, 2018

I’m not expecting much to come of this, but I have to admit it brought a smile to my face.

Last week in court, Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, pled guilty to felony campaign-finance charges stemming from illegal hush money payments to Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. With this, he joins the many other high-profile advisors and officials convicted of crimes. (Just as a side note, we all agree that Trump cheated on his wife multiple times and paid off his mistresses to keep quiet about it, and evangelical Christians are perfectly OK with this, right?)

What’s more, Cohen testified under oath that he made these payments at Trump’s direction. In other words, he’s directly implicating the president in a felony. If it was illegal for Cohen to make these payments, it should be obvious that it’s also illegal for Trump to tell him to do so.

This is totally unprecedented in American history. As this column by Noah Feldman points out, even during Watergate, we didn’t have such a direct accusation of criminal wrongdoing against the president:

The closest historical analogy is when Watergate special prosecutor Leon Jaworski named President Richard Nixon as an unindicted co-conspirator. That was based in part on testimony by John Dean, who had implicated Nixon in congressional testimony while Nixon was still in office. But even Dean’s 1973 guilty plea in court to obstruction of justice did not state that he had committed his crimes at the direction of the president.

With Cohen’s testimony, any decent prosecutor would find this case a slam dunk. This article chronicles Trump’s contradictory and constantly changing explanations, first saying he knew nothing about the payments, then saying Cohen made the payments on his own initiative, then admitting the payments came directly from him.

This may seem arcane and technical, but the campaign-finance laws exist for just this reason: so that political candidates can’t secretly bribe people who have damaging information about them to keep quiet about it. This is the exact law that was used to prosecute John Edwards, who was likewise indicted for campaign-finance violations over hush-money payments to his mistress (although a jury acquitted him).

The problem, of course, is that a sitting president can’t face criminal charges. (The possibility that Trump could face federal criminal charges after he’s left office is entertaining to contemplate, but wouldn’t mitigate the enormous damage he’s doing and will continue to do if allowed to serve out his term.)

The only avenue of response is impeachment, and I have little hope of that. As long as Republicans control Congress, they’ll allow him to break any laws he wants, as long as he signs whatever they put in front of him. Even Democrats have shown little appetite for it. Besides, removing Trump from office would only result in him being replaced with Mike Pence, which isn’t much of an improvement.

I can’t say whether running on impeachment would be politically advantageous for Democrats or not. What I can say is that we need to be giving more attention to whether it’s right.

Although we’ve often fallen short, America was founded on a noble vision: a government of laws and not of men, where justice is impartial and applies to everyone equally, from the lowest to the highest. Although our actual laws have often been corrupt, prejudiced or selectively enforced, that principle has animated all the agonizingly slow and hard-won progress we’ve made. All of that is in jeopardy now because of this administration.

If the president is allowed to break the law at will and get away with it – if he can lie and cheat and bribe and collaborate with foreign powers, if he can exploit his position to enrich himself and his family, if he can pardon his cronies to head off being prosecuted himself – then we don’t live in a nation of laws anymore, we live in a banana republic run by corrupt strongmen who use the law as a weapon to harass their enemies. It will set a precedent that all future politicians will pay attention to. It’s not entirely too late to reverse the damage, but it’s hard for me to see how that will happen.

Image credit: David Weekly, released under CC BY 2.0 license

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