A Grim Chronicle of Trump’s Corrupt Public Life

A Grim Chronicle of Trump’s Corrupt Public Life

A Grim Chronicle of Trump’s Corrupt Public Life

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s wide-ranging indictment of the former president just might stick—not that you’d know it if you read The New York Times.

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August 15, 2023

A Grim Chronicle of Trump’s Corrupt Public Life

Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis’s wide-ranging indictment of the former president just might stick—not that you’d know it if you read The New York Times.

Chris Lehmann
Fulton County DA Fani Willis at press conference for Trump indictment
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis speaks in the Fulton County Government Center during a news conference, Monday, August 14, 2023, in Atlanta. Donald Trump and several allies have been indicted in Georgia over efforts to overturn his 2020 election loss in the state. (John Bazemore / AP Photo)

In a suitably dramatic flurry of late-night filings and announcements, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis provided a legal breakdown of Donald Trump’s public career as a mob chieftain. She has also indicted 18 other Trump allies and associates in a comprehensive account of coordinated effort to discredit and overturn the results of the free and fair 2020 presidential election. The indictment, which you can read here, covers a range of crimes, from forgery to solicitation of a violation of oath by a public officer to conspiring to commit impersonating a public officer. 

As the indictment’s grim chronicle of the Trump-driven coup-in-the-making makes clear, much of Trump’s corrupt, self-dealing tour in American public life might well be summarized under the rubric of “conspiring to commit impersonating a public officer.” Willis’s 13 charges against the former president are grounded in Georgia’s Racketeering and Corrupt Influenced Organizations Act (RICO), and it goes through the plan to reverse the election at all levels, from the effort to publicize discredited and fabricated tales of election-worker corruption to the recruitment of slates of fake electors in swing states that Trump and his team of grifters and fixers sought to browbeat into his column after the balloting was over. But the pivotal act was Trump’s January 2021 call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger instructing him to “find” 11,000 votes to wipe out Joe Biden’s advantage in the state. That illegal overture, reported in real time, thanks to Raffensperger’s decision to tape the call, came as close as any moment in the chaos Trump spread in the weeks following the election to telegraphing his authoritarian designs on the rule of law. Trump repeatedly leaned on Raffensperger to violate his oath—and the call culminated in Trump threatening Raffensperger with adverse legal consequences for failing to do Trump’s bidding. There’s a reason that Trump compulsively refers to his Raffensperger call as “perfect”—he knows full well that it’s anything but and that it serves as smoking-gun proof that Trump was at the head of a conspiracy to break our democracy in pursuit of untrammeled power—power that he would, of course, use to shore up his cross-branded empire of lies.

Willis’s indictment stands out from the trio of other court reckonings Trump has faced this year in several key respects. To begin with, the RICO counts are sweeping and serious. Violations of Georgia’s RICO act carry a minimum sentence of five years, and Georgia’s RICO law is more expansive than the federal racketeering law on which it’s based. In Georgia, a grand jury only needs to review evidence of two criminal in-state acts to establish a pattern of racketeering activity. It also means that a network of actors tried under the act need not be devoted exclusively to a criminal enterprise. In the past, Willis has used it to convict public school teachers who falsified test score results, and has charged Atlanta-based rapper Young Thug under the law in a case that sought to employ rap lyrics as criminal evidence.

The Fulton County indictment is also noteworthy for naming and charging a retinue of Trump allies, including Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani and Mark Meadows, Trump’s chief of staff during the coup attempt. (Giuliani’s long-overdue charges mark an especially rich irony, since he pioneered the expansive use of the federal RICO act against Mafia and Wall Street defendants when he served as US Attorney for the Southern District in Manhattan.) Other notable Trump apparatchiks during the January Georgia putsch, such as attorney Lin Wood and South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham aren’t named, which potentially points up another prosecutorial advantage to a RICO indictment: A wide prospective cast of bad actors can also aid the cause of persuading key influential witnesses to flip. Special Prosecutor Jack Smith’s recent federal indictment of Trump on charges relating to the January 6 insurrection, by contrast, only named Trump as a defendant, indicating that the other six unnamed coconspirators could be subject to prosecution at a later date. 

One other key difference between Willis’s indictment and Smith’s pair of pending legal actions is that the governor of Georgia, unlike the US president, has no pardon powers, making it more likely that a criminal conviction of Trump could result in actual jail time. The reason the Georgia’s chief executive possesses no such powers is again steeped in historical irony: It was taken away after Governor E.D. Rivers, Georgia’s corrupt, Klan-linked version of Huey Long, was indicted for selling pardons—yet another alleged corrupt practice that Trump has engaged in at Giuliani’s behest. Also, Georgia typically televises legal proceedings, which could foreground the full range of Trump’s plot to overthrow American democracy in the same manner that the House’s Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the US Capitol did for the insurrection. 

This could prove particularly consequential, given the increasingly phoned-in quality of news analysis from mainstream print publications on Trump’s legal challenges. New York Times White House correspondent Peter Baker has already weighed in on Willis’s indictment with a fashionably bored dispatch headlined “Trump Indictment Part IV: A Spectacle That Has Become Surreally Routine.” Baker dutifully notes that Willis’s case is historic, but then observes that “a country of short attention spans has now seen this three times before and grown oddly accustomed to the spectacle.” He then supplies a précis of the rolling Trump indictments in the argot of a TV critic: “Multiple prosecutors have now cumulatively laid out an alleged presidential crime spree of epic proportions, complete with tangled intrigues, mysterious co-conspirators and intersecting subplots.”

What are citizens confronted with all this sprawling intrigue to make of it? In the great tradition of Gray Lady–branded elite bystanderism, Baker delivers a puzzled shrug and airily proclaims that

most Americans made up their minds about Mr. Trump long before prosecutors like Fani T. Willis or Jack Smith weighed in, polls have shown. He is, depending on the perspective, a serial lawbreaker finally being brought to justice or a victim of persecution by partisans intent on keeping him out of office. The Georgia indictment, powerful as it is in its language, has been priced into the market, as the Wall Street types would put it.

Actually, no: What’s priced into the market here is Baker’s tedious above-the-fray pose of jaded, poll-driven resignation. Despite the protests of Trump and his quisling army, the legal system is not a plebiscite; it is designed to be immune from the forces of popular opinion. (It’s true that said design is now itself a mortal threat to American democracy, but that’s a sermon for another occasion.) To look at polling results as a de facto proof of the efficacy of legal proceedings is a repudiation of the core reasoning behind the rule of law because it sounds boring. Baker finds further grounds for his blasé reception of Willis’s charges in what the punditocracy views as a sacred reflection of the vox populi: cable news ratings. Baker argues that the numbers show that Trump benefits

from the been-there, done-that quality of a fourth time in the dock. When Mr. Trump was arraigned in April on the New York hush money charges, the first indictment of a former president in history, 8.2 million people tuned into Fox, MSNBC and CNN to watch. But when he entered a plea in Florida in June in the classified documents case, the audience fell to 5.5 million. Interest ticked up for this month’s arraignment in Washington on charges of corruptly trying to overturn the election, with 5.9 million tuning in.

And sure enough, after quoting some legal and political sources who gently venture that the Georgia charges might represent a serious reckoning for Trump, Baker rushes ahead to the fun stuff: “Mr. Trump has systematically treated his criminal cases as if they were just another plot twist in his ongoing political reality show.… After a day of blitzing out fund-raising appeals anticipating the Georgia indictment, Mr. Trump’s campaign issued a late-night statement once it was issued assailing ‘the Biden-Smith goon squads’ and the ‘rabid partisan’ Ms. Willis while calling the various prosecutions ‘un-American and wrong.’”

There are sound reasons for any American worried about the fate of democratic self-rule in this country to want Fani Willis to succeed and to see Donald Trump forced at last to answer for his acts of coordinated and deliberate sedition. One admittedly lesser, but still consequential, reason to hope for that outcome is to deprive Peter Baker and the rest of the elite pundit caste of this corrosive brand of late-imperial entertainment.

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