Trump’s Worst Crimes Remain Unpunished

Trump’s policies killed many people in the United States and around the world. Hush money is the least of his crimes. But an honest confrontation of his worst offenses creates complications for a political class that commits crimes routinely.

Donald Trump, who served as the 45th president of the United States, has been found guilty by a jury of his peers on 34 felony counts, becoming the first U.S. president to be convicted of a crime. Trump was found to have falsified various business records, including information on invoices, ledgers, and checks, in order to cover up a payment made to a porn star to avoid a sex scandal during the 2016 election. 

Trump’s criminal activity in this case was in many ways the least serious of all the misconduct he is accused of in his various ongoing legal cases. Other charges elsewhere relate to: attempting to overturn the 2020 election result and remain in power unlawfully, pressuring election officials to falsify the results, and keeping classified documents and then lying about it. Interference with the electoral process is the gravest among his charged offenses, because Trump was trying to actively destroy American democracy. 

Trying to hush up an affair with a pornographic actress does deprive voters of the opportunity to pass moral judgment on consensual private sex acts. (On the other hand, there should be much harsher judgment on Trump’s history of rape and allegations of sexual assault.) Nevertheless, it appears Trump did precisely what he was accused of in this case, and a jury was entirely unconvinced by his defense. Jonathan Chait of New York magazine argues that this essentially victimless crime was “the kind of charge you would never bring against a regular first-time offender” but rather “the sort of charge you’d concoct if the target is a bad guy and you want to nail him for something.” But Trump had the most expensive lawyers in the world, and every chance to prove to the jurors that he hadn’t committed the charged crimes. They didn’t buy it.

Just as important as the crimes Trump has been charged with, however, are the ones he hasn’t been charged with. The hush money document fabrication is among the least reprehensible of the offenses Trump has committed during his long public life, and I think we should try to always keep our focus on the actions that harm people (and the rest of the natural world) the most. In Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity, a book published on the day of Trump’s inauguration in 2017 (and republished in 2020, with an epilogue evaluating his term in office), I argued that it was far more important to pay attention to instances where Trump had caused real people tangible harms than to focus on the “Trump Show”—his captivatingly bizarre, never-ending string of invective about politicians, celebrities, and the media. Trump’s public speech is often so downright weird (“they’re going to change the name of Pennsylvania,” “the late, great Hannibal Lecter”) that it’s easy to lose focus on what matters: the real-world damage he does. 

During his presidency, Trump wounded the country and the world in ways small and large. Trump’s indifferent response to the COVID-19 pandemic killed hundreds of thousands of people. As the Lancet Commission wrote, “many of the cases and deaths were avoidable,” but “instead of galvanizing the US populace to fight the pandemic, President Trump publicly dismissed its threat (despite privately acknowledging it), discouraged action as infection spread, and eschewed international cooperation.” We might add several hundred thousand counts of negligent homicide to Donald Trump’s criminal charges, a vast human tragedy that shattered people’s lives. (Many of the survivors, of course, still suffer.) It wasn’t the only way Trump harmed Americans’ health. Unable to succeed at his goal of destroying the Affordable Care Act, Trump nevertheless undermined it through executive action. As a result, in 2018 the number of Americans without health insurance increased for the first time in 10 years, by 2 million. Premiums on many ACA plans (before subsidies) went up by up to 30 percent. He expanded “junk plans” that extort customers while giving them little benefit. (Consumer choice!) He allowed states to introduce new Medicaid work requirements that caused plenty of people to lose coverage just because reporting requirements were difficult to comply with. 

In virtually every domain of public policy (which I go through one by one in the epilogue to American Monstrosity), Trump’s policies hurt people. His anti-labor stance allowed employers to exploit and abuse their workers more easily. His deportation policies ripped families apart. His choice to prioritize workplace immigration raids over workplace safety literally killed people. His environmental policies trashed the natural world, and he did everything in his power to escalate the climate catastrophe and stall progress toward a green economy. (For this alone, Noam Chomsky has called Trump the worst criminal in human history, since the eventual death toll from the climate catastrophe Trump is committed to worsening may vastly exceed the human harm inflicted by the worst dictators of centuries past.) When an administration chooses not to regulate toxic chemicals, there are countless victims

Those victims aren’t confined to the United States. Civilian casualties from U.S. drone bombings rose significantly under Trump, and the administration buried evidence of their crimes. Trump’s support for the Saudi war in Yemen enabled horrendous atrocities. He launched indiscriminate bombing campaigns in Syria and Iraq. His assassination of an Iranian general was a blatant violation of international law. He supported dictators around the world, and his support for Israel as it continued to deny Palestinians their right to self-determination was a very large factor in bringing about the current war. 

The elimination of Roe, only possible thanks to Trump-appointed judges, will kill people. Trump bragged about killing an Antifa protester without any due process. He encouraged police brutality, opposing plans to reform police and prevent abuse and rescinding an Obama-era plan to phase out private prisons. He even pardoned the notoriously abusive and dictatorial Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio

I could go on and on. Trump was an utterly lawless, incompetent, and cruel president whose policies ranged from moronic to homicidal. The prospect of him returning to office gives me the chills, especially since he has vowed to be even more extreme this time around. His supporters want to install him as a dictator and ram through a far-right agenda as quickly as possible, crushing all resistance and clamping down on domestic dissent. 

Given his record, which includes outright murder, it’s kind of strange that the only crime Trump has yet been convicted of has been doctoring his ledgers to conceal a payment to a porn star. But I’ve always been frustrated with Democrats’ choices of emphasis in their criticism of Trump. Trump’s first impeachment, for example, was over his attempt to pressure the president of Ukraine to investigate Joe Biden. That’s an abuse of power, no doubt, but surely the deaths of Yemenis were far more significant. And why wasn’t there equal outcry when he bragged that his government had assassinated an activist as “retribution”

One reason that Trump’s political opponents couldn’t pursue him for his worst crimes is that many of them are crimes in which Democrats, too, are complicit. If we are to start treating the harm from climate change as a crime, and going after its perpetrators, then Joe Biden would have blood on his hands as well. If we are to see cruelty to immigrants as a crime, Biden is also guilty. Same with deadly policy failures on coronavirus. Same with support for the murderous Saudi regime, and the murderous policies of Israel. If we started treating war crimes as actual crimes, a lot of the American political establishment would be in the dock, not just Donald Trump. George W. Bush, for whom many Democrats now have nostalgia, is the 21st century’s worst unconvicted war criminal. Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden were both accomplices in his crimes

After World War II, the Allies were in a tricky spot when they tried to bring Axis war criminals to justice. The problem was that many of the worst crimes committed by Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan, such as bombing cities and executing prisoners of war, had also been carried out at various points by the Allies. Hence the need for the postwar tribunals to emphasize only the crimes that the Axis committed but the Allies did not, such as waging a war of aggression. In Trump’s case, the crimes that are focused on by his opponents are only those that he has committed but they haven’t (such as illegally concealing a payoff to a porn star, and trying to falsify an election result). If we are to treat, say, Trump’s family separation policy as a kind of kidnapping, then Joe Biden, too, would be a kidnapper. There are many ways in which Joe Biden’s policies are superior. (They’re more pro-union, they’ve restored some environmental regulations, they pursue corporate wrongdoing somewhat.) But there are also plenty of acts that would be indefensible if we started consistently applying the same standards.

If we are to start looking seriously at body counts around the world, treating non-Americans as human beings equally worthy of basic rights, then every U.S. president since the Second World War should be considered a criminal, with varying levels of guilt. (Noam Chomsky and I go through the evidence against each in detail in our forthcoming book The Myth of American Idealism.) As international relations scholar Alonso Gurmendi put it, while “the first Presidential conviction ever is over hush money to cover a sex scandal,” in fact “U.S. presidents have set up torture sites, staged coups, ordered human experiments, invaded entire countries, ethnically cleansed indigenous peoples, [and] enabled genocides.” To get serious about treating harms done by politicians the same way we treat harms done by ordinary street criminals would have unthinkably radical consequences and entirely upend basic assumptions about what the political class is permitted to do. 

Sadly, then, Trump’s worst crimes will remain unprosecuted and unpunished. And while it is pleasing to see a powerful person being held to account for once, there are similarities with the downfall of Richard Nixon. Nixon’s undoing was his spying on Democrats (i.e., messing with other powerful people), not his horrific killings in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. We won’t even approach real justice until the actual victims of presidents’ crimes are recognized. Trump is one of the most heinous people ever to hold public office. May he never hold it again. But let’s get serious about holding him, and everyone else, to account for the deadliest harms they cause. 

Image: Mark Peterson/Pool Photo via AP

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