Trump’s Felony Conviction Means Less Than You Might Think

We are continuously told that Donald Trump’s conviction would be epochal, historic. This is perhaps true, but it means much less than we think.

The truth is that politicians get charged with crimes all the time. Many of them are convicted. U.S. Senator Robert Menendez is currently under indictment. Former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich served time in prison and emerged, as many criminals seem to, with a renewed appreciation for Trump.

Even the conviction of a former president is novel only in the American context. Many global heads of state of democratic countries (France, Japan, Israel, etc.) have gone to prison.

In a global sense, Trump’s conviction in a court is not just fair but overdue. He has been flouting the law his entire adult life. Trump reportedly believed he enjoyed legal impunity due to his relationship with Manhattan’s prosecutor, though the basis for that belief has never been established. The extent of his criminality has oddly escaped noticed, perhaps overshadowed by his constant offenses against truth and decency, or perhaps because people tend to think stealing is a crime when you aim a gun at a clerk but not when you create phony companies and bilk the Treasury.

Once he ascended to the presidency, Trump’s criminality only grew. He issued illegal orders constantly, flummoxing his staff. He attempted (with unrecognized partial success) in turning the powers of the Justice Department into a weapon against his enemy, which was in turn an expression of his criminal’s view of the law: as an inherently hypocritical tool of the powerful against the weak.

The incongruity of the Manhattan case as the venue for Trump’s legal humiliation is that it did not represent his worst crimes, or close to it. The case was always marginal, the kind of charge you would never bring against a regular first-time offender. It was the sort of charge you’d concoct if the target is a bad guy and you want to nail him for something.

This, too, is not without precedent. Al Capone’s conviction for tax evasion is the paradigmatic example (one which fits his own case so closely Trump has felt compelled, seemingly as a kind of Freudian slip, to invoke the comparison). Hunter Biden was charged with lying about drug use on his firearm application, a crime so picayune it makes Trump’s conviction for high-money payments look like the St. Valentine’s Day massacre.
The legal ramifications of this weakness will play out in some indeterminate, possibly terrible fashion. Republicans will seek revenge, and are already demanding it.

It’s possible that future criminal charges, all of which have a much stronger basis, will overshadow this conviction. The trouble is that all those trials are delayed, either by Trumpy judges, the indecisiveness of the Justice Department, or missteps by the prosecution.

Trump may win the election, come to power, and quash all the remaining cases. In that case, his Manhattan prosecution could well stand out as a weak-sauce gesture, one he and his allies cite as their rationale to harass Trump’s enemies with spurious charges.

If he loses the election, however, then he likely will face trial for attempting to steal the 2020 election, and then stealing classified documents, refusing to give them back repeatedly, and engineering a cover-up. In that case, the hush-money case will live as something not much larger than a footnote, the first pebble in a legal landslide.

Life isn’t fair, nor is the legal system. Throughout Trump’s life, the unfairness has run overwhelmingly in his favor. The balance of the unfairness remains on his side. He is now officially a criminal, but that is a designation that a fair system would have applied to him long ago.

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