Almost exclusively bankrolled by its namesake and his close friends, the Donald J. Trump Foundation – which has retained zero paid employees – was long regarded as simply an extension of the man himself. Frequently accepting money on his behalf in lieu of payment, including $400,000 following an appearance on Comedy Central Roasts, donations were often misleadingly repackaged as contributions from the President. Highlights among the many questionable expenditures include $20,000 on a six-foot painting of Trump in 2007, which is found on display at one of his clubs, and $50,000 for Barron Trump’s school fees in 2015. Amidst allegations that the foundation functioned as little more than a wallet for the reputed billionaire, the charity dissolved under court supervision in December 2018. However, this was not enough to prevent further scrutiny, and on November 7, 2019, New York Judge Saliann Scarpulla ordered forfeiture of $2,000,000 in restitution for the misappropriation of funds raised during a charity event for military veterans, with the money in question instead directed to finance Trump’s 2016 Iowa primary campaign.
Described by critics as an astounding display of entitlement whilst excused by Trump as an unfounded attack by ‘political hacks’, fresh disclosures regarding ongoing impeachment proceedings of unethical conduct will have no meaningful impact. In part due to the present political reality that the impeachment process will result in an acquittal in the Senate, regardless of the evidence produced, these transgressions are actually nothing new. Those intimate with American politics have been aware of the foundation’s misconduct for years, and the damage to Trump’s political capital on Capitol Hill has already been factored into current proceedings. Meanwhile, in relation to the court of public opinion, unprecedented levels of polarization and propaganda have instituted an ironclad division of predisposed locked-in beliefs, with polls indicating a steadfast split of 47% supporting impeachment compared to 44% opposed. Confirmation of previously reported misdeeds are insufficient to sink the impressively buoyant Trump brand, which has weathered worse than the misuse of charitable funds virtually every week since before even entering government.
Yet far more troubling is the question of whether Trump will ever personally face ramifications beyond inconsequential financial penalties for any of his innumerable criminal actions. Deploying a broad but problematic claim of presidential immunity throughout his recent legal misadventures, Trump has repeatedly stated he is beyond the reach of law enforcement due to his prominent position as President of the United States. Indeed, only this month Trump’s legal team appealed to the Supreme Court for a ruling on whether the President is absolutely immune’ in an attempt to prevent a Manhattan District Attorney from subpoenaing his long-sought-after tax returns; one should note the irony in this defence, given that Trump boasted in September 2017 ‘if you are not guilty of a crime, what do you need immunity for?’. Despite a consensus among legal and constitutional scholars against this argument – with the Supreme Court ruling unanimously in United States v. Nixon that presidential privilege ‘cannot prevail over the fundamental demands of due process of law in the fair administration of criminal justice’ – Trump has nonetheless persuaded his devout following of both its veracity and, more importantly, of his perpetual innocence.
Representing himself in an increasingly reverent manner, besieged from all sides as the victim of an omnipresent conspiracy seeking to defeat his glorious crusade to restore American greatness, the United States is entering an incendiary future where any attempt to pursue justice against the country’s chief law enforcement officer carries immense existential dangers. Retaining, in all but name, a private army at his disposal, Trump, for all his faux macho swagger and idolisation of authoritarian dictators, has made himself untouchable. Positioned akin to the mob-bosses he modelled his image upon, like Capone before him, Trump has manoeuvred himself beyond the reach of the law through a dangerous combination of fear and love.
Efforts to successfully indict, prosecute, or convict rely unhelpfully upon Trump’s acquiescence, as seen with his refusal to engage amicably with both Mueller and his own impeachment, with Trump’s following and position affording him the power to shield himself under threat of dire repercussions. Witnesses can be intimidated – one need only observe Marie Yovanovitch’s recent testimony or the concerted attempts to unmask the anonymous whistle-blower. Jurors, attorneys, and even judges are not safe from attack as a result of their affiliation with actions against Trump. Horrifyingly, Trump’s claim he could ‘stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody’ without consequences seems to have become a reality.
It is no coincidence that law enforcement – which eventually managed to imprison Capone, albeit for tax evasion – are fixating so heavily on Trump’s own finances. People can be bought, scared, discredited, and even disappeared but numbers cannot be so easily overcome. However, discounting the legal trickery of last-minute juror-switching to prevent Capone tampering with his verdict, even achieving a conviction against Trump merely opens a new and more dangerous chapter: what if he rejects it? As in 2016, when Trump announced that he would accept the election outcome only ‘if I win’, should Trump mobilise supporters to rally to his defence, any attempt to impose sentencing would become practically impossible. America is facing a crisis of confidence in its institutions, in the rule of law, and in civil society, with the future of what was once considered self-evident truths becoming deeply uncertain heading into 2020 and beyond.