Donald Trump Becomes First U.S. President to Face Criminal Charges After Decades of Evading Legal Consequences for Alleged Crimes
Former U.S. president Donald Trump departs Trump Tower before heading to Manhattan Criminal Court, where he surrendered himself to police for arrest, followed by an arraignment hearing, April 4, 2023. Photo: Gotham/GC Images
On his way to court Tuesday to turn himself in to custody, Donald J. Trump posted this on Truth Social: “Seems so SURREAL — WOW, they are going to ARREST ME. Can’t believe this is happening in America. MAGA!”
After living through Trump’s bizarre and ultimately disastrous four-year run as leader of the free world — during which time he overturned political order, broke all established rules, crossed all the lines, alienated allies, triggered two impeachments, tried to overturn an election and provoked an assault on democracy — it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that he has now become the first former U.S. president ever to face criminal charges.
That historical event began unfolding today in New York. Shortly after 1 p.m., the former president left Trump Tower, raised his fist and waved to cameras before getting into one of several idling black SUVs. Escorted by an NYPD squad car, Trump’s motorcade took him through the streets of New York to Manhattan Criminal Court, where he surrendered himself to police for arrest.
Trump was booked by investigators, fingerprinted and then taken to the courtroom. Early pictures emerging from the courtroom depicted him as grim, annoyed and tired, like any other defendant facing his our her day in court.
Trump pleaded not guilty to all the 34 counts of falsifying business records before State Supreme Court Justice Juan M. Merchan. “Thirty-four false statements made to cover up other crimes. These are felony crimes in New York State,” said Manhattan District Attorney Alvin L. Bragg. Although he wouldn’t say which crimes Trump violated, but said one of them involved conspiracy to undermine New York State election law and submitting false statement to authorities.
The charges revolve around US$130,000 of hush-money payments he made to porn star Stormy Daniels to keep their alleged 2006 affair a secret during the 2016 election campaign.
Bragg will set out to prove that these payments constituted illegal campaign donations. To do so, he will lean on the testimony of Michael D. Cohen, the president’s former attorney to prove how silencing Daniels benefitted Trump’s 2016 campaign.
Trump has called the arrest “political persecution and election interference at the highest level” and has used it to galvanize support for his 2024 presidential run and raise millions for his war chest. His Republican allies in Washington are adopting similar language, using terms like “witch hunt” and “weaponizing the justice system.” Democrats are sticking with their key message that “nobody is above the law.”
Of all the litany of charges that might have been levelled for his past personal, business or political misdeeds, being hauled in for making illegal campaign donations seems almost absurd as, say, Al Capone getting arrested for tax evasion. Yet, even while the charges don’t seem to fit, and may not even stick, the camp and drama of the affair — with porn stars and ex-fixers seeking revenge — has the world tuning in on this never-ending reality show.
A Measure of (Long Overdue) Justice
Trump was the oldest inaugurated U.S. president when he reached the Oval Office at age 70 in 2017 (current U.S. President Joe Biden eclipsed that record when he was inaugurated at age 78 in 2021). And it’s true, Trump projects an air of youthfulness that appears, at least in terms of physicality, to widen the age gap between he and Biden.
Yet, on a more important front, despite the old adage suggesting that with age comes wisdom, Trump — during his time in office and post-presidency — tends to veer in the opposite direction.
Protected by his immense privilege, as well as family wealth and connections, his entire life, Trump devolves into childish behaviour when he doesn’t get his way. He’s 76 now but acts — and sometimes, in his social media posts, writes and spells — like a toddler, throwing tantrums while blaming everyone but himself for his failings. Two impeachments, multiple criminal investigations, low approval ratings, losing his presidential reelection bid, lost elections for candidates he endorsed, etc. — it’s all someone else’s fault, be it his political opponents or the “Deep State” or “the radical left” or the media or “disloyal” fellow party members unwilling to further amplify his countless lies.
It’s a lifelong trend of habitually avoiding responsibility for his own actions and alleged crimes which, with this first indictment (there are likely more to follow), may come to an end.
“The media is missing the biggest reason this is so important: For the victims of Donald, this is finally some measure of justice,” Mary Trump, 57-year-old niece of the ex-president, tweeted following news of the indictment last week. “It’s been a long time coming, but after everything Donald has put this country through, WE HAVE PREVAILED.”
Of course, Uncle Donald’s numerous entanglements with the law are not limited to a few speeding tickets. As author and MSNBC host Mehdi Hasan explained last weekend on The Mehdi Hasan Show: “In terms of alleged criminality, Donald Trump makes Richard Nixon look like a choir boy.”
Hasan pointed to a USA Today report from 2016 — just months before the presidential election that Trump won — that notes an “analysis of legal filings across the United States finds that the presumptive Republican presidential nominee and his businesses have been involved in at least 3,500 legal actions in federal and state courts during the past three decades.”
The first, Hasan explained, actually dates back five decades, to 1973, when Trump and his real estate developer father, Fred Trump, were accused of violating the Fair Housing Act by discriminating against Black renters in their buildings. Here, Trump began establishing a pattern that has served him well throughout his lifetime of legal battles — settling out of court to make the problem go away.
“We should be focussing on how no former president has been accused of the sheer number of crimes [Trump’s] been accused of,” Hasan added. “We should be focussed on how few people in America — let alone former presidents — have spent five decades being accused of lawless behaviour but never facing any real legal consequences.”
Fortune notes that, when it comes to Trump’s history of alleged criminality, “There have been probes into his casino and real estate dealings, allegations of bribery and improper lobbying, fraud allegations against the now-defunct Trump University and charitable Trump Foundation and a probe by the Manhattan district attorney into sales at the Trump SoHo hotel-condominium in Lower Manhattan.”
And that’s not counting the numerous examples of all-out bad behaviour that Trump seemingly has never had to answer for since first launching a run for the presidency in 2015: just a few examples include the Access Hollywood tape where he admitted to sexually assaulting women; calling white supremacists marching in American streets “very fine people”; denying the results of free and fair elections and allegedly attempting to overturn the results; and, as many contend, using his rhetoric to incite the Jan. 6, 2021 insurrection that resulted in the deadly attack on the Capitol Building.
And then, of course, there’s his repeated weaponizing of the presidency, as well as the Justice Department, to attack his political opponents — which, ironically, Trump and his allies in the media and government now falsely claim is happening to him.
That’s why Noah Bookbinder, president of the group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), told Fortune that the indictment of Trump in the Stormy Daniels hush money case is so important.
“It makes accountability absolutely essential because we can’t have people in a functioning democracy operating in positions of power with total impunity where they can commit crimes and never have to face any consequences.”
And Bookbinder isn’t alone in his thinking. Historian Ruth Ben-Ghiat — a scholar in authoritarianism and fascism — tweeted “The essence of authoritarianism is getting away with crime. That’s why this indictment is so important.” And Harry Litman, the senior legal affairs columnist for the Los Angeles Times, wrote in the publication that, “We should pause for a moment to appreciate the giant step that Manhattan Dist. Atty. Alvin Bragg has taken toward accountability for a man who has shown nothing but contempt for the rule of law.”
This is why those who downplay the Stormy Daniels hush money payment as the lowest-hanging fruit of Trump’s crimes — and, as a result, hardly worth prosecuting — are missing the point.
It’s about accountability for any crime. It’s about proving that no one is above the law in any instance, no matter how rich or powerful you may be. It’s about setting a standard for any future president who may have criminal intent on their mind.
To that end, many experts have suggested that now that the first historic indictment of a former president is out of the way, other prosecutors may feel more free to bring their own criminal charges against Trump.
“I have long maintained that no prosecutor wants to be the first to charge a former president of the United States,” MSNBC legal analyst Glenn Kirschner, who is also a former assistant U.S. attorney, wrote. But, he added, “I have seen a phenomenon that becomes relevant here when defendants commit crimes in multiple jurisdictions. Once prosecutors in one jurisdiction bring charges, prosecutors in other involved jurisdictions will often feel a greater sense of urgency to indict the same defendant to address the crimes committed in their jurisdictional backyards.”
And when it comes to further charges against Trump from other jurisdictions, there are numerous possibilities to choose from.
To start, there’s Special Counsel Jack Smith, who is leading a criminal investigation into Trump related to classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago home post-presidency, including new evidence this week that Trump may have obstructed justice as the government attempted to retrieve the documents. Smith is also leading the criminal investigation into Trump’s role in attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election and if he contributed to the incitement of the insurrection at the Capitol Building.
In Georgia, investigators are leading a criminal investigation into whether Trump attempted to overturn the state’s election results in 2020, while in New York, State Attorney General Letitia James is pursuing a lawsuit which, the New York Times explains, “accused Mr. Trump … of lying to lenders and insurers by fraudulently overvaluing his assets by billions of dollars.”
And, don’t forget, there are two defamation trials looming against Trump, brought on by E. Jean Carroll, who claims the former president raped her.
In addition, while it doesn’t pose a legal threat to Trump, the billion-dollar Dominion Voting System lawsuit against Fox News — the ex-president’s largest media supporter and ally — shed light on private correspondence from some of the network’s most famous personalities mocking Trump lies and talking points, including his contention that the 2020 election was stolen.
At the end of the day, Trump’s decades of evading justice for alleged crimes may have finally caught up with him. And if he is eventually tried and convicted for stealing classified documents, attempting to overthrow an election or overturn results, inciting an insurrection against the United States or even a hush money payment to a porn star, it will prove the vital point that the justice system — though plodding and faulty and full of holes — eventually prevails, and that no person (or former president) is above the law.
Because justice is the point.