While Robert Mueller’s investigation is (probably?) approaching its conclusion, many other investigations into Trump’s corrupt or illegal behavior are just getting started. Trump has long dismissed the Russia probe as a “hoax” and “witch hunt,” slogans his supporters have fleshed out with an elaborate conspiracy theory involving a deep state cabal working in tandem with the Clinton campaign to frame him. The task of dismissing all the other investigations is far more diffuse.
Trump’s strategy is to aggregate the broad category “miscellaneous non-Russia investigations” into a category he calls “presidential harassment.” This catch-all term encompasses investigations by the House of Representatives, the Southern District of New York, the New York attorney general’s office, and others. His allies are only beginning to articulate a theory of what lies behind all these accusations. As usual, indefatigable conservative reporter Byron York is leading the way. York’s latest column — “Yes, Trump is target of ‘presidential harassment’” — provides the state-of-the-art iteration of the president’s legal defense.
“The fact is,” York writes, “Trump has a point.” This is actually an opinion, not a fact, but never mind — let’s proceed to his points, such as they are.
York dismisses the demand that Trump release his tax returns as completely unfounded: “The demand is based primarily on suspicion that Trump must have done something wrong with his taxes or he would have long ago released the returns.” Of course, given the well-established norm of presidential candidates disclosing their tax returns, Trump’s refusal to do so is definitely grounds for suspicion. But York’s idea that this is the primary basis of suspicion is pretty wild.
There is a vast body of public evidence that Trump’s tax returns are concealing illegal or compromising relationships. Last fall, the New York Times discovered that Trump received more than $400 million from his father, most of its laundered to evade taxes utilizing a variety of fraudulent schemes. Since his father’s passing, the source of laundered funds has shifted to Russian oligarchs, though he has also engaged in suspicious deals with autocrats and gangsters across the world.
York likewise complains that Trump’s insurance broker was subpoenaed by the New York State Department of Financial Services. The subpoena came after Michael Cohen, Trump’s former fixer turned state’s witness, testified that he committed insurance fraud. York deems this unfair, on the grounds that “Cohen, who has pleaded guilty to lying to Congress and faces serious questions about the truthfulness of his latest testimony, supplied no details.”
In fact, Cohen’s testimony is not the only evidence here. Just as with Trump’s apparent history of money laundering and tax fraud, there is ample public evidence that he filed false insurance claims. But even if that evidence did not exist, it seems strange that York would complain that Cohen’s testimony spurred an investigation. Yes, Cohen has lied, because that’s what you do when you’re loyal to Trump. Now that he’s not loyal to Trump anymore, there’s much less reason to doubt his veracity. Cohen spoke under oath, thus carrying a penalty of perjury. Cohen has little apparent reason to make up charges against Trump, as evidenced by his decision to refute several charges against his former boss. One of the conservatives who — as recently as a few weeks ago — cited those comments and took them at face value is York himself.
For York, the notion that Trump has done nothing wrong, or at least no more wrong than a typical president, is not the conclusion of his argument but the starting point. From this premise, he interprets all the investigations into his conduct as evidence of the unfairness or desperation of the president’s adversaries.
York reports that he asked law professor Andrew Coan “whether there is precedent for a U.S. Attorney’s office conducting a wide-ranging, open-ended investigation of a sitting president.” Coan replied, “The short answer is no. I am aware of no comparable prior investigation.”
That’s true! But it’s not because he’s being harassed. It’s because, before Trump, the president of the United States has never been a career criminal.