Trump Loses a Big Battle in His Lifelong War Against Accountability

His 34 guilty convictions turn this escape artist into a felon.

A black-and-white tightly cropped portrait of Donald Trump. With furrowed brow, Trump's stares directly into the camera lens.

Michael M. Santiago/Getty

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Donald Trump has been in a war with accountability his entire adult life, and accountability has usually lost. In a New York City courtroom on Thursday, accountability triumphed, when a jury of his fellow citizens found Trump guilty on 34 felony counts for falsifying business records to cover up his hush-money/election-interference payment to porn star Stormy Daniels. This historic case—the first criminal trial of a former president and of a major party presidential nominee—showed that the legal system could handle the prosecution of a person of such high status, wealth, and influence and that Trump’s long run as an escape artist has (pending an appeal) come to an end.

After decades of crookedness, it’s finally official: Trump is a felon.

For years, Trump has gotten away with it—whatever “it” was. He misled investors in his early real estate deals. He cut deals with mobsters. He abused undocumented employees. He walked away from huge casino bankruptcies. He didn’t pay contractors. He lied incessantly as a businessman. He peddled racism (see the Central Park Five and his promotion of the racist birther conspiracy theory). He pretended to be a non-existent publicist to plant positive stories about himself in the press. He cynically flip-flopped on loads of important issues. He was accused of sexual harassment and assault and relentlessly spewed misogynistic remarks. He was a loudmouth lout who trampled on norms, rules, and decency—and perhaps violated laws.

His biggest escapes came during the 2016 campaign, when he sidestepped culpability for aiding and abetting Russia’s attack on the election by denying it was happening (thus providing cover for a foreign adversary’s assault on America) and, more obviously, when he survived the fallout from the emergence of the Access Hollywood video in which he bragged that, due to his celebrity, he could grab women “by the pussy.” His election that year was his ultimate triumph (so far) over accountability. None of his past or present malfeasance prevented him from snatching the keys to the nation’s prime political real estate.

Imagine how that victory fueled Trump’s sense of impunity. On the campaign trail, he had crudely joshed that he could shoot somebody in the “middle of Fifth Avenue” and not “lose any voters.” (Factcheck: Maybe—at least among the GOP base). Trump’s election demonstrated that honesty, decency, ethics, and, yes, accountability did not matter to many voters. (Hillary Clinton had her own problems in these areas, but they couldn’t hold a candle to Trump’s blowtorch.) Trump had defied multiple standards of probity, and he was mightily rewarded. In fact, it may well be that many of his voters loved him for his scoundrel ways and his ability to elude punishment for his never-ending run of transgressions. They wanted an SOB in the White House.

As president, Trump continued to evade responsibility for his misdeeds. He was impeached for muscling a foreign president to manufacture dirt on Joe Biden—but the Senate Republican majority voted against conviction. And no matter his offense—profiting off the presidency, engaging in brazen conflicts of interest, fueling a politics of hatred and polarization, politicizing the Justice Department, trying to impose an illegal Muslim ban, encouraging cronyism and nepotism, failing to act on basic policy promises regarding health care and the infrastructure, allegedly obstructing justice, and grossly mismanaging the tragic Covid pandemic (and causing the avoidable deaths of 200,000 or so Americans)—the Republican Party and his tens of millions of supporters stayed fiercely loyal to him.

As a president, Trump confronted the ultimate moment of accountability—and he lost his bid for reelection in the 2020 election (just barely). Finally, he had to answer for his wrongdoings. The voters had cast judgment and punished him for his actions. Presidencies have consequences. His was, you’re fired.

Not surprisingly, Trump could not accept this chastisement. He concocted the Big Lie about the 2020 election, covertly plotted to overturn the results, incited the insurrectionist riot at the Capitol on January 6, 2021, and that day did nothing at first to stop the violence and defend the Constitution, presumably believing the melee would prevent the certification of the election results and perhaps offer him further opportunity for scheming to stay in power.

Once more, he was back on the same path: no accountability. His assault on the constitutional order did not lead to political exile or even excommunication from the Republican Party. After he was impeached a second time by the House, with a smidgeon of Republican support, a bipartisan majority in the Senate supported conviction. But with most Republicans standing by Trump, the vote against him fell short of the necessary two-thirds majority. He was in the clear. More important, the GOP’s leaders and voters remained devoted to the man who had attempted a coup against American democracy. Yet again, there were no immediate consequences for Trump’s wrongdoing.

New York City’s case made Trump face the music before he faces the voters.

After that, the record was mixed. Trump was found liable in civil trials for sexually assaulting and defaming writer E. Jean Carroll and ordered to pay $88.3 million, and his business, the Trump Organization, was found guilty of massive fraud and fined $355 million. (Trump is appealing these cases.) And he was indicted in four criminal cases—two for endeavoring to subvert the 2020 election results, one for allegedly swiping top-secret documents, and the New York City case.

With three of the four criminal cases bogged down by either legal maneuvering or side-show controversy, the hush-money/election-interference case up to now has presented the best opportunity for Trump to face the music before he faces the voters as the GOP’s 2024 presidential nominee. For all his crookedness over the decades, he has finally been judged a criminal. It’s official: Trump, a past president and current presidential candidate, is a felon.

This unprecedented conviction aside, Trump still has dodged legal accountability for much of his assorted misconduct, particularly his attempt to destroy the American democratic system. The New York case involved merely one sleazy episode—though it aptly captured the sordid world of celebrity, lies, hush-money, and fake news from which Trump emerged. Yet none of that—including his alleged tryst with a porn star while his wife was home with a four-month-old baby and Trump’s scuzzy deal with the Nation Enquirer to publish scurrilous stories about his political rivals and to catch-and-kill unfavorable ones about him—have yielded career repercussions for Trump. Long before the verdict was in, the Republicans essentially rewarded him with their nomination and a shot at redemption and presidential restoration.

If Trump succeeds in reclaiming the White House, he will be able to end the two federal criminal cases against him, thus smothering a key effort to hold him accountable for his biggest and most serious misdeed of all. Only the Georgia RICO case against him and 18 others who allegedly plotted to undo the 2020 election results would remain. And there’s no telling how a state case would proceed against a sitting president, let alone what might happen, in that instance, should it continue and a jury finds Trump guilty.

For now, though, Trump is branded by the criminal justice system a lawbreaker. This is not likely to affect his standing with his followers and the Republican Party. And it is quite possible he could go scot-free for his unsuccessful connivings to blow up an election and grab power. This trial is merely one battle. Trump’s war against accountability is far from over.

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