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From Trump's Felony To The Future Of American Leadership – IMPRI Impact And Policy Research Institute

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From Trump's Felony to the Future of American Leadership

T K Arun

Trumpian populism has ensured that a convicted felon stands a good chance of emerging as the 47th president of the US.

America’s first president, George Washington, it was believed, never told a lie. His 44th successor, former president Donald Trump, now presents himself to the world and his voters in the forthcoming presidential election as a convicted felon. This is an indictment of not just Trump, the individual, but also of the polity of the United States. Americans’ choice for their nation’s foremost office, come November, would be between an acknowledged sleazeball and a willing accessory to war crimes. Not a great choice. We, in India, know the feeling.

Located some 13,000 km away from the US, and, more to the point, prone to mixing up prudery and prurience, we in India might think that Trump has been found guilty of paying off a porn star, during his 2016 presidential campaign, to keep her mouth shut about a sexual encounter back in 2006, when the former was already married to his third and current wife, Melania Trump. However, the offence, of which Trump has been found guilty, is falsifying business accounts in the first degree. And this has been deemed a felony. He has been found guilty of a felony on 34 counts.

What is felony?

What exactly is a felony, as distinct from a lesser crime that can be whipped into a frothy, and seemingly less weighty, misdemeanour? In the US, the distinction is in terms of the penalty for the offence: at the federal level, any crime for which the punishment is imprisonment for more than one year is a felony. On its own, cooking books amounts to a misdemeanour. However, under New York law, if a crime is committed to further another crime, then the first crime becomes a felony.

Trump was accused of falsifying business records in the first degree. What does this mean? The judge explained this in his instructions to the jurors: “a person is guilty of falsifying business records in the first degree when, with intent to defraud that includes an intent to commit another crime or to aid or conceal the commission thereof, that person makes or causes a false entry in the business records of an enterprise.”

Second offense

What is the second crime, to commit which Trump cooked his books? Conspiring with others to promote (or prevent) the election of someone to public office by unfair means. And what were the unfair means involved in Trump’s election campaign? The jurors were given multiple options to choose from, and they could choose one or more of these: a violation of federal campaign finance laws, falsification of other business records or a violation of tax laws.

The jurors did not need to have consensus on what unfair means were employed, so long as they were convinced that some unfair means were employed to promote Trump’s election to public office, in order to arrive at a verdict of guilty on the charge of falsifying business records in the first degree, that is, to promote another crime.

Stormy Daniels case

Essentially, Trump’s lawyer and hatchet man at large, Michael Cohen, paid the porn star Stormy Daniels $130,000, to buy her silence. This money was reimbursed to Cohen in the guise of legal fees, with extra payments to cover the tax Cohen would have to pay on his supposed fee income, a bonus, and a payment to a technology company. In 11 instalments over 2017, Cohen was paid $420,000, the first payment being of $70,000 for two months’ fees and the remaining 10 instalment of $35,000 each. These payments involved cheques, invoices and vouchers, numbering 34 in all. Hence the 34 counts of falsification.

In Trump’s version of reality, he did not have sex with Daniels, there was no question of her being paid any hush money on his behalf, and all the payments made to Cohen were bona fide legal fees, and, as such, business expenses, by which income could be reduced, for the purpose of paying taxes. The prosecution, however, managed to come up with documents that proved otherwise, including handwritten notes by Trump’s financial aides. In effect, Trump paid hush money and claimed it as a deductible expense.

Trumpian populism

Trump maintains that all his legal troubles stem from President Joe Biden’s underhand efforts to use the legal system to weaken him politically. This would not matter so much if a whole lot of ordinary Americans were not willing to suspend evidence, rationality and trust in their nation’s institutions and go along with his claims of victimhood and deep-state conspiracies.

About a mile from the Manhattan District Court, the site of Trump’s prosecution, stands Ellis Island, and the imposing Statue of Liberty, bearing a bronze plaque with these engraved lines: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Trump’s biggest election plank is that immigrants are poisoning American lives, and their huddled masses should stay south of the Mexican border. America’s politics stands far removed from the ideals of its early years.

But that is not the only problem attested by Trump’s continuing popularity. The political discourse of Trumpian populism has destroyed a shared, common space of information and ideals, and replaced it with arbitrary bits of isolated facts torn out of context and total fabrications.

No credit for Biden

Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act, Infrastructure Act and Chips Act are laying the ground for a new wave of high-tech manufacture in the US, with cutting edge green technologies getting vital state support for the first time. But Biden gets no credit for this initiative or the jobs created as a result of his industrial policy. People see him as being responsible for inflation, and high mortgage rates on housing. The educated young blame him for making the US a partner in Israel’s war crimes in Gaza.

The net result is that a convicted felon stands a good chance of emerging as the 47th president of the United States.

TK Arun is a senior journalist based in Delhi.

This article was first published in The Federal as Donald Trump: Convicted, but not trumped on June 2, 2024

Disclaimer: All views expressed in the article belong solely to the author and not necessarily to the organisation.

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Acknowledgment: This article was posted by Bhaktiba Jadeja, a research intern at IMPRI.

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