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Opinion A measure of accountability for Trump is something to celebrate

Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg enters Manhattan Criminal Court to be arraigned on charges of tax fraud in New York on Thursday. (Victor J. Blue/For The Washington Post )

Over the past six years, many liberals fell prey to the understandable hope that Donald Trump’s comeuppance was always right around the corner. He couldn’t keep getting away with all these misdeeds, right? And yet, aside from the 2020 election, at least, he always has, and he always did.

But on Thursday, the Manhattan district attorney unsealed indictments against both the Trump Organization and its chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg. Though Trump himself was not indicted, in theory that might still happen.

The Trump Organization has been charged with conspiracy, grand larceny, falsifying business records and criminal tax fraud, The Post reports:

Carey Dunne, a prosecutor with the District Attorney's Office, said in the hearing that the charges related to an "off-the-books tax fraud scheme” that lasted for 15 years. He said that the scheme allowed Trump Organization executives to get "secret pay raises” while not paying proper taxes.
“To put it bluntly, this was a sweeping and audacious illegal payment scheme,” Dunne said.

If you think that happened in Donald Trump’s company without Donald Trump’s involvement, I’ve got a tower in Manhattan to sell you.

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Unfortunately, I wouldn’t bet on Trump ever seeing the inside of a jail cell, no matter how much he may deserve it. (Ask Bill Cosby about whether the criminal justice system gives rich people what they have coming.) Nevertheless, this is a key moment in his history, and ours. We have to take what accountability we can get, and the fact that Trump’s company may be revealed to be a criminal enterprise is not a bad start.

A key part of this story is that if there’s anyone who knows things that could put Trump himself behind bars, it would be Weisselberg, who is now charged with evading taxes on $1.76 million in income.

Weisselberg began working for Fred Trump in the 1970s, and has run the financial affairs of the Trump Organization for decades. He’s the guy who knows where every penny is spent and every figurative body is buried.

Weisselberg’s lawyers insist he’ll fight these charges. Though it’s possible he might flip, sharing information on Trump to avoid jail time, it’s unlikely. In America we usually punish white-collar crime committed by rich people who have expensive lawyers with a gentle hand, and if Weisselberg has to spend a few months in a minimum-security facility — and then win Trump’s eternal gratitude — it probably sounds to him like a good deal.

Especially considering that the other option is testifying against Trump and being vilified across MAGAworld. As the murderous gangster Jimmy says to a young Henry Hill in “Goodfellas” after Hill is arrested for the first time, “You took your first pinch like a man, and you learned the two greatest things in life … Never rat on your friends, and always keep your mouth shut.”

That is Trump’s code as well. After his former lawyer Michael Cohen pleaded guilty to crimes he committed in cooperation with Trump and agreed to talk to prosecutors, Trump said, “It’s called flipping and it almost ought to be illegal.” He also called Cohen a “rat.” So far, Trump is sure that Weisselberg is no rat.

Seeing prosecutors lay out these charges in court is one of those many Trump moments that manages to be simultaneously shocking and unsurprising. It’s hard to believe it’s really happening, but when you hear the specifics, you say, “Yep, that sounds like something they’d do.”

As far back as when he began running for president in 2015, it’s been clear that Trump could well be the single most corrupt major figure in the American business world, someone who ran scams that cheated people out of their life savings, stiffed small businesses on money he owed them, ran a fake “foundation,” had a history of employing undocumented labor, and, we later learned, may have run one of the largest tax-fraud schemes in American history (though the statute of limitations on that one has expired).

Prosecutors have also been examining whether Trump may have committed tax and bank fraud; Cohen testified that Trump would routinely deflate the value of his properties when reporting to tax authorities in order to pay less in taxes, then inflate their value when applying for loans. (A ProPublica investigation documented this practice.) That was not at issue in this indictment.

But as it shows, Trump isn’t just a corrupt individual; he’s also someone who built around himself a corrupt system. If you went to work in his inner circle, you’d be implicated — if not legally, then certainly morally.

He took that philosophy from business into politics. His aides and allies would have to repeat his lies, justify his misdeeds, defend his incompetence and turn themselves into cogs in his machine of malfeasance. If there’s anyone who entered that system and thinks themselves unsullied by it, they’re wrong.

Or at least, they ought to be. And it’s up to all of us to make sure they are. Every bit of accountability — for Trump’s businesses, his associates and perhaps himself — is a balm for our soul.