Finally, here we are: Donald Trump’s first indictment. The 34 felony counts unsealed at his arraignment this week focus on the falsification of business records in the first degree, a low-level felony charge. This indictment may not prove to be the rock-solid legal case one might hope it to be. It neither addresses the gravest allegations leveled at Trump — subverting the vote, attempted coup, rape — nor is it the most potentially persuasive case against him under consideration. Whether the evidence proves strong enough to convict him will be up to legal analysts to parse and ultimately, a jury to decide months from now.
But for the moment, let’s appreciate the karmic justice of these particular charges — no matter the outcome. Falsifying business records to cover up hush money payments to a porn star, brings us full circle to the sleaziness we knew about well before Trump ever set foot in office. In the indictment’s focus on Trump’s financial malfeasance and his flagrant misogyny, the charges recall two pivotal events that took place before his election: his failure to disclose his tax returns and the contemptuous behavior revealed in the “Access Hollywood” tape.
Both told us everything we could have expected from a Trump presidency. Both should have stopped Trump from becoming president. And the fact that they didn’t — that roughly half of American voters were willing to overlook Trump’s moral failings in the service of politics — shows why the country is still so intractably polarized. But neither side can claim it didn’t know exactly the kind of person who was elected in the first place.
Let’s step back, then, to Trump’s emergence as a presidential candidate in the 2016 election. Anyone who’d been following his antics for decades assumed, wrongly, that nobody would take seriously the prospect of a corrupt businessman, third-tier reality TV showman and object of tabloid ridicule as president.
That many Americans nonetheless did take the prospect seriously seemed bound to be undone by those two pre-election events. First, Trump’s refusal to release his tax records was a departure from years of accepted practice. If he had nothing to hide, he would have shared his returns. If he had been telling the truth, he wouldn’t have repeatedly said he intended to share his returns. And if he couldn’t abide by this seemingly innocuous precedent, we knew he would not follow others. And that’s what we got: the blatant graft that marked his term in office, whether it was his rampant financial conflicts of interest, his frequent self-dealings and misuse of the Trump International Hotel and other properties or the taxpayer-funded excesses and shady profit-seeking by members of his extended family.
The second event was the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape, which revealed a man with such disdain for women that he would respect neither their humanity nor their bodily autonomy. To anyone paying attention, Trump’s vocal contempt for women had been on display in New York and on “The Howard Stern Show” for decades. But “Access Hollywood” made it plain to everyone, immediately before the election, exactly what kind of man we were getting: one who would callously separate mothers from their children at the border and deliberately appoint people to the Supreme Court who would overturn Roe v. Wade.
Perhaps Trump himself recognized the parallel. As The Times reporter Maggie Haberman noted on the day he pleaded not guilty to the charges, “One of the few times Trump has looked as angry as he just did was when he was at the second presidential debate with Hillary Clinton two days after the infamous ‘Access Hollywood’ tape became public in October 2016.”
Lying. Cheating, personally and professionally. Financial misdeeds. Sexism. Whatever the eventual outcome of this trial, the moral and political case against Trump now echoes the case against Trump back then.
Last Thursday night at the end of a Broadway performance of “Parade,” a musical about the wrongful murder conviction of Leo Frank in Georgia in 1913, the star Ben Platt addressed the audience after the ovations to contrast that woeful history with the rightful indictment of Donald Trump that day. The audience’s resounding cheers in response may have surpassed the considerable applause for the performance itself.
Some say the indictment of a former president, however justified, is no cause for celebration. That we should not be happy that a former American president has been charged with a crime. That it sets a dangerous precedent on the road to banana republic-dom.
But we should be happy that this former president was indicted.
Too many years of knowing that Trump’s time in office would deliver on the sleaziness of its promise. Too many years of an endless cycle of revelations and accusations met with impunity, which have felt like an inconceivable injustice to those of us who continue to believe — against often crushing evidence to the contrary — in the existence of any kind of justice at all. There is, it must be said, a deep satisfaction in knowing that after too many years of suffering through the Trump we got, Trump himself finally has been gotten.