The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Is the GOP the law and order party? Not so much.

Jeffrey Epstein appears in custody in West Palm Beach, Fla., in 2008. (Uma Sanghvi/AP)

For a party that claims to be “tough on crime,” Republicans seem pretty confused by what it means to hold criminals to account.

Particularly when it comes to white-collar crimes, or really any crimes committed by rich people.

On Friday, for instance, Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-Fla.) argued that President Trump should pardon his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who has been convicted of eight felonies and pleaded guilty to another two.

“If Manafort was going to be prosecuted as a consequence of his tax crimes or lobbying crimes, that would have happened more than a decade ago,” Gaetz said on Fox News, adding on Twitter, “The only reason he was prosecuted is because of politics.” 

Joseph diGenova, a former Reagan-appointed federal prosecutor and now frequent Trump surrogate, likewise has suggested that Manafort should not have been prosecuted because he had “no criminal record.”  

By this logic, absent an extant criminal record, no one — not even pre-prosecution Al Capone — should ever get charged with a crime. Never having been in jail becomes a Get Out of Jail Free card.

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In reality, the reason Manafort wasn’t prosecuted ages ago — despite the many red flags over the years — has little to do with politics and more to do with the fact that the United States has basically stopped prosecuting white-collar crimes. Adjusted for population, there were half as many white-collar prosecutions in fiscal 2018 as there were 30 years earlier, according to data from Syracuse University’s Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.

Manafort is hardly the only wealthy white guy whom prominent Republicans — including GOP law enforcement officials — have sought to shield from the full weight of the law. 

Consider the sweetheart plea deal given to Palm Beach billionaire Jeffrey Epstein, which the Miami Herald recently reported on in damning detail. 

In a “cult-like sex pyramid scheme,” Epstein allegedly molested or sexually abused dozens of underage girls, some still in braces. One 15-year-old victim said she was recruited to be a “sex slave” out of the Mar-a-Lago locker room, where she worked as a towel girl.

The 53-page indictment prepared by law enforcement officials in 2007 could have landed Epstein in prison for life. Instead, Epstein, a longtime Democratic donor, hired a few well-connected Republican lawyers (including former independent counsel Kenneth W. Starr) and scored “one of the most lenient deals for a serial child sex offender in history,” according to the Herald.

The no-prosecution deal allowed him to serve just 13 months in the private wing of a local jail, from which he was granted “work release” 12 hours a day, six days a week. The agreement also effectively shut down an FBI investigation into others who might have been involved. 

Which George W. Bush-appointed U.S. attorney decided to go so soft on sex crime? Why, Alexander Acosta, now Trump’s secretary of labor, a position with oversight over international child-labor laws and human trafficking.

Acosta effectively squelched an investigation into a real-life, Pizzagate-style child-sex ring. Yet law-and-order Republicans have remained mum on calls for his removal. 

Other well-heeled, well-connected entities have also found the quality of Republican mercy unstrained.

Shortly after White House Budget Director Mick Mulvaney took over as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the agency dropped an investigation into an installment lender that had donated to his congressional campaign. A ProPublica investigation had found that the company was charging annual interest rates that could exceed 200 percent.

But the bureau’s leniency under Trump-chosen leadership has not been confined to that one company.

Even as consumer complaints have reached new highs, its publicly announced enforcement actions have dropped about 75 percent from their average over the previous five years, according to a Post analysis.

Of course, Republicans  remain tough on some categories of lawbreakers.

Trump has advocated “rough[ing]” up some criminal suspects, and giving drug dealers the death penalty. Thirty years ago he urged the same fate for the Central Park Five, five young black men accused of rape who were exonerated by DNA evidence.

And while Trump and some Republican lawmakers have publicly supported a bill reforming prison sentencing rules, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) won’t give it a vote. Unlike with funding for his beloved wall, Trump has not exactly kicked up a fuss over this. But if Republicans truly want to give offenders a second chance — even when their pockets are shallow, and their ballots more likely to be Democratic — that is certainly a measure they could pursue.

Instead, Trump et al. seem to have adopted the adage attributed to various Latin American strongmen: For my friends, everything. For my enemies, the law.

Read more:

Catherine Rampell: America is swarming with Paul Manaforts

Catherine Rampell: How America stopped prosecuting white-collar crime and public corruption, in charts

Kathleen Parker: How power and money colluded to let a sex-obsessed monster get away with abuse

David Von Drehle: It pays to be rich. Just look at the lurid case of Jeffrey Epstein.

Ivanka Trump: The Trump administration is taking bold action to combat the evil of human trafficking