Bernie Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in jail for bilking investors. Donald Trump faces four years max for defrauding the 2016 election.
As Donald Trump braces for his historic “perp walk” in Manhattan’s courthouse Tuesday amid a flurry of security preparations and supporters’ melodramatic claims that his indictment for business-fraud-related charges is all a big nothingburger, an important question remains:
How much does this indictment matter?
The president’s always-fervent supporters—along with not a few never-Trumpers and even some Democrats—are sniffing that the case against Trump for allegedly trying to cover up a hush money payment to a porn actress over a sexual dalliance doesn’t really rise to the level of felonious behavior.
And in fact, they argue, it’s hardly a crime of the stature lofty enough for indicting a former president of the United States.
As if his erstwhile public-service job, if not a perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card, comes with an implicit understanding that such supposedly-august persons are perpetually above the law.
In law, no one is above it.
Neither ex-presidents nor unemployed persons not looking for jobs so they don’t have to pay child support. No one.
That is one facet that makes this case matter: if Donald Trump has committed a misdemeanor or felony—especially if he’s an ex-president (to prove the point of universal accountability in America’s jurisprudence system)—he should face the music, like anyone else.
But that is of lesser gravity than another facet of the case: At its core, what the twice-impeached, disgraced former president allegedly did in the hush-money scheme was not just an apparent cover-up of an embarrassing tryst but an act that should be viewed as a major public fraud.
When, for example, someone like Bernie Madoff scams people out of billions of dollars of hard-earned money by lying to them about the investments they entrusted to him, that’s a major felony. It’s criminal fraud when you perpetrate lies or deceptions for the purpose of gaining something of value—in this case, other people’s money.
This is only different in kind to what Donald Trump is charged with: hiding an adulterous romp from American voters with an under-the-table payoff to his paramour on the eve of a presidential election in which he was a candidate. In short, he perpetrated a fraud on the voting process to improve his chances of obtaining something of value—the most powerful public job in the world. It worked.
How can this criminal mendacity not, if proven in court to a jury’s satisfaction, require a long stint in jail? What truly matters here is not that Trump allegedly cooked his company’s books to hide the payment—which, with the payoff itself, would constitute a federal felony—but that he defrauded the American people.
Madoff was sentenced to 150 years in prison, and his crime affected vastly fewer victims than Trump’s. And nobody died in Madoff’s scheme (although his eldest son later committed suicide). But seven people died in direct connection to the right-wing MAGA attack on the US Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021—an attack manifestly orchestrated and incited by the former president and his lieutenants in an apparently coordinated conspiracy.
Keep in mind that Jan. 6 would not have happened had Trump not first been elected president in 2016, and there is a reasonable chance that he would not have been elected had his tawdry tryst with a porn star and cover-up been exposed right before the election. He had already been politically weakened by the infamous Access Hollywood tape of him making misogynist comments about women and bragging about sexually abusing them.
Madoff’s illegal Ponzi scheme ripped off some 37,000 victims in 36 countries of approximately $65 billion.
Trump’s fraud victimized the United States’ roughly 330 million citizens of their right to elect the president of their choice in a free, honest, and fair election campaign—to have a clear-eyed say in how they would be governed for four years. They didn’t get that because the true character of Trump was purposefully hidden in his fraud.
What’s disproportionate is that Madoff was sentenced to a century and a half behind bars (although he died in prison), while Trump faces a maximum penalty, if convicted, of only four years’ incarceration and likely none because he is a first-time defendant.
How rational, just, or fair is that?
Do we Americans really believe that defrauding some citizens out of their money is exponentially more serious than defrauding all citizens of their country’s electoral integrity?