Crime And Punishment

I read the more credible left and right-wing Internet sites with a grain (or cup) of salt, knowing that they may begin with factually-accurate information, but that they will spin that information to make their points. Inevitably imperfect aspects of human society are typically treated as examples of pervasively evil intentions: Democrats are “socialists” who want to deprive you of your liberty and property; Republican businesspeople are “right-wing plutocrats” working night and day to worsen inequality.

It would be refreshing to read “this aspect of society isn’t working very well, and we should probably pay attention to it” rather than “this is the tip of the rotten iceberg and we need armed revolution.”

But a recent post originally from Daily Kos struck me as basically accurate.

In sentencing documents, the special counsel’s office referred to Paul Manafort’s crimes as both “bold” and “brazen.” The word they didn’t use was “overlooked,” but that’s also absolutely true. Manafort is heading to federal prison for the rest of his life on a list of felonies a mile long—but if a special prosecutor had not been appointed, he would, at this moment, be getting fitted for a new vest made from some endangered species.

 Manafort and his partner Rick Gates committed multiple felonies over a span of decades. They weren’t sly about it. They weren’t particularly cautious or clever or even competent in their efforts to cover up illegal lobbying, money laundering, and tax fraud. They just never expected to get caught because guys like them never do. The same is true of Roger Stone, who was another of Manafort’s partners at the lobbying firm charmingly known as the “Torturer’s Lobby” for its willingness to help out brutal dictators and even-more-brutal would-be dictators.

As the post went on to note, the appointment of a Special Prosecutor has uncovered criminal behaviors that probably would not have been prosecuted but for that appointment, beginning with Donald Trump. (Trump’s history of money laundering hasn’t exactly been a secret). That includes Michael Cohen and Michael Flynn and Erik Prince, among others.

The real revelation of the investigations into Trump and his foreign connections isn’t even that the man occupying the White House is a crook, and the man who ran the Republican convention three times and acted as an adviser to a half-dozen presidents is a crook, and so is his partner, and so is his partner, and so are they all. The real revelation is that it took a special counsel to see any of these men face serious prosecution no matter what they did, or how often they did it, or how “bold” their crimes might be.

Stripped of the somewhat florid language (and the unstated but implied accusation that all  rich people and their “fixers” fall into the same category), the post makes a valid point: the rule of law is not equally applied.

What Trump knows, and what should be the most sobering discovery to emerge from the entire investigation, is that, barring the extraordinary circumstances of a special counsel or someone with similar authority, men like him will not face justice for crimes. And in fact, they will go on lying, cheating, stealing, with impunity.

If we are honest, we know that the criminal justice system doesn’t treat rich and poor people–or white and black people–equally. David Cole’s eye-opening book, No Equal Justice, was published in 1999, and little has changed since then.

The problem isn’t simply the unfairness of a justice system that applies different standards to different groups. The problem is that–as evidence of the disparity becomes more obvious–respect for law declines. Precipitously.

The most basic premise of the rule of law is that the rules apply to everyone; that “similarly-situated” citizens have the same rights and duties, and are subject to the same legal constraints. And “similarly-situated” in this context does not refer to finances or skin color.

When government winks at privileged persons’ misdeeds while punishing similar–or lesser– behaviors by less fortunate citizens, there is no justice and no rule of law. And that’s a problem that deserves some florid prose.


About That “Witch Hunt”..

Well, well. Tuesday was certainly an interesting day.

Paul Manafort was convicted of tax fraud, and at almost the same time, Michael Cohen–aka Trump’s “fixer”–pled guilty to several counts of tax and bank fraud. Cohen’s plea implicated the President, as it included a confession that Cohen had made the hush money payments “at the direction of a federal candidate.”

The Manafort trial grew out of an investigation conducted by the Special Counsel, but the charges didn’t involve Trump. The conventional wisdom was that a conviction would give Mueller leverage to strike a deal–to get Manafort to flip. That remains to be seen, and of course, Manifort faces another trial, in another jurisdiction, in September.

At the very least, the conviction and guilty plea are evidence that–far from being a politically-motivated enterprise, as Trump has maintained, the investigation has focused on and uncovered significant and troubling illegal activities by the President’s close associates.

The media has been all over both stories, and the punditry is in overdrive. Vox had an explanation of “what it all means” in which it consulted several federal prosecutors and other legal experts; most of them said what anyone with a functioning brain already knew–this is more evidence that the Mueller investigation is anything but a “witch hunt,” these results aren’t good news for Trump, etc.

The one expert who genuinely added to my understanding of the various possibilities was Asha Rangappa, a former FBI agent who is now a senior lecturer at Yale, who raised some fascinating points I’d not previously considered.

A potentially bigger threat to President Trump is what Cohen could provide to the Southern District of New York about potential crimes committed by Trump or members of his family that are unrelated to the Russia probe. Michael Cohen, as Trump’s longtime “fixer” knows where the proverbial bodies are buried when it comes to the Trump Organization and particularly its finances going back many, many years.

If Cohen provided information on potentially criminal activities to the Southern District and it opened an investigation into them, it would place the President in a double bind: First, since it would be an investigation separate and apart from the Mueller probe, he wouldn’t be able to argue that the Special Counsel exceeded his mandate or crossed a “red line” — after all, any U.S. Attorney’s office is legally authorized (and duty-bound) to investigate any violations of federal law it learns about.

More importantly, such an investigation would be completely insulated from any steps Trump might take to fire Mueller, Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, or even Attorney General Jeff Sessions (especially since his interim pick to head the Southern District who recused himself from overseeing the Cohen investigation, would undoubtedly recuse himself from any other Trump-related investigation as well). So Trump has much more to fear from Cohen than just what he knows about Russia-related matters.

America’s system of federalism has often been an impediment to justice. For a long time, “state’s rights” was a euphemism for “the right of our state to discriminate.” But there is something so satisfying about the prospect of New York State pursuing Donald Trump, charging him with violations of state criminal laws in a process that he is powerless to obstruct–violations his pardon power could not reach if he and/or his family are found guilty of them.

And let’s get real. The odds are high that Trump–who has been accused of numerous nefarious activities and who has surrounded himself with gangsters and thugs throughout his career–is guilty of a variety of criminal activities.

Right now, of course, the action is all at the federal level. A sense of expectation has been triggered by these proceedings–a hint that perhaps, just perhaps, the noose is tightening and the investigation is coming to a conclusion.

I’d say “pass the popcorn” but who knows what our demented President will do as that noose tightens? After all, he still has the nuclear codes…..