Here’s a question I never expected to ask:
Should law enforcement officials ignore crimes committed by their friends and associates?
I grew up thinking the answer was a simple no. The figure of Justice, with her scales in one hand and her sword in the other, wears a blindfold to symbolize her impartiality. Carved in stone over the doors of the Supreme Court are the words: Equal Justice Under Law.
As I got older and saw a few things, I came to understand that justice, as meted out by humans, is imperfect. Yet the principle of the matter — the goal for which we should aim and the standard by which we should measure — remains the same. Impartiality. Equality. Fairness.
So why am I asking?
On Labor Day, the president of the United States used Twitter to express precisely the opposite idea. President Trump maintained that the Justice Department somehow erred by bringing indictments against “two very popular Republican Congressmen” because, after all, Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions are Republicans, too.
I imagine some people will explain this away as just another case of Trump’s willingness to say openly what lesser leaders try to hide. Others will demand to know What About Hillary, because that’s their answer to everything. For them, “justice” is a figment until we Lock Her Up.
But the many Americans who are neither cynics nor hyperpartisans ought to be shocked by a president’s assertion that laws should not apply to political allies.
Barack Obama never made such a claim when the Justice Department in his administration brought charges against his one-time campaign chairman, former representative Jesse L. Jackson Jr. (Ill.).
George W. Bush never made such a claim when the Justice Department in his administration brought charges against then-Republican Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham of California.
Now, if the charges against Trump’s “popular” (and why, by the way, is that remotely relevant?) Republicans are flimsy or fabricated, the president’s statement might be forgivable. He hinted at something along these lines when he referred to the “long running, Obama era, investigations” that produced the indictments.
So let’s look at the facts.
The first popular Republican in question is Rep. Chris Collins of New York. A wealthy investor, Collins was indicted last month on multiple charges related to alleged insider trading. He had taken a large stake in a speculative pharmaceutical company, Innate Immunotherapeutics. The company had all its eggs in the single basket of a promising therapy for advanced multiple sclerosis.
It was a potential gold mine, because secondary progressive MS is a rotten disease for which there is no cure, nor even a good treatment. Desperate patients would clamor for a breakthrough drug at almost any price. But on June 22, 2017 — which was not the “Obama era” — Collins received word from the company chief executive that the drug had failed a crucial trial.
Though he was attending a party at the Trump White House when he got the news, prosecutors allege, Collins immediately began dialing his son, Cameron,and when they connected after about five minutes of phone tag, Collins confided the bad test results. Although the congressman could not dump his own shares because they were held in Australia, where trading was suspended, his son was able to sell his before the news of the failed trial became public. Others in Collins’ s circle also received tips in time to bail out of the stock.
It’s no wonder a New York grand jury returned an indictment.
Popular Republican No. 2 is Rep. Duncan D. Hunter of California. According to the grand jury in his corner of America, Hunter and his wife, Margaret, share a common affliction of debt-strapped Americans: They like to spend more money than they make. Rather than rob a bank or pray over lottery tickets, however, the Hunters allegedly used campaign funds — the operative word in the indictment is “theft” — to make up their shortfalls.
In Hunter’s case, some of the crimes alleged did occur during the “Obama era.” Still, the indictment is far from, er, trumped up. The document offers an eye-glazing litany of allegedly personal expenditures of campaign cash: $14,000 for a family vacation in Italy, $6,500 for family bonding in Hawaii, $11,300 at Costco, $5,700 at Walmart, $3,300 worth of fast food, airline tickets for the family pet. The list goes on and on. Couples getaways. Rounds of golf. Me-time at the spa.
More than $250,000 in all.
In America it’s against the law for federal officials to use campaign money for personal expenses. There’s no popularity exemption.
Nineteenth-century orator Robert Green Ingersoll once wrote, “Nothing discloses real character like the use of power.” In his pity for Paul Manafort, convicted tax cheat; in his hatred for truth-telling “rats” and “flippers”; and now in his assertion that the law should exempt his political allies, Donald J. Trump is disclosing his.
Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.