Cases demonstrate no one above the law
Saturday, December 22, 2018
A bit of common sense and common decency intruded on Tuesday into the crazy world of Donald Trump.
In New York, the state attorney general announced that the president had agreed that the “charity” he used as a piggy bank has no reason to exist.
In Washington, a federal judge let a former top presidential aide know that you can parrot political spin or you can tell the truth, but you can’t do both to someone who can send you to prison.
Michael Flynn, Trump’s former national security adviser, appeared before Judge Emmet Sullivan to be sentenced to what he expected would be a term of probation, after pleading guilty to lying to federal investigators about conversations with the Russian ambassador. The office of the special counsel, Robert Mueller, had earlier filed a memo that said it would be right for Flynn to avoid prison after his extensive cooperation in the investigation of Trump ties to Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential campaign and after.
Then last week, in a memo about their client’s sentencing, Flynn’s lawyers implied that he had been tricked into lying and that the FBI acted improperly in interviewing him. Judge Sullivan was having none of it. “I cannot recall an instance of a court ever accepting a guilty plea from someone who did not maintain he was guilty,” Judge Sullivan said, “and I do not intend to start today.”
Chastened, Flynn told the judge that nobody tricked him, that he lied and that he knew he shouldn’t have.
The judge was not upset only about Flynn’s sneaky prevarication. He said he felt “disgust” at Flynn’s offenses, that a retired three-star general would lie to the FBI “while on the physical premises of the White House,” and, acting as an unregistered agent of a foreign country, Turkey, while he was an adviser to Trump (to which he admitted but was not charged). It was a bracing reminder of the brazenness of his misdeeds and of the standards the public should be able to expect of those who serve them.
Realizing that Judge Sullivan was considering a term of up to six months in prison, Flynn accepted his offer to delay the sentencing for 90 days until he has completed his cooperation with the special counsel.
Flynn should be grateful the judge offered him the chance to come clean. By contrast, the Donald J. Trump Foundation, a charity that provided no charity, quite properly received none from the New York attorney general’s office.
Attorney General Barbara Underwood accused it of “a shocking pattern of illegality” that “amounted to the Trump Foundation functioning as little more than a checkbook to serve Trump’s business and political interests.”
Whatever money that remains will be disbursed under the supervision of Underwood’s office and the judge overseeing the continuing lawsuit her office filed in June, seeking $2.8 million in restitution and a ban on Trump and his three oldest children serving on the boards of other nonprofit organizations.
In a series of stories exposing the foundation’s true nature, The Washington Post found that its largest donation was to fix a fountain in front of the Plaza Hotel in Manhattan, which Trump owned at the time, that its funds were used to buy a portrait of Trump, and that it illegally provided political donations and paid for personal legal settlements.
All this comes just days after prosecutors announced that they believed that Trump had conspired with the owner of The National Enquirer and his fixer Michael Cohen to violate campaign finance laws by paying hush money to two women who said they had affairs with him. It’s also just been reported that prosecutors are investigating spending by the Trump inaugural committee. The president still faces lawsuits on the constitutionality of his enriching himself while in office. Meanwhile, the special counsel’s inquiry may be expanding rather than winding down.
It’s fitting that, despite all his bluster and threats, a president who’s demonstrated such contempt for the rule of law is finding it so formidable.
That this goes to the essence of American governance was best summed up by Paula Duncan, the Trump enthusiast who was among the jurors who found Trump’s former campaign chief Paul Manafort guilty of fraud, even though she had hoped he wouldn’t be convicted.
Explaining her decision after the verdict, she told Fox News, “No one’s above the law.”