EdBoard: Trump's indictment rings hollow
On Thursday, March 30, a grand jury in Manhattan indicted former president Donald Trump for illegally sending hush money to adult film performer, Stormy Daniels. This case began in 2018 when Trump's former lawyer Michael Cohen pled guilty to making a deal with the tabloid National Enquirer to pay off Daniels, who was aiming to sell a story about an affair she alleges to have had with Donald Trump. Cohen made the payment of $130,000 shortly before the 2016 election, and Donald Trump reimbursed Cohen for this while in the White House. This reimbursement is the specific criminal act committed by Trump, as the payment was fraudulently accounted as a business expense. This act itself only constitutes a misdemeanor; however, falsifying business records can be elevated to a felony in New York if it can be shown that it was done to facilitate an additional criminal activity. In this case, the additional crime would be violating campaign finance law (based on the idea that by the hush money counts as an improper "donation" to the Trump campaign by burying a potentially damaging story just before the election).
In general, charges that are approved by a grand jury are not made public until the defendant appears in court. As such, we don't yet know what specific charges have been approved against Trump. He is expected to appear in New York on Tuesday, April 4, where he will voluntarily surrender before the court — this means we probably won't get a video of a cop slapping handcuffs on his wrists while his Miranda Rights are being read.
Overwhelmingly, the sentiment one gets from hearing the details of this case are, "Really? This is what we got him for?" This is not to imply that the charges being approved by the grand jury aren't valid. It does indeed appear that he and Cohen committed a financial crime in this instance. However, it really seems that paying hush money to a porn actress is rather low on the list of Trump's infractions against our legal institutions.
To be clear, it is genuinely without precedent for a former U.S. president to be indicted on criminal charges. This is uncharted legal territory, and for that alone this indictment is noteworthy and historical. But ultimately, these charges are only effective insofar as they can limit his ability to hold political office again, and it really doesn't seem like that's the case here. Richard Hasen, a professor of election law at UCLA tells Time Magazine, “There is no constitutional bar on a felon running for office.” Should he be found guilty and sent to prison, while it might prove a hurdle to his campaign, he wouldn't even be the first presidential candidate to run while incarcerated.
It is certainly important to establish that nobody should be above the rule of law, including (and especially) politicians. However, indicting Trump over hush money charges which won't actually limit his ability to commit further crimes seems like a hollow victory.