The first two years of the Trump presidency were dominated by a prosecutorial worldview. The political drama of Trump’s presidency was consumed with legal threats, and Trump’s presumed chief antagonist, Robert Mueller, personified the antithesis of his gangster ethos.
In the anticlimactic wake of the Mueller probe, a broad cynicism about prosecutors and legal remedies has settled in. Mark Pomerantz, a senior Manhattan prosecutor who resigned, believes Trump has committed numerous serious felonies that will go uncharged. It is a measure of the prosecutorial worldview’s retreat that his outrage has barely made a ripple.
Pomerantz may or may not be right to question the refusal by his boss, Alvin Bragg, to bring charges against Trump. There are solid grounds for skepticism toward the viability of the case against Trump, and Bragg is certainly prudent to treat even a small chance of a not-guilty verdict as a catastrophic risk. But even granting that Trump couldn’t have been prosecuted, we don’t don’t need to accept this outcome as fair or natural.
The Trump era has damaged some conventional notions of bourgeois morality for which I have real fondness. I happen to believe that when you help yourself to money that you aren’t legally entitled to, that is called stealing. People who routinely engage in stealing are called crooks.
We don’t need to rely on Pomerantz’s say-so to evaluate Trump’s culpability. The public evidence is very extensive. As a practical matter, these crimes turn out to be difficult to prosecute. Trump famously refuses to write things down, scolds his aides and lawyers from taking notes in his presence, and manically destroys documents. Some of the crimes that are documented, like his years of systematic tax fraud proven by the New York Times, occurred too long ago to be charged today.
That said, the correct observation that certain crimes are difficult to charge seems to be transmuting into a sense that stealing is more or less acceptable. Even complaining about the fact that a once and potentially future president of the United States can be a career criminal has become deeply unfashionable.
The modern history of Ukraine shows the deeply corrosive effects of allowing this assumption to exist unchallenged. When a country gives up on the idea that rich people have to follow the law, the entire legitimacy of the state comes into question. Both the supporters and the enemies of Ukrainian sovereignty have understood for more than a decade that its very existence hinged on eliminating, or at least suppressing, the legal impunity enjoyed by its business class.
That belief is why Vice-President Joe Biden, at the tail end of the Obama administration, was pushing Ukraine to fire its ineffective prosecutor and install one who would make rich Ukrainians follow the law. And it is also why Vladimir Putin has so relentlessly used Ukrainian corruption as a pretext to violate his neighbor’s sovereignty.
Trump has spread a similar idea here. He has, of course, promiscuously accused all his antagonists of being crooks. But he has also insinuated his own complicity in their crookedness, bragging that he bought off politicians. The prosecutors who have tried to bring him to heel all look like losers. Mueller is a punchline. The broad cynicism that has set in about the rule of law is a genuine triumph for Trump.