This Trump Indictment Isn't "Accountability"
Getting Capone on tax evasion is a weakness, not a strength
One of the cherished bits of common American legal wisdom, the sort of thing that filters down to the playground, is that eventually “they” got Capone on tax evasion.
The moral of the story is supposed to be that eventually “they” can get you on something, even a technicality. Retold in that sense, it’s a charming story of how governments can eventually do justice through a combination of painstaking work and complicated legal codes. Fiat justitia, ruat coeli, and all that.
Think about it more, however, and it’s actually a damning indictment of the system that someone like Capone could get away with everything but tax fraud. Yes, I know, good-thinking people believe that a criminal justice system should be concerned with the rights of the innocent—but we are talking about someone manifestly guilty, proudly guilty. Capone was someone who walked free not because of the principles of an idealistic legal system but because he paid off cops (and probably judges and juries, too—I’m going to be frank: I’m not exactly writing a dissertation about Capone here, so I haven’t researched every detail of his corruption, but let’s just take as a given that Capone subverted Chicago justice).
They got Capone on tax evasion because, first, that was a federal crime, and, second, because they had the records to prove it. It was a measure of the limits of the justice system that he got tripped up on a technicality. In a just world, he would have been gotten on the real charges that should have sent him to the chair.
A rather large subset of liberals spent the past week anticipating the indictment of Donald Trump like Millerites anticipating the Second Coming. Would Godot—I mean the indictment—come on Tuesday? Wednesday? Ah, well, it is the weekend now—but surely this will be the day that delivers us from evil. And if not today, then the next.
The charge in question concerns some damn thing arising from Trump’s payoff of Stormy Daniels to keep quiet about their affair during the 2016 election. It is one of maybe twenty or thirty scandals that surrounds Trump, and at this point it is notable only because it seems to be one that some innovative prosecutor can claim jurisdiction on and get witnesses to testify about. But it is no more or less awful than any of a larger set of moderate scandals around Trump, and it is far from the worst thing he ever did.
Nevertheless, you can almost hear the production assistants shuffling to put up the “WE GOT ‘IM” banners behind MSNBC hosts. Jen Psaki, host of a new MSNBC show, gave a preview of the take:
Interestingly, the tweet omits a key phrase from her quote: she said “We hold our leaders accountable when warranted.” That’s a phrase that hides a myriad of failures to hold anyone to account, from LBJ on Vietnam to Reagan on Iran-Contra to Dubya on Iraq—you name it, and we can name more. Sovereign is she who decides the state of exception to accountability.
Psaki’s thesis here is that the indictment is good because it shows that our institutions are strong and will stand up to someone doing (in her baffling phrase) a “stress test” of democracy. This is plainly absurd. The events in question took place seven years ago when Trump was not president. He has faced almost no sanction for what he did as president and he got off scott-free for what he did in his attempt to subvert the presidential election.
By any standard, if accountability means consequences for actions, Trump has faced no accountability at all. Going after Trump on the Stormy Daniels issue is an admission of institutional failure or inability (which amount to the same thing), not of strength.
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