The power of Trump's jury: 12 Americans can finally ensure criminal accountability

Donald Trump created a one-man crime wave. It's time he was held accountable.

Published April 22, 2024 5:30AM (EDT)

Donald Trump | Empty Jury Seats (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump | Empty Jury Seats (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Donald Trump perpetrated a presidential crime wave, and opening statements in his criminal trial in New York begin today. It is the best chance yet to ensure some accountability for the former president and protect the country from further crimes. While it may not be as high-profile as the federal charges brought by special prosecutor Jack Smith, this trial matters — a lot.

It may no longer be at the front of most Americans’ minds, but there is real evidence that Donald Trump engaged in conduct that adds up to literally dozens of crimes during his run for the presidency, his time as president and the years since. These include, among others, possible crimes connected to obstruction of the investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 campaign, trying to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate a political opponent, mishandling and refusing to return highly classified documents, and of course trying to keep himself in power after losing the 2020 election, culminating in a violent insurrection.

It wasn’t one ambiguous instance of potential illegality. It was a pattern of repeatedly running through our laws, usually for the purpose of increasing his own political power and personal advantage. 

They can put into practice that no one, not even a former president, is above the law in the United States.

In many ways, it started with his repeated lying–on business documents and government forms–about hush money payments in order to keep information from voters right before the 2016 election. From these lies springs the heart of the New York criminal case brought by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (not to be confused with the civil fraud case brought by New York Attorney General Letitia James in which Trump has been ordered to pay around $450 million).

The real accountability that this trial will bring is crucial because it is the first chance, not to mention the one we have right now, to ensure consequences for Trump’s crime spree. Consequences for repeated serious criminal activity by someone in our greatest position of power are essential to maintaining the rule of law in this country and to protecting American democracy. Unlike some of the other cases, Trump can no longer delay this one.

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The facts in this case matter. Trump had his attorney, Michael Cohen, pay an adult film actress to be silent about an alleged affair. He repaid Cohen, then lied on business records that those payments were part of a legal retainer agreement when they were not. All of it was part of an effort to keep relevant information from the public right before an extremely close election.

You can’t lie on official records to help yourself politically. Doing so is a crime in New York for which others have been prosecuted and sent to prison.

But even more important is Donald Trump’s pattern of escalating lawlessness. He was willing to commit all manner of criminal activities, culminating in inciting a violent insurrection (which is a component of the conspiracy with which Donald Trump has been charged federally), in order to increase and maintain his own power. 

There is simply nothing more dangerous to the viability of a democratic system of government and to the rule of law than someone who is willing to break the law and commit crimes to keep themselves in power. If allowed to go unchecked, such a person will ultimately tighten their grip on power to the point that the law can no longer hold them accountable and stop them from additional abuses. Indeed, Donald Trump has made it abundantly clear that he will actively seek to undermine or reverse the prosecutions of himself and his supporters and to settle scores with perceived political enemies.

Despite the danger, institution after institution has passed on the chance to hold Trump accountable, from the Senate voting to acquit him after his impeachment for inciting an insurrection, to House Republicans blowing up a bipartisan commission to investigate those events, to the Supreme Court declining to enforce Trump’s disqualification under the 14th Amendment to the Constitution. Many are content to pretend that Trump’s dangerous abuses simply did not happen and that he is a normal politician.

That can stop with this trial. A jury of regular Americans will have the power to determine whether Donald Trump committed significant crimes affecting an American election. They can put into practice that no one, not even a former president, is above the law in the United States. Of course they should only convict if they determine Trump’s guilt is proven beyond a reasonable doubt. I believe the facts and the law will prove exactly that, but it will be up to the jury.

If they do find Trump guilty, they will not only be ensuring accountability for one particular set of offenses. They will be ensuring that Trump’s epic and dangerous crime wave finally draws consequences–and they will be taking a key step toward making sure it stops now.

By Noah Bookbinder

Noah Bookbinder is the president of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and a former federal corruption prosecutor. He previously served as chief counsel for criminal justice for the Senate Judiciary Committee. Follow him on Twitter: @NoahBookbinder

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2016 Elections Commentary Donald Trump Hush Money Michael Cohen Stormy Daniels Trump Trial