Donald Trump has long claimed that investigations of him are a partisan “witch hunt.” Manhattan DA Cy Vance seems determined to make Trump’s point for him by indicting the Trump Organization along with its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg.
The 15-count indictment throws a kitchen sink of charges, including grand larceny, conspiracy, scheme to defraud,and tax fraud. But the whole thing comes down to paying perks to Weisselberg — such as his parking garage fees, tuition for family members and reimbursement of holiday gratuities — and not reporting them as taxable income, or reporting that the wrong Trump entity paid them.
For this they slapped Weisselberg in handcuffs Thursday and paraded him in front of the media — a stage-managed political show trial.
Corporations almost never get criminally prosecuted for this sort of thing, but Vance wanted the name “Trump” in his indictment. You can bet that he would have indicted The Donald if he had the goods. The feds — who’ve been auditing Trump’s taxes forever — haven’t filed charges.
Equal justice under law means the same law for everyone. That is violated not only when we give powerful people a pass in cases that would get ordinary people locked up, but also when prominent figures get pursued over things that would never get a normal person prosecuted.
Attorney General Robert Jackson, later a Supreme Court justice and Nuremberg prosecutor, warned against “picking the man and then searching the law books, or putting investigators to work, to pin some offense on him,” in which case “the real crime becomes that of being unpopular with the predominant or governing group, being attached to the wrong political views, or being personally obnoxious to or in the way of the prosecutor himself.”
True in 1940, true in 2021.
Don’t prosecute your enemies under rules you would not want used against your friends. If Trump shot someone in the middle of Fifth Avenue, Vance would have a duty to prosecute him. But trumped-up charges against former leaders are a familiar sight in banana republics. America has thus far avoided that. Making a precedent of this kind of case, based on aggressive readings of the law or its extension to situations rarely prosecuted, is a perilous step.
Vance seems to think he’s Elliot Ness getting Al Capone for tax fraud by nabbing his accountant. But if Weisselberg isn’t going to testify that his boss did something criminal, it’s Trump who will come out looking untouchable.