CLARK NEILY ON WASHINGTON D.C.: Trump Might Be a Criminal. But So Is Everyone Else: A question that now hangs like a miasma over D.C. is “Which of my staffers would hang me out to dry in order to avoid going to federal prison?”
Donald Trump has been credibly accused by his own lawyer of participating in a conspiracy to violate campaign finance laws. And he is going to skate.
Indeed, I predict Trump will emerge from the Michael Cohen kerfuffle more powerful, more energized, and more electable than he was going in. And it’s going to drive his opponents insane.
Let me say up front that I am not grinding an ax here. I believe Trump is a terrible role model, an unprincipled strongman, and an atrocious emissary of American values. But he keeps outfoxing his opponents, and I think he’s about to do so again.
The first thing to understand is that there are so many laws, so broadly written, that just about anyone who has earned money, paid taxes, and run a business—or, God forbid, a political campaign—can be credibly accused of multiple criminal violations. Harvey Silverglate’s estimate that the average American commits three felonies a day may be high, but his basic point is sound.
As a result, America’s social elite have granted themselves free passes to commit a broad array of nonviolent offenses without fear of prosecution. Those passes are quite valuable, because their holders can do riskier business deals, ignore more tax laws, and take fewer precautions (in the handling of classified materials, for example) than non-holders. While the passes are revocable in theory, they are seldom revoked in practice.
Until Robert Mueller, revoker of passes, came upon his pale horse. And indictments followed with him.
Which brings us to the felon of the day, President Trump’s Falstaffian former fixer, Michael Cohen. (Yes, he was technically indicted by the Southern District of New York, but the referral came from Mueller.) With great fanfare, prosecutors on Tuesday released a 22-page criminal information charging Cohen with five counts of tax evasion, one count of bank fraud, and two campaign-finance violations. That’s it? That’s like raiding Keith Richards’ medicine cabinet and coming back with a half-empty bottle of Nyquil. Where are the five-years-a-pop federal wiretapping charges for secretly taping conversations with Trump and others? Where are the de rigueur charges of lying to investigators? And most notably, where’s the deep dive into Cohen’s reported associations with members of New York’s professional criminal class—the one that rhymes with “snob”?
When everyone is a criminal, everything depends on who the prosecutor wants to go after.