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Opinion ‘Conspiracy to defraud’ is the perfect charge against the grifter Trump

Former president Donald Trump in October. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)

The most sensational recommendation that came Monday from the Jan. 6 committee is that Donald Trump be prosecuted for inciting insurrection. But the most perfect, in terms of what we have seen with our own eyes, is that Trump face justice for conspiring to defraud the United States.

The fraud allegation relates mostly to a deceitful attempt to field slates of fake electors to reverse the result of the 2020 election. More broadly, however: What has Trump’s entire political career been but a great big fraud?

Start at the beginning. Before 2009, Trump was a Democrat who generally supported the party’s positions on issues such as abortion. It was only in 2012, just a decade ago, that he began seriously seeking to amass power within the Republican Party — and changing, or pretending to change, his views on social issues accordingly.

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He needed to win support from evangelicals, an important GOP constituency, so when he campaigned for the presidency in 2015, he called the Bible his “favorite book” but was unable to cite any verses. In 2016, he visited Liberty University, a conservative school founded by Jerry Falwell, and did quote a verse from Second Corinthians about liberty but absurdly referred to the book as “Two Corinthians.”

When he launched his 2016 presidential bid, he claimed that since he was so wealthy, he would self-finance his campaign — and thus not be beholden to special interests. He did spend some of his own money, but only about a fifth of the total expenditures he reported to the Federal Election Commission came from his own pocket. The rest he raised from donors big and small, including low-income supporters for whom giving any amount of money was a stretch.

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While president, he operated a gaudy hotel in Washington on Pennsylvania Avenue, just blocks from the White House. Foreign governments seeking favor and influence spent more than $750,000 at that hotel during Trump’s term in office. And the Secret Service spent more than $1.4 million staying at Trump properties over four years, facing nightly rates as high as $1,185 per room.

The money grift continues. This year, Trump formed a “Save America” political action committee that raised an estimated $100 million, mostly by constantly dunning small-dollar donors. Trump gave the impression that the money would be used to help Republicans in the November midterm elections, but even his handpicked candidates received no more than a trickle of cash. In Georgia, defeated GOP Senate nominee Herschel Walker’s campaign accused Trump of “deceptive fundraising.”

Just last week, Trump ballyhooed a “major announcement” that turned out to be the sale of kitschy digital trading cards of him photoshopped as an astronaut, an Old West sheriff, a superhero and other macho personas. The video of Trump announcing this NFT collection would have made the cheesiest late-night infomercial pitchman blush. And the $99 that each gullible purchaser sent in went not to any political cause but to Trump himself. Even Trump’s longtime ally, Stephen K. Bannon, watched Trump’s spiel and moaned, “Make it stop.”

Trump convinced many of his followers that he was a genius businessman, which meant lumping his multiple bankruptcies, which are amply documented, into the category of “fake news.” He presented himself, perhaps most of all, as a master builder, pointing to the many properties around the world emblazoned with his name. But when he was in office, his administration promised “Infrastructure Week” so many times — without delivering any plan — that it became a running joke. It took his successor, President Biden, to finally shepherd through Congress and sign a long-overdue $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill.

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Trump billed himself as a master negotiator but gave status and legitimacy to North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un and got absolutely nothing in return. He boasted of his geopolitical brilliance but could not be bothered to read briefing papers from the intelligence community and the State Department. He bragged of his intuitive, even genetic grasp of medical science but suggested ingesting bleach as a remedy for covid-19.

The allegation of insurrection — which, like the other referrals issued by the committee, carries no official weight with the Justice Department, which will make its own decision on whether to charge Trump with anything — is jaw-dropping simply because it is shocking to hear of a former president being so accused. The allegation of obstructing an official proceeding is hardly a surprise, given the riot to prevent congressional certification of the election. And the allegation of “making false statements” seems open and shut, equivalent in Trump’s case to a charge of “drawing breath.”

But nothing could be more righteous than charging him with fraud. Trump always was, in essence, a grifter — and always will be.

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