The White House/Flickr
One of the many perversities of the Trump era is the low bar to which presidential accountability has now become set. We are currently watching unfold the saga of presidential bribery and extortion of a foreign power in order to sabotage a domestic opponent, and to pursue an outrageous conspiracy theory designed to exonerate a hostile foreign power to which that president remains shockingly solicitous. Taken together with the Mueller probe (and it’s all of a piece), it’s the greatest presidential scandal in American history.
But it should still leave us speechless that only a few days ago the President of the United States was held liable by judge of defrauding veterans to the tune of millions of dollars via a fake charity he used for vainglorious personal and campaign expenses. To recap:
So it has come to pass with a New York judge’s ruling Thursday that the president had misused money given to the Donald J. Trump Foundation and, as part of a settlement, will have to pay $2 million in damages. Not only did he use the money for himself, including the purchase of a 6-foot-tall portrait of None Other, but he also filled the board of directors with family members (the usual suspects: Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric) and at least one officer, Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, who didn’t know he was even on the board, according to court documents.
The man who popularized “fake news” apparently also invented a fake charity. They’re tons of fun until you get caught. But there was nothing fake about the money Trump spent that was intended for others.
In addition to the portrait, for which he paid $10,000 (albeit at an auction for another charity) but which later hung in his Doral golf resort in Miami, Trump’s other charitable interests included about $250,000 to settle lawsuits involving his for-profit business. Best of all, he used $12,000 from the charity to buy a jersey and a helmet autographed by then-Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow.
Our eyes glaze over reading this stuff because…well, it’s Donald Trump. But that’s only because our sense of moral outrage has become deadened by his behavior. Try, if you can, to imagine that Barack Obama had raised money for veterans only to spend it on a giant portrait of himself and a bunch of sports memorabilia. It would have singlehandedly destroyed his presidency and would likely have forced his resignation. George W. Bush was certainly no saint, and his administration was guilty of misdeeds of horrendous consequence. But he would never have been so tawdry and venal as to steal money from veterans for such things. If he had, it would likely have ended his presidency. Same for Clinton, Bush Senior, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter. None of them would have survived such a revelation.
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But in this funhouse horror of an administration, the news that the President of the United States was forced by a judge to repay $2 million to real charities because of these grifter scams was just another Thursday. It wasn’t even the top headline of the day.
Donald Trump skates by because we have come to expect this level of debasement from him. Because they refuse to hold him accountable, we have come to expect it of the entire Republican Party.
But we must not let ourselves become numb to it. The House impeachment proceedings should include this gross business among the other counts of Trump’s high crimes and misdemeanors. The public should be reminded of it during the next year’s campaign ads. And the shame of it should follow him and his entire family of grifters for the rest of their lives.
As much as we should avoid lowering the bar for this president, we should have the self-respect as Americans to demand the same level of accountability from all of our public servants. If the realities of partisan politics prevent us from doing so while he is in office, then the shame, opprobrium and criminal and civil consequences must follow him and his co-conspirators after they cease pretending to work on behalf of the American people.
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David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly’s Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.
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