Donald Trump is Facing Accountability, Possibly For the First time in his Life

Scott Deshefy

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A recent spate of courtroom decisions has not only restored and reaffirmed my faith in U.S. judicial systems and rule of natural law, it bulwarks pride in being an American. Combining two separate New York civil cases, a disgraced former President of the United States, now an adjudicated rapist and fraudster, was fined more than half a billion dollars for combined duplicity  in real estate business transactions and repeatedly defaming his sexual assault victim. For defrauding banks, insurers and tax assessors, which, by extension, impacts each and every one of us in smaller measures, the phony “law and order” candidate has been ordered to pay $354.9 million in civil penalties and $98.6 million in accrued interest ($453.5 million combined). A jury verdict in January, the second of Ms. E. Jean Carroll’s defamation trials, awarded the journalist and former Elle magazine advice columnist $83.3 million for continued sniping and character assassination by her convicted sexual assailant, one Donald J. Trump. Trump’s slander-laden recidivism brings his current civil penalty total to $536.8 million. Multiple criminal charges, ranging from insurrection to election tampering to hush money payments, are still pending.  

In finding Trump, his two adult sons and associated businesses liable for engaging in conspiracies to defraud, Judge Arthur Engoron emphasized the defendants’  “propensity to engage in persistent fraud by submitting false and misleading Statements of Financial Condition.” After a barrage of gag-order violations and verbal attacks by the GOP frontrunner against him and his chief law clerk, any of which would have landed you or me in jail for contempt of court, Engoron’s persistent composure and strict but objective evaluations of the obvious were admirable. He characterized the Trumps’ “complete lack of contrition or remorse,” combined with refusals to admit frauds that “leaped off the page and shocked the mind,” as “pathological.” Given their inability to admit to blatantly false financial statements, Engoron, in addition to civil penalties, banned the senior Trump from operating any New York company for three years, including (I suspect) sidewalk pretzel carts, hot dog stands and pennant concessions at ballgames. During deposition, Trump actually invoked his 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination over 400 times. If Trump doesn’t post bond, New York Attorney General Letitia James is prepared to seize his buildings. They’re the ones easily identifiable from stiffed contractors waiting outside and some architectural resemblance to overpriced sneakers. My recommendation is to turn Trump Towers’ fifty-eight floors into a series of botanical and industrial-scale hydroponic gardens, an animal rights Hall of Fame, art gallery, Indy film studio, vegan restaurant, squash courts and a pool hall. Another option is to convert combinations of the properties into government-run, not-for-profit manufacturing of reliable stripped-down, no-frills electric cars with which to compete against prohibitively expensive private models. Surveys suggest over half of America’s drivers want an EV or hybrid for their next vehicle ─ they just want them cheaper. If NASA can clutter low Earth and geosynchronous orbits with satellites, explore Pluto and Arrokoth in the Kuiper Belt, and ultimately land humans on Mars, we can design, engineer and manufacture an electric automobile, fully warranted for 25 years for $12,000.

Two additional court rulings stir pride in U.S. citizenship. Recently, a federal appeals court in Washington, DC rejected Donald Trump’s demand for absolute immunity for crimes he may have committed as President, or more broadly, before, after or during a President’s tenure in the White House. That legal opinion, I believe, provides some of the more inspiring and profound passages in the annals of U.S. law.

“For the purpose of this criminal case, former President Trump has become citizen Trump, with all the defenses of any other criminal defendant. Any executive immunity that may have protected him while he served as President no longer protects him against prosecution.”

“At bottom, former President Trump’s stance would collapse our system of separated powers by placing the President beyond the reach of all three Branches. Presidential immunity against federal indictment would mean that, as to the President, the Congress could not legislate, the Executive could not prosecute and the Judiciary could not review. We cannot accept that the office of the presidency places its former occupants above the law for all time thereafter.”

“It would be a striking paradox if the President, who alone is vested with the constitutional duty to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed,” were the sole officer capable of defying those laws with impunity.”

“We cannot accept former President Trump’s claim that a President has unbounded authority to commit crimes that would neutralize the most fundamental check on executive power ─ the recognition and implementation of election results. Nor can we sanction his apparent contention that the Executive has carte blanche to violate the rights of individual citizens to vote and to have their votes count.”

In essence, the federal court of appeals ruled that no former or future President, if charged with a crime (such as insurrection, plotting to subvert an election, failure to surrender classified documents), has prosecutorial impunity. No one in this country is above the law. No one will be handed a dictatorial carte blanche to commit crimes against the rest of us. That defense of America, democracy, liberty and the U.S. Constitution arouses patriotic fervor.  Imagine if a “malignant narcissist” (the psychological disorder coined by Erich Fromm (1964) for extreme narcissism, antisocial behavior, aggression and delusional grandiosity) were actually given license to commit crimes while occupying the White House. We’ve seen, for instance, what unbridled retribution means when meted out by fascists in the 20th century and more recently by Vladimir Putin’s imprisonment and likely murder of political rival and dissident activist Alexei Navalny. We don’t want “retribution” part of the political lexicon here. Nor do we want religion-perverting antecedents, like Christian nationalism, acting as politically ideological feedlots for radical MAGA Republicans who’ll turn back clocks on social progress for women, people of color, the environment and the LGBTQ+ community. The Christian nationalist-MAGA agenda also includes a police state, contorting American education to fit their culture war, banning Muslims, gutting EPA, terminating the Constitution, and withdrawing from NATO and the Paris Climate Accord. The result would be a nation rooted deeper still in myth and make-believe instead of proven facts.

Weeks ago, there was another landmark court case. University of Pennsylvania climate scientist Michael E. Mann was awarded $1 million in a defamation law suit against two rightwing climate deniers, who referred to him as “the Jerry Sandusky of climate science” in blogs posted in 2012. Sandusky, the former Penn State University football coach, was arrested for sexually abusing young boys. Mann, who was a Penn State professor at the time of the slander, had conducted research with Raymond S. Bradley and Malcolm K. which culminated in the famous and pivotal “hockey stick model.”  Featured was a graph plotting mean temperature reconstructions for the last millennium (from historical documents, tree ring data, lake bed varves and other stratigraphy) combined with instrumental mean temperature readings for the northern hemisphere since 1850. The graph shows a long, slow cooling trend earlier in the millennium changing into an accelerated, near-exponential warming during the 20th century significantly higher than earlier temps. The plot’s relatively flat downward trend to 1900 (the “shaft”) followed by a spiked, near-asymptotic increase from 1900 to 2000 (the “blade”) led to its popular description. Dozens of alternate reconstructions, using various statistical analyses and combinations of proxy records, support broad scientific consensus that the pre-20th century curve is essentially “flat” compared to consistently and dramatically elevating global temperatures the last 150 years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has repeatedly used these results for its schematics on global warming and climate change, and the graph featured prominently in former Vice President Al Gore’s award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which remains must-see viewing and reading, if not a scholastic requisite.

The baseless slander directed at Michael Mann by two rightwing bloggers was clearly designed to smear and discredit his “hockey stick model,” admissions by them that the model’s proof of anthropogenic climate change and global warming was demonstrably and scientifically valid. Mann and his colleagues had made their findings not only clear and reproducible to the scientific community, but even to laymen. As Mann attests, the verdict of guilty in the defamation suit sends a powerful message that falsely attacking scientists isn’t protected speech. It’s not only a victory for the men and women of science who dedicate their lives to answering questions about the universe, many of which impact life on Earth, including our own survival ─ it’s a victory for truth and justice in general. The scientific method, empiricism and robust peer review within the scientific community are the only gauntlets through which hypotheses should run. Lies no matter how profuse, disinformation, personal attacks and widespread ignorance shouldn’t be hindrances to accepting fact. Politics has neither lash nor club in lines of reasoned peer review and scientific rigor. Still, politically motivated attacks on experts in their fields, uninformed conjecture and downright slander leave marks which take years in court for restitution and to erase. As Iago said in Shakespeare’s Othello, which I paraphrase, “he who steals my purse steals trash exchanged by a thousand hands…but he that filches my good name robs me of that which enriches no one, but makes me poor indeed.”

Now that Donald Trump is facing accountability, possibly for the first time in his life, we should take stock of just how far we’ve fallen as a country by disvaluing or abandoning the truth. Not so long ago a minor chink in public-image armor could derail a smart and well-intentioned candidate.  The slightest frailties, quirks or foibles were tagged as unacceptable flaws. Edmund Musky was eliminated by what appeared to be a tear, Howard Dean for being too exuberant after winning; Thomas Eagleton for treatable bouts of depression. Now an ignoramus, compulsive liar, cheat and sociopath can hold sway over a major party and be an election frontrunner by projecting their unfitness on others, normalizing their bigotry and sowing seeds of fear among supporters. They can even direct followers to hurt anyone opposing them, because in their psychosis, they represent themselves as martyrs.

‘The proper way to check slander is to despise it,” Alexander Dumas once said. “Attempt to overtake and refute it, and it will outrun you.” Dumas, of course, could never have imagined the warp speeds with which AI can propagate and disseminate falsehoods today. By the same token, wouldn’t it be possible for AI to instantly fact-check everything released by media and transmitted on the Internet complete with flashing lights, red flags and alarm bells? Maybe the key to justice and societal advancement is to despise fallacy and exalt truth above all else, for without acceptance and adherence to facts there can be no connection to reality. And without a unifying knowledge of what’s real, we’re much less likely to identify and mitigate a crisis. Today, enticed by MGM marketing, if we were anxiously awaiting Greta Garbo’s first audible words on film as Eugene O’Neill’s Anna Christie, we might be disappointed with that slow, somber order of whiskey and ginger ale that so embodied her reputedly melancholic off-screen persona. Perhaps igniting our salvation from conspiracy theories, fantasies and lies, I, for one, would thrill to hear her say instead (with a hint of Swedish accent), “Gimme Truth, facts and science on the side, and don’t be stingy, baby.”

Scott Deshefy is a biologist, ecologist and two-time Green Party congressional candidate.