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A lifetime of grifting


Here’s a really interesting conversation between Mary Trump, Dalia Lithwick, and Norm Ornstein, about how Donald Trump’s lifetime of blatant criminality hasn’t resulted in literally any criminal penalties for him, at least not yet.

Norm Ornstein: What struck me over the course of Donald Trump’s life, and Mary’s book reflects this as do others, is it’s a lifetime of grifting. And he has managed to pay off judges and prosecutors, to intimidate people, with Michael Cohen the enforcer, and in other ways. One of the stories that struck me the most—it’s a minor part of the grifting—was that he used to buy jewelry at the Bulgari shop in Trump Tower and did this scam of having them certify that it was actually being sent from the Florida store so he wouldn’t have to pay sales tax. It got uncovered that it was his scheme. He really basically pushed the employees there to do it. They got punished, and he didn’t. That’s the history of his life.

We see with his increasingly hysterical missives on Truth Social and elsewhere that he is now actually frightened that this longtime, lifetime pattern of getting off from his criminal schemes may be coming to an end.

But what we also see with Judge Cannon is that he finds enablers in the judiciary everywhere. Here you have a woman who manifestly does not belong on the bench, who was jammed through days after he lost the election, put in place because she was a longtime member of the Federalist Society, and was actually under 40 when she was there, never should have taken this case in the first place. It was the most blatant example of shopping for the right judge that we’ve seen in a long time. Interestingly, when this first came up, she actually mentioned that, asking what gave us a little bit of hope, the pointed question, “Why are we here instead of with the magistrate judge?” And then not only took the case but issued this execrable ruling. But it’s not likely to stand. And I think the noose is tightening in so many venues in New York, in Georgia, and with this federal case, and we’re now seeing a level of criminality that is just shocking beyond even what we might have imagined. . .

Mary Trump: Donald’s ability to use the media to capitalize on the completely false portrait that was painted of him first by New York newspapers and then ultimately by Mark Burnett, that’s something we’re going to be dealing with for a long time. But it’s also that coupled with the truth, that there are always people smarter and more powerful than Donald who’ve figured out how they can make use of him. If it were just Donald, he’s not savvy, he has specific skills. I mean he is quite good at manipulating the media. He’s very good at finding people weaker than he is to carry his water for him. But if it weren’t for people like Mark Burnett, or the bankers at Deutsche Bank, or Mitch McConnell, or Vladimir Putin, I don’t think Donald would’ve gotten as far as he’s gotten. And I think that the original sinner in that regard is my grandfather of course. And it’s just how this pattern has repeated over time that I still can’t quite grapple with it to be completely honest with you. But those two things together, the myth about him sells papers, and other people in positions of power have figured out how to use him toward their own ends.

There’s a lot of good stuff as well about how jurisdiction shopping for Federalist Society hacks who will issue nationwide injunctions out of one district court is a big problem that needs a structural solution, as opposed to a lot of hand-wringing about how this or that ruling doesn’t make any sense, legally speaking.

Donald Trump’s current legal peril brings to mind a bit of history that I can imagine might end up being relevant or emblematic in his case: The story of Laurence Shirley, 4th Earl Ferrers:

The Ferrers’ estates were then vested in trustees; Ferrers secured the appointment of an old family steward named Johnson, as receiver of rents. This man faithfully performed his duty as a servant to the trustees, and did not prove amenable to Ferrers’ personal wishes. On 18 January 1760, Johnson called at the earl’s mansion at Staunton HaroldLeicestershire, by appointment, and was directed to his lordship’s study. Here, after some business conversation, Lord Ferrers shot him. Johnson did not die immediately, but instead was given some treatment at the hall followed by continued verbal abuse from a drunken Ferrers before Dr. Thomas Kirkland was able to convey him to his own home where he died the following morning.

In the following April, Ferrers was tried for murder by his peers in Westminster HallAttorney General Charles Pratt leading for the prosecution. Shirley’s defence, which he conducted in person with great ability, was a plea of insanity, and it was supported by considerable evidence, but he was found guilty. According to Horace Walpole, “Lord Ferrers was not mad enough to be struck with Lady Huntingdon’s sermons. The Methodists have nothing to brag of his conversion, though Whitefield prayed for him.” Ferrers subsequently said that he had only pleaded insanity to oblige his family, and that he had himself always been ashamed of such a defence.

On 5 May 1760, aged 39, dressed in a light-coloured suit embroidered with silver (the outfit he had worn at his wedding), he was taken in his own carriage from the Tower of London to Tyburn and there hanged by Thomas Turlis. There are several illustrations of the hanging. It has been said that as a concession to his rank the rope used was of silk.  After the execution his body was taken to the Barber-Surgeons’ Hall in Monkwell Street for public exhibition and dissection.

The hanging of Lord Ferrers with a silk rope at Tyburn, with his body being dissected afterwards like that of “a common criminal,” was a story that was repeated in countless pamphlets for many decades well into the 19th century, extolling the equality before the law that was the crown jewel of British justice.

The Trump cult may well lead to Trump being president again, by semi-legitimate election or open electoral theft, but I can also see things turning in another direction, potentially. Imagine that the coalition of ethno-nationalist theocratic kooks and endlessly rapacious plutocrats that makes up the contemporary Republican party were to suddenly veer toward allowing Donald Trump to get the legal punishments he so richly deserves.

He would, in that circumstance, instantly become our very own 21st century Lord Ferrers: the exemplar par excellence of the unimpeachable rectitude of our legal system, which treats the lowliest denizen of the streets and a former president of the United States exactly the same.

The mass and elite media would celebrate this auto-da-fe continually, even as some less unhinged demagogue ascended to the leadership of the coalition of kooks and plutocrats that Trump led for as long as it was convenient for him to do so.

That Trump is more symptom than cause would be instantly forgotten.

It’s a possible path, and one we should keep in mind over the next year or so, as Trump is finally brought to some sort of justice (or more likely isn’t).

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