If the nation manages to oust Donald Trump from the presidency in November — and he actually agrees to leave in January — the new administration and the Congress will have its hands full just trying to keep the country from falling even deeper into a depression and halting the death toll from the pandemic. Foreign policy will have to be dealt with immediately, as will the assessment of the damage to the administrative state. Our failed public health response to the coronavirus is a deadly wakeup call: The federal government has atrophied under the insane fiscal and political priorities inflicted upon it over the past couple of decades by nihilist Republicans and impotent Democrats. And that's just for starters.
But one of the most important priorities must be to re-establish democratic and ethical norms in the wake of Trump's brazen corruption. Congress can make new laws and the president can create executive orders, but if they want to get the job done there must be some accountability for this crime spree.
It's hard to know where to start, but as you may recall there's a report that lays out in great detail Donald Trump's attempts to obstruct justice in the Russia investigation. It even makes a very strong case that he can be prosecuted after he leaves office for committing these crimes.
If investigators want to look further, there's the matter of all the taxpayer money that has gone into Trump's pockets virtually every weekend, when he leaves Washington to promote his properties and play golf. (He has spent a third of his days as president at his own resorts and hotels.) We know that we have been forced to pay him at least $1 million for hotel rooms alone, at prices raised far beyond the "cost" that the Trump Organization claims it charges. That is likely the tip of the iceberg.
We found out in the last couple of weeks that Trump had his ambassador to the U.K. try to convince the British government to steer the British Open golf tournament to one of his resorts in Scotland. Depending on what was offered in return, that could look an awful lot like bribery. It's certainly something an investigator might want to look into.
God knows how much of that sort of thing has been going on. Trump was impeached for extorting a foreign government to help his re-election campaign, after all. He clearly believes he's above the law.
Whether the Department of Justice will look into any of that, under some more normal future leadership, is another question. I have my doubts. The prevailing establishment view about such things was articulated by Joe Biden earlier this week:
Joe Biden says that he believes prosecuting a former president would be a "very unusual thing and probably not very ... good for democracy," but he would not stand in the way of a future Justice Department pursuing criminal charges against President Trump after he leaves office ...
"Look, the Justice Department is not the president's private law firm. The attorney general is not the president's private lawyer. I will not interfere with the Justice Department's judgment of whether or not they think they should pursue the prosecution of anyone that they think has violated the law," Biden told NPR's Lulu Garcia-Navarro.
Biden said the right thing about leaving such considerations to the attorney general. That's the way these things are supposed to work. But his personal attitude reflects an outdated view of what is and is not "good for democracy." Once upon a time, we assumed that the only reason any administration would prosecute a former president would be as an authoritarian move to consolidate power, as we've seen in banana republics and totalitarian regimes. It was a real concern.
That's not what we're dealing with now. Unfortunately, Americans elected a president who is both stupid and corrupt, and his party has acted as accomplices to his crimes. If he is allowed to simply carry on after leaving office, with no accountability for what he's done, it will just make everyone more cynical about government and enable future Republican criminals to pick up where Trump left off. After all, they've been passing that baton to each other since Richard Nixon was let off the hook 45 years ago.
Nonetheless, unless the Southern District of New York really does have something up its sleeve, I don't expect federal prosecutors to pursue any of this, even though they should. After Bill Barr's egregious performance as Trump's Roy Cohn, I would guess any new attorney general will opt to avoid the appearance of partisanship. (Barr's blatant behavior may have the perverse effect of inoculating Trump's inner circle against retaliation.)
Maybe the Congress will make a stab at it and put together some kind of joint congressional committee, like the Church Committee that investigated the CIA, NSA and FBI in the 1970s, to untangle the whole Trumpian mess and publish a report about everything that happened. That would be worthwhile and I hope they do it, but I suspect that's the most we can expect from the federal government.
There is some hope, however, that Trump will be held accountable and possibly even held criminally liable for his corruption. After the Supreme Court ruled this term that Trump could not withhold his tax returns from grand jury subpoena in a state criminal matter, the Manhattan district attorney's office, which has jurisdiction over the Trump Organization, revealed that it has already obtained a whole boatload of documents from Deutsche Bank, which loaned the Trumps billions of dollars when no other bank would touch them. According to its filing with the court seeking Trump's tax records, prosecutors are not simply looking at hush-money payments to porn stars, but at potentially major fraud charges.
We already knew from the New York Times' 13,000-word examination about the massive criminal tax fraud scheme concocted by Fred Trump, Donald's father. Considering the lengths to which he's gone to hide his tax returns, it's fair to suspect that Fred's son has adopted similar practices. According to exposés by ProPublica and WNYC for their series "Trump, Inc.", the Trump Organization may have misled banks, investors and buyers in many of their real estate licensing deals. There are many questions about money laundering and Trump's odd special relationship with Deutsche Bank.
Much as I would love to see Trump held accountable for his crimes as president, it would be poetic justice to see his business exposed as a scam and see him prosecuted for ripping off taxpayers and clients. Apparently that won't happen unless Manhattan DA Cy Vance Jr. can get his hands on those tax returns. Trump will fight that to the end, so there's no telling whether anything will come of it. But at least someone, somewhere, is trying to bring him to justice. It's hard to imagine how anyone can have faith in the system ever again if Donald Trump walks away scot-free after everything he's done.