Ross Douthat’s column arguing for the superiority of “25th Amendment remedies” to impeachment for Donald Trump’s various misdeeds is impressive in its ability to actually find something new and interesting to say about the president. But its premise — shared with a David Brooks column from earlier in the week — that we should understand Trump’s behavior as resembling that of a little kid is fundamentally wrong.
“It is a child who blurts out classified information in order to impress distinguished visitors,” Douthat writes. “It is a child who asks the head of the F.B.I. why the rules cannot be suspended for his friend and ally.”
The truth is that Trump is no child. He’s 70 years old. And he’s not just any kind of 70-year-old. He’s a white male 70-year-old. A famous one. A rich one. One who’s been rich since the day he was born. He’s a man who’s learned over the course of a long and rich life that he is free to operate without consequence. He’s the beneficiary of vast and enormous privilege, not just the ability to enjoy lavish consumption goods but the privilege of impunity that America grants to the wealthy.
Trump’s “law and order” attorney general wants to throw the book at relatively small-time drug offenders. Trump himself has spent his entire career skating away from lawbreaking with a fine paid here and a political contribution there. He’s an unusual figure, but also very much an exemplar of his era and a product of a decades-long ideological campaign to do as much as possible to empower the wealthy and powerful.
Donald Trump is not a toddler
My 2-year-old son misbehaves all the time. The reason is simple: He’s a toddler.
He stuck his foot in a serving bowl at dinner Tuesday night. He screams in inappropriate situations. He’s terrified of vacuum cleaners. He thinks it’s funny to throw rocks at birds. He has poor impulse control and limited understanding of the consequences of his actions.
But he’s also, fundamentally, a good kid. If you tell him no, he’ll usually listen. If you remind him of the rules, he’ll acknowledge them and obey. He shows remorse when his misdeeds are pointed out to him, and if you walk him through a cause-and-effect chain he’ll alter his behavior. Like all little kids, he needs discipline, and he’s got a lot to learn. But he is learning, and he has some notion of consequences and right and wrong.
Trump is not like that — at all.
Perhaps the most telling anecdote about Trump comes from 1990, when, having leveraged his dad’s money into a couple of Manhattan real estate projects, he went about building a debt-financed casino that he could never properly manage. By December, it looked like he was going to have to default on an interest payment on the loans he’d used to finance the Trump Taj Mahal. As Michael Kranish and Marc Fisher detailed for the Washington Post’s book Trump Revealed, he got out of trouble thanks to a shady under-the-table loan from his father, who dispatched a family attorney to New Jersey:
The lawyer, Howard Snyder, approached the casino cage and handed over a certified check for $3.35 million, drawn on Fred's account. Snyder then walked over to a blackjack table, where a dealer paid out the entire amount in 670 gray $5,000 chips. The next day, the bank wired another $150,000 into Fred's account at the Castle. Once again, Snyder arrived at the casino and collected the full amount in 30 more chips.
Trump used this $3.5 million loan from his dad to make the interest payment and avoid losing the casino. But why didn’t Fred just loan Donald the money straightforwardly? Well, New Jersey regulators prohibited casino owners from receiving loans from non-approved entities. Hence the shady deal. But as Mother Jones reported last October, there was nothing legit about this solution:
New Jersey's Casino Control Commission investigated the chip purchase the following year and said it was an illegal loan that broke the state's rules about casinos receiving cash from approved financial sources. The Inquirer wrote that a casino lawyer told the paper that "Fred Trump is ineligible for licensing, and Trump Castle should be required to return the money, a move that would almost certainly force it into bankruptcy court." In the end, the casino kept the money and the commission fined the casino the relatively small amount of $65,000.
This is not the worst thing Trump has done in his life. But it is entirely emblematic of America’s post-Reagan treatment of business regulation. What a wealthy and powerful person faced with a legal impediment to moneymaking is supposed to do is work with a lawyer to devise clever means of subverting the purpose of the law. If you end up getting caught, the attempted subversion will be construed as a mitigating (it’s a gray area!) rather than aggravating factor. Your punishment will probably be light and will certainly not involve anything more than money. You already have plenty of money, and your plan is to get even more. So why not?
“They let you do it. You can do anything.”
On what the political press has rather euphemistically decided to describe as the “Access Hollywood tape,” Trump — talking to a casual acquaintance while wearing a microphone — offered this view of his philosophy of life:
I better use some Tic Tacs just in case I start kissing her. You know I'm automatically attracted to beautiful — I just start kissing them. It's like a magnet. Just kiss. I don't even wait. And when you're a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.
Grab 'em by the pussy. You can do anything.
More than a dozen women later came forward to accuse Trump of telling the truth about his taste for sexual assault, though Trump of course insisted that he is an enormous liar.
What’s beyond question, however, is that Trump’s expressed view that a rich and famous man like him can get away with anything is both sincere and largely correct. From his empty-box tax scam to money laundering at his casinos to racial discrimination in his apartments to Federal Trade Commission violations for his stock purchases to Securities and Exchange Commission violations for his financial reporting, Trump has spent his entire career breaking various laws, getting caught, and then essentially plowing ahead unharmed. When he was caught engaging in illegal racial discrimination to please a mob boss, he paid a fine. There was no sense that this was a repeated pattern of violating racial discrimination law, and certainly no desire to take a closer look at his various personal and professional connections to the Mafia.
Trump is typical, rather than unusual, in enjoying this kind of slap-on-the-wrist approach to white-collar crime — just ask the executives whose banks reached big-ticket settlements with the Obama Justice Department all while seeing share prices and compensation packages rise, with nobody’s business ruined and no individuals held legally responsible.
He stands out from the pack, essentially, in how deeply he embraces the ethic of impunity, bragging about it to Billy Bush or screwing over small-time contractors as a routine business practice.
None of this is the action of an impulsive toddler or of a senile old man. It is the calculation of a veteran — and rather cunning — operator who has gotten far in life by relying on money, connections, and lawbreaking to keep him afloat.
Accountability would be nice
One way to give this sordid tale a happy ending would be for Icarus, having flown too close to the sun, to finally face judgment and accountability.
The question is whether Republicans in Congress will do their job. There are some signs of life among the long-quiescent GOP this week, with House Oversight Committee Chair Jason Chaffetz requesting James Comey’s memos and committees in both houses of Congress preparing hearings with crucial public testimony. We’re still a long way from real accountability for Trump, but a pathway there is becoming visible.
But beyond Trump, America is desperately in need of a larger political reckoning as well.
The entire culture of civil fines and settlements without admission of wrongdoing that dominates American business regulation is fundamentally odd. If the rules say you can’t keep your casino afloat with an unapproved loan and you respond to that by getting a shady secret unapproved loan to keep your casino afloat, shouldn’t you be out of the casino game? If compliance with money laundering rules is mandatory and you don’t comply, shouldn’t you be shut down?
Any given case obviously presents its nuances, and not every case can be taken to the mattresses. But the settlement racket too easily lets regulators feel like they’re putting points on the board even while criminals continue to roam the streets, having learned the lesson that they’re untouchable. That, fundamentally, is Trump’s problem. Not that he can’t control himself, but that he’s been taught he doesn’t have to.