President Trump, white-collar crook.
Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
The New York Times has published a massive investigation of President Trump’s finances, revolving around two important revelations. First, Trump was given far more financial support by his father than previously known — at least $413 million in today’s dollars, not the measly $1 million he claims to have received. Second, the mechanisms by which he received these transfers often crossed the line from aggressive or creative maneuvering into illegality. That the Times presents these conclusions so baldly — accusing him of “outright fraud” in the first sentence — in the face of Trump’s famous litigiousness, is a testament to the power and clarity of its findings.
That is to say, Trump was in the money-inheriting business. And that business was essentially, and not just incidentally, illegal. The Times found 295 income streams created by Fred Trump for his son, many of them illegal on their face. The English language has terms for people who make large sources of money from illegal activity: criminals.
The article makes clear that Trump is safe from criminal prosecution largely because tax-law enforcement is weak, and many of his apparently illegal activities took place too long ago to prosecute now. That does not minimize his culpability in any moral sense though. It’s merely a testament to the general immunity from consequences that wealthy people enjoy, and regular people do not.
The revelations illustrated the degree to which Trump was paradoxically the most under-vetted presidential candidate since the invention of American mass media. It’s not that there was a dearth of Trump coverage — just the opposite. There was so much Trump coverage, for so many years, that it overloaded the circuits. New Trump outrages kept crowding out old Trump outrages. Trump produced so much that was bizarre, offensive, unprecedented, or otherwise newsworthy that some of the basic vetting work could not be completed.
This was crucially abetted by his unprecedented financial secrecy — Trump was the only presidential candidate in four decades to refuse disclosure of his tax returns. That fact itself would have dominated the coverage of any normal candidate who tried it. But as Trump produced so many other extraordinary (and usually negative) stories about himself, the tax-return issue simply faded away.
So a man whose path to success was formed in large part by participating in schemes to hide and launder illegal handouts from his father managed to maintain the illusion that he was a successful law-abiding president. It probably would have mattered a lot if Trump had been widely described in the news media as the crook the Times reveals him to be. But there is no undoing his election now. It is an open question whether attacks on his crooked business activity will form a potent message against him in 2020, or whether voters will, more likely, dismiss it as irrelevant history.
One of the great accomplishments of Trump’s presidency has of course been to make America a place of even more unequal justice. The IRS budget for enforcement of tax cheating by the rich is collapsing. Trump is making the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency tasked with cracking down on fraudulent credit cards and banking, almost helpless. It has taken sundry other steps to protect corporations that rip off consumers from facing any consequences.
Trump’s presidency will enable more Trumps. His career as a white-collar criminal who ran for president as an alleged business genius is a metaphor for the exact thing he is doing as president. He is the crook who got away with it.