With each new scandal involving Donald Trump, the question arises again: Is this the one that will finally exact some pain on the former president?
The question is in the air once more following the FBI’s seizure of top-secret documents from Mar-a-Lago last week. On the one hand, as both Trump’s allies and adversaries have noted, such a warrant on a former president is unprecedented, one of Trump’s lawyers reportedly told the government all files were returned prior to the search, and Trump has offered nonsensical defenses, all of which point to the seriousness of the situation. On the other, many cases involving mishandled classified information end without charges—just ask Hillary Clinton—and some experts speculate that the goal of the search may simply have been to recover the documents rather than to build a criminal case against Trump.
But because this case is only the latest in a string of scandals, the question can’t be separated from a broader context: Trump’s repeated ability to escape the most serious, and sometimes any, consequences for his serial misbehavior. This skill has birthed memes, including a reappropriation of the “Teflon Don” moniker, well-deserved conservative mockery of premature political death warrants, and the immortal “Ah! Well. Nevertheless” tweet.
This pattern has created an air of invincibility around Trump that can drive liberals to nihilistic fatalism and conservatives to hubris. In truth, the dichotomy is misleading: Though Trump has evaded the most serious legal consequences so far, he has paid a political price; there’s a reason he’s the former president and very unpopular with the majority of Americans. Still, as we await more information on the Mar-a-Lago search, the record reveals the maneuvers that have gotten Trump out of jeopardy in the past.
Before the Presidency
The Scandal: Too many to summarize, as I chronicled in a running tally before he was elected president, including housing discrimination, a scammy “university,” and sexual-assault and -harassment allegations going back decades.
How He Got Away With It: You name it, he tried it: connections, luck, running out the clock, endless litigation. But more than anything, a pattern emerged of Trump managing to sidestep serious legal consequences by paying fines to dispose of regulatory headaches, civil lawsuits, and other matters, frequently without having to admit guilt or submit to any other penalties. Many of the cases involved corners cut or laws bent to benefit his business, and the fines tended to represent a sliver of whatever revenue he’d made by way of the infraction.
The Scandal: Although Trump, as well as many people who ought to know better, insists that the story was a hoax, his campaign colluded with Russian agents during the 2016 campaign, hoping for some edge against Hillary Clinton.
How He Got Away With It: First, Trump left the dirty work to lieutenants, skipping (for example) the infamous Trump Tower meeting with Russian agents. Second, Trump critics overreached, becoming obsessed with sideshows, such as the Steele dossier or the campaign hanger-on Carter Page, that distracted from the core offense. Third, Special Counsel Robert Mueller was hobbled by a Justice Department policy against charging sitting presidents with crimes, and he seemed so determined to play his investigation by the book that he soft-pedaled the seriousness of his findings.
The Scandal: Using congressionally appropriated funds, Trump tried to blackmail Ukraine into assisting his reelection campaign by announcing an investigation into Joe Biden’s son Hunter.
How He Got Away With It: The facts were relatively simple, and the House impeached Trump. But in a pattern that has been central to his enduring impunity, the majority-Republican Senate worked as a bloc to let him off, with only one GOP senator voting to find him guilty on one of two counts—putting the vote well short of the 67 needed to convict.
The Scandal: Critics argued that Trump violated the emoluments clause of the Constitution because his businesses allowed him to accept money from foreign governments. The Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., for example, became a magnet for overseas officials.
How He Got Away With It: Two cases were tied up in litigation until after Trump left office, at which point the Supreme Court ruled that they were moot. A federal appeals court rejected a third case, brought by Democratic members of Congress, who judges said didn’t have standing to sue under the law. This has been one of Trump’s essential insights: Just because a law exists doesn’t mean it can be enforced.
How He Got Away With It: In another demonstration that a law’s existence doesn’t guarantee that it matters, breaches of many ethics laws are identified by an independent office, but the person responsible for disciplining top appointees is the president. When Trump’s aides got in trouble for breaking them for his benefit, he naturally made no effort to levy any punishments.
Questionable Tax Returns
The Scandal: Many questions have been raised about Trump’s tax returns, including whether he has followed either the spirit or the letter of the law, going back to his refusal to release his returns as customary in 2016. What information has emerged to the public suggests that he has at the very least violated the former. The House Ways and Means Committee has requested his tax returns from the IRS under an existing statute.
How He Got Away With It: Delay and stonewalling. The Trump Treasury Department put off a decision as long as possible, then announced that it would not produce the records. Since then, the matter has been tied up in litigation. The House committee still hasn’t obtained the records, though it has repeatedly won court cases as it seeks the documents—most recently last week. By now, of course, the matter is ancient and politically neutered.
The Scandal: Trump sought to overturn the 2020 election, pressuring state officials to rig vote totals, trying to engineer alternate slates of electors, and finally inciting a violent mob that disrupted Congress’s certification of the count.
When: November 2020–January 2021
How He Got Away With It: The House promptly impeached him a second time, but the GOP-led Senate insisted on delaying the trial. By the time it came around, some senators’ anger had cooled, they’d had a chance to test the political winds, and they decided that sticking with Trump was prudent. A majority of senators voted to convict, but the total was still short of the necessary 67.
That isn’t the end of the story. The House committee investigating the maneuvers continues to turn up damaging information, which seems to have eroded his standing among Republican politicians and voters. The Justice Department is investigating and could potentially bring charges. A district attorney in Georgia is also investigating Trump’s pressure campaign in that state. No one knows whether any of these will lead to charges or other material punishments—but Trump has plenty of battle-tested tactics to try to prevent that or fight them if they happen.