For the past four years, Donald Trump’s critics have harbored a persistent fantasy that there would be one definitive moment when he would finally be subject to the accountability he so richly deserves. Each new Trump crisis—and there were many—offered the hope of some redemptive, indisputable, unambiguous end to Trump that would conclude this sorry chapter in American politics. It never happened. Bombshell investigative reports about his failure to pay taxes and his secret hush-money payments and his crooked dealings came and went. The Mueller report and Trump’s impeachment over the “perfect” phone call with Ukraine’s president came and went. Scandalous Cabinet secretaries were hired and fired so often that we stopped learning their names, and eventually Trump stopped even bothering to nominate official replacements. The covid pandemic showed that most Trump supporters would not dump him even when his inept response threatened their lives. The 2020 election, though Trump lost, ended not with a landslide repudiation on a single clarifying Election Night but with close calls in critical states—and then days, weeks, and months of Trump’s obfuscation and denial. When Trump attacked the very basis of American democracy, refusing to concede and unleashing an angry mob on the Capitol, on January 6th, to stop Congress’s ratification of his defeat, he was impeached but then acquitted. Not only has he faced no sanction for these transgressions against the constitutional order—the Republican Party has stuck with him in amplifying his lies and purged those who refuse to go along with them. So much for accountability.
And yet the fantasy will not entirely die. There is still the chance, no matter how slim, that this will all end with Trump in an orange jumpsuit being carted off to prison. The flickering dream of a final Trump purge from public life took slightly more tangible shape on Thursday, in a New York City courtroom, when Trump’s tightly controlled personal company, the Trump Organization, and his longtime financial chief, Allen Weisselberg, were indicted on criminal tax charges stemming from an alleged fifteen-year-long scheme, “orchestrated by the most senior executives” of the Trump Organization, as the prosecutor put it, to evade taxes. The theory of the case appears to be to pressure the seventy-three-year-old Weisselberg to turn on Trump, his boss of decades, by threatening him with the prospect of prison time. The multiple felonies with which Weisselberg is charged, including evading some nine hundred thousand dollars in taxes on $1.76 million in unreported, “off the books” income, carry the possibility of extensive incarceration. The broader criminal investigation into the company, a joint venture by New York State Attorney General Letitia James and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr., is said to be ongoing.
Trump was not charged in the twenty-four-page indictment, but the case amounts to a direct assault on the company he built and ran as an extension of himself. The firm that bears his name mattered so much to Trump that he refused to surrender his family’s hold over it and place it in a blind trust even when he became President, snubbing ethics rules, Presidential tradition, and common sense—instead embracing the many conflicts of interest that came from being simultaneously the leader of the U.S. government and of a private business. Even if Weisselberg does not flip—and few seem to believe that he will—the case could result in years of litigation and millions of dollars in legal fees. Another bankruptcy or even shutting down the Trump Organization entirely is possible. (“Absolutely,” it will be shut down, Jennifer Weisselberg, the estranged former daughter-in-law of the charged financial chief, told CNN; she has emerged as an important witness in the case, handing over documents and information to prosecutors.) “They are on the precipice. They are on the brink of a much larger case against Trump and his businesses,” Norman Eisen, a former Obama White House counsel who issued an extensive Brookings Institution report this week on the New York State investigation, told me after reading the indictment. Whatever else it turns out to be, the case is already an example of hitting Trump where it hurts. Needless to say, no previous President of the United States, including the disgraced Richard Nixon, has seen his family business charged with criminal wrongdoing on such a scale.
Second-guessing, however, began immediately—even before Weisselberg appeared in handcuffs in court on Thursday afternoon and the charges were unsealed. Pundits, of whom there are many, said that the case was weak, that this kind of charge was rarely brought, that Trump himself would escape sanction. “I’m sure the NY DA and AG understand that, from an optics standpoint, the first charges they bring against the Trump Organization can’t be petty, rarely-prosecuted crimes,” David Axelrod, the Democratic strategist, tweeted on Wednesday. “Don’t they?” Soon enough, this is exactly what Trump’s lawyers argued once the charges were filed. “It’s politically driven,” Alan Futerfas, a lawyer for the Trump Organization, told reporters after Weisselberg’s arraignment. “These kinds of cases are typically resolved in a civil context. . . . These are complex questions never charged in a criminal case, and they shouldn’t have been here, quite frankly.” The former President put out the word, via Politico’s Playbook, that he was “emboldened” by the “light charges,” and that the latest “witch hunt” against him would surely “hurt Sleepy Joe” Biden when Trump inevitably runs against him in 2024. It was all Trumpian bluster, to be sure. But, but . . .
Accountability for Trump may not, in the end, take the form of a made-for-TV courtroom drama, with the villain dragged off in chains as the credits roll. And, besides, even the greatest acts of villainy in American history have their supporters, decades or centuries later. Just this week on Capitol Hill, nearly a hundred and sixty years after the end of the Civil War, the House of Representatives voted again to get rid of the surprisingly large number of statues of Confederate officials remaining in the Capitol—yet a hundred and twenty House Republicans voted against the measure. The Times illustrated its story on the vote with a photograph of a bust in the Capitol of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney, the author of the infamous Dred Scott decision asserting that Black Americans were not and never could be citizens of the United States.
A day later, the House voted to establish a select committee to investigate the January 6th storming of the Capitol by the pro-Trump mob, and every single House Republican save two—the Trump critics Liz Cheney and Adam Kinzinger—voted against it. A few weeks earlier, House Republicans voted as a bloc against a bipartisan commission to investigate the January 6th insurrection. Having opposed a bipartisan panel, the same Republicans then voted en masse against the House select committee, claiming that it would be too partisan. It was an act of collective gaslighting that recalled the former President at his most brazen. On Thursday, Speaker Nancy Pelosi took the rare step of appointing one of the Republican dissenters, Liz Cheney, to take a Democratic seat on the panel. Cheney, who has already lost her House Republican leadership position and is now being threatened with the loss of her committee assignments, said in a statement that she was accepting the role because “those who are responsible for the attack need to be held accountable.” Bennie Thompson, of Mississippi, will chair the panel, and he told CNN’s Manu Raju that he envisions a lengthy investigation going into next year, to include public hearings and potential calls for testimony from Trump and others.
Is this really what accountability for Trump looks like? The politics of the last few dreadful years strongly suggest otherwise. Sure, there will be hearings—in a New York City courtroom, in impressively gilded congressional committee chambers. But Trump and his conspirators are experts by now at the art of the dodge. The playbook is achingly familiar: they will discredit the investigators, discredit the media, disavow the facts, invent alternative realities. There will be enemies and distractions and confusing subplots to make us forget about the damning basic facts. Both Democrats and Republicans will come away with an issue to take to their base in next year’s midterm elections. Maybe Weisselberg will end up in jail; maybe he won’t.
Until and unless prosecutors decide to charge Trump, too, he will remain free to travel the country, selling personal and political grievance as his message. The day before his company was taken to court, Trump appeared in Texas, spinning lies about his unbuilt border wall and his unwon Presidential campaign. This weekend, he is supposed to appear at a rally in Florida, notwithstanding the state of mourning for the loss of life in Surfside and pleas from the state’s very pro-Trump governor to cancel. Millions will continue to cheer him on as he fantasizes about being “reinstated” to the Presidency. But one certitude at an uncertain moment is that that, at least, will not happen. Elections still have consequences in this country, and this is the accountability that no amount of Trump’s lies has been able to obscure. The simple truth is that Trump lost in 2020, and neither he, nor anyone, can undo it. Joe Biden lives at the White House now. That may not be a punishment fit for all of Donald Trump’s wrongdoing, but a punishment it surely is.