The Prohibition Era mobster and thug Alphonse “Al” Capone comes to mind as we see the man who incited the January 2021 Capitol insurrection, among other misdeeds, finally face a criminal charge: falsifying business records.
Al Capone was the boss of a murderous Chicago criminal enterprise that controlled the illegal booze business through violence and graft.
His men bombed establishments that wouldn’t buy from him, engaged in tommy gun battles with rivals, and slew those who got in his way. Most famously, “Scarface” (as he was also known) was believed to be responsible for the cold-blooded Valentine’s Day Massacre of seven North Side Gang members in 1929.
But the criminal conviction that took down Capone, and earned him a long sentence, wasn’t murder. It was federal tax evasion.
Similarly, the charges brought against Donald Trump in New York may seem like a baby step toward justice in light of the menace Trump’s lawlessness has posed to American constitutional democracy.
Nonetheless, a crime is a crime. Just as no one could say now that Al Capone shouldn’t have been charged with tax evasion because of his murders and racketeering, there’s no reason to claim that Trump shouldn’t be charged with lesser crimes because he hasn’t (yet) been charged with graver crimes.
Although Republican political leaders have joined Trump in denouncing the charges as “political,” they haven’t seriously disputed that Trump did in fact falsify business records. Whether Trump did or didn’t have an affair with adult actress Stormy Daniels, no one can claim that the payment to her on Trump’s behalf was a “legal expense” as the Trump Organization asserted.
Trump’s Republican defenders argue that it was wrong to charge this offense as a felony, not “merely” a misdemeanor, because the falsification was not, as alleged, in aid of a further crime. But even if that were true, so what? In either scenario, they’re saying Trump should get a free ride for his crimes.
In actuality, the case is strong that Trump did falsify business records to conceal other crimes — including making an unlawful campaign contribution. He paid $130,000 to silence what amounted to a threat against his campaign.
These are likely not the last charges that will be brought against Trump.
It was difficult to convict Al Capone for his crimes of violence because he intimidated witnesses, and there were no films of Capone shooting rival gang members nor audio recordings of him calling his henchmen to perpetrate the Valentine’s Day Massacre. But Trump’s further crimes are well-documented in his own recorded words.
Anyone can listen to him demand that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger overthrow the state’s 2020 election results by “finding 11,780 votes.” Since Raffensperger had repeatedly told Trump that his claims of election fraud had all been investigated and found baseless, Trump knew full well he was asking the Georgia official to “find” imaginary votes — that is, to engage in election fraud.
Nor can anyone seriously dispute that Trump deliberately incited mob violence at our Capitol on January 6, 2021. At the time, the Republican leaders of both the Senate and the House each plainly stated that they considered Trump and his inflammatory speech responsible for the violence.
After the mob attacked, Trump tried to join the rioters. And when he couldn’t, he refused to try to restrain the mob for hours — and later praised them. Obviously, there is a strong case that what took place was what he intended. That is, he deliberately incited an insurrectionary riot.
I expect Republican officialdom to froth with indignation at the possibility that Trump will be held responsible for any of his actions. But for the rest of us, it’s a step toward justice when the powerful face even the smallest charges for their crimes. We’ll see if the bigger ones follow.