The Rule of Law Being Applied to Trump Is Good

Presidents and ex-presidents should be subject to the same laws as the rest of us. But don’t be too quick to assume this conviction will save Joe Biden.

Donald Trump departs the courtroom after being found guilty on all thirty-four counts in his hush money trial at Manhattan Criminal Court on May 30, 2024, in New York City. (Justin Lane / Getty Images)

In 2016, Donald Trump said he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot someone” without losing “any voters.” That hypothetical has yet to be tested. But we are going to find out whether Trump being convicted of thirty-four felony counts of falsifying business records will stop him from being elected to a second term.

Perhaps it will. There’s some polling evidence that many voters would consider a felony conviction to be a major liability. On the other hand, we’re in the ninth year of Trump as the lightning rod at the center of American politics, and my rough count is this is about the millionth thing that liberals were convinced would stop him in his tracks. It would be unwise for them to count on it.

Either way, it’s appalling that presidents who break the law almost always get away with it. Setting the precedent that presidents can be criminally convicted like anyone else is a good thing.

American Presidents and the Rule of Law

As I write this, an all-caps “TRUMP GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS” dominates the top of the New York Times website. In a sign of how thoroughly Trump news can obliterate everything else happening in the world, the breaking news from a couple hours before — “President Biden Allows Ukraine to Use US Weapons to Strike Inside Russia” — has receded far down the page. In a news environment where stories are divided into “Trump news” and “everything else,” even a landmark in escalating tensions between nuclear powers that would have been unthinkable a few years ago has been reduced to background noise.

Trump was, of course, quick to call the proceedings “rigged.” And his most hardcore supporters, the ones who really wouldn’t care if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue, will simply fit this into a narrative they’ve long accepted — one where everything from “Russiagate” to Trump’s various criminal trials simply proves that Trump is the people’s champion and the establishment is out to get him.

This narrative happens to be almost entirely unrelated to observable reality. On the domestic front, the Trump administration was a four-year orgy of union busting, deregulation, and tax cuts for rich people. In foreign affairs, he tore up Barack Obama’s Iran deal, assassinated an Iranian general, ended the warming of US relations with Cuba, doubled the rate of drone strikes in Yemen, and gave Benjamin Netanyahu everything he wanted. His current run for president is backed by billionaire establishment-GOP donors like Sheldon Adelson’s widow, Miriam.

Trump supporters are right to sense that there’s a double standard, but it’s not the one they imagine. That Trump just became the first American ex-president to be convicted of a crime is not because he’s a thorn in the side of the establishment or because he’s the first one to be a criminal. Lots of presidents have committed far worse crimes. But most of them weren’t the kinds of crimes the US legal system has any appetite to punish.

As I wrote back when the case that just concluded was first announced:

[Invading Iraq was] a “crime” in the strict literal sense of that word. The Nuremberg Tribunal set up to try captured Nazis after World War II declared “aggressive war” to be a war crime in itself. Such wars were then strictly prohibited in the UN Charter, to which the US is a signatory. And the US Constitution gives foreign treaties that the US enters the “full force law.”

How does that crime compare with paying hush money to Stormy Daniels? [George W.] Bush’s crime led to hundreds of thousands of deaths and dismemberments, millions of people becoming “external” or “internal” refugees, and waves of chaos and bloodshed that washed over the region for decades, directly feeding into fresh horrors like the rise of ISIS. Trump is accused of, well, paying hush money to Stormy Daniels.

It’s disgusting that our courts take millions of foreigners being killed, tortured, maimed, or displaced from their homes less seriously than a relatively petty crime like falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to a porn star. And that Obama, for example, wasn’t criminally charged when he extrajudicially executed American citizens Anwar and Abdulrahman al-Awlaki with drone strikes.

That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing that Trump was just found guilty, though. It’s good for presidents and ex-presidents to be subject to the same laws as the rest of us.

When Trump supporters notice double standards, they seem to want them to be corrected in the wrong direction. Rather than objecting to the fact that Bush walks free, they seem to think that the fact that Trump used to be president and very well could become president again soon is enough to make the prosecution “political.” But that’s just a demand for presidents and ex-presidents to have a pass to break whatever laws they want.

Kings and emperors are above the law. Public officials in democratic republics aren’t supposed to be.

Not Everything Is About the Election

Where Trump supporters are eager to see Trump’s conviction as the victory of a nefarious plot to influence the election, many Joe Biden supporters are unabashed in their hopes that the election will be influenced by this confirmation of Trump’s criminality. It’s not out of the question that they’ll be proven right. We’re in uncharted territory.

But again, there have been a great many times before this that liberals were convinced that “this time, he’s done.” If we start the clock at Trump coming down the escalator to deliver his campaign announcement speech in 2015, this show is already on its tenth season.

In a tight election, Biden has reason to worry about shoring up his base — large elements of which are disappointed by the state of the economy and furious at him for his brazen support for Israel’s genocide in Gaza. The Israelis have already announced their intention to continue the slaughter until the end of the year. If Biden spends the next six months acting on the assumption that he doesn’t need the voters who he has alienated through his middling performance at home and his monstrous policies in Israel/Palestine, the consequences could be grim.

At the end of it all, he could very well end up losing anyway. The fact remains that he started out as an unpopular candidate who even most Democrats didn’t want to run, and that he has alienated a large portion of his base.

But viewing Trump’s conviction primarily through the prism of how various politicians will choose to respond to it or how it will affect the red vs. blue horse race misses the point. Whatever happens next, it’s good that the precedent has finally been set that a former president can be convicted in a criminal court like any ordinary human without anyone being struck by lightning or the earth opening up to swallow the courthouse. It’s a baby step in the right direction. But as long as war criminals like Bush and Obama walk free, and as long as Biden feels no need to make a major policy shift on Gaza, we’re a very long way from justice.