When Everything You Touch Turns to Crime

One crime, two crimes, red crime, blue crime

Cutouts of face masks over an image of Donald Trump
Getty / The Atlantic

Picking Donald Trump’s worst week is a mug’s game—there are so many from which to choose, and compelling arguments for several—but simply because they encompass so many parts of the Trump experience, the last few days are emblematic.

On Saturday, the former president called for the United States Constitution to be “terminate[d]” in response to his own fake claims of election fraud in 2020. On Monday, he lied about what he’d said and blamed the media. On Tuesday, his handpicked candidate for U.S. Senate in the once reliably ruby state of Georgia lost to the Democratic incumbent Raphael Warnock, concluding a midterm cycle in which Democrats defied precedent, thanks in large part to the president’s presence and primary meddling. And then there are Trump’s problems with the law.

On Tuesday, a jury in Manhattan found the Trump Organization guilty of 17 crimes, led by tax fraud and including conspiracy and falsifying business records, all as part of a scheme to avoid paying taxes on the salaries of top officers. On Wednesday, The Washington Post broke the news (soon matched by other outlets) that an outside search team hired by Trump’s lawyers had turned up still more classified documents he took with him when he left office, these ones in a West Palm Beach storage unit.

Together, these two news items show the sweep of Trump’s lawlessness, from the mundane to the unique. The business crimes are a classic small-time offense. The only remarkable thing about that case is that it happens to involve the former president’s company. Meanwhile, in the case of classified documents, the evidence suggests he committed a crime that nearly no person other than a former president could commit.

The revelation of the documents in the storage facility is the latest twist in the ongoing saga of Trump’s removal of public records from the White House. Although evidence that the former president had not complied with preservation laws emerged even before he left office, the story cracked open in August with a very unusual FBI search at Mar-a-Lago. Not only did agents turn up boxes full of documents that seem to have been improperly taken, but some of them were labeled as extremely sensitive, potentially vital to national security.

The newly discovered classified documents were turned over to the FBI, the Post reports. The search appears to represent his legal team scrambling to ensure full compliance with a subpoena, under pressure from a federal judge. Teams also combed other Trump sites to see if materials turned up, according to The New York Times. The Post reports that the unit “had a mix of boxes, gifts, suits and clothes, among other things”—an indication of the chaotic and careless manner in which Trump handles, well, pretty much everything.

In practice, only a former president could possibly have gotten into this situation. Many federal employees have classified or top-secret clearance (and overclassification of documents is a real problem), but when other federal employees are caught removing secret documents, they are clearly subject to sanctions. Trump, meanwhile, has tried to insist that before leaving office, he exercised his presidential prerogative to declassify the documents, despite there being no evidence of this beyond his word, such as that is.

But although Trump has leaned on the declassification excuse, it doesn’t have much bearing on the simpler matter that Trump took records that belong to the American people, not to himself—and other federal employees who removed such documents would be unable to claim brazenly, as he has, that he is the rightful owner of the documents and even demand that the Justice Department return them. His taking of documents and shoddy handling of them is a gross abuse of the trust placed in him as president.

If the details of the document case are jaw-droppingly unusual, the Manhattan tax case is yawn-inducingly typical. The jury found that the Trump Organization gamed the tax system to try to avoid paying taxes on executive salaries: The company gave top employees free cars, apartments, and other perks but didn’t include them in their reported compensation. That’s a simple and straightforward violation of the law—the kind of nickel-and-dime scam that happens all the time, because it’s very easy to do and often not caught. If Trump hadn’t been president, the fraud at his company wouldn’t be national news, and it might not have been been noticed; his prominence drew new scrutiny to his business.

The former president himself was neither charged nor convicted in the fraud case, although prosecutors argued in the trial that he was in on the scheme and personally approved parts of it. (Trump has denied wrongdoing and promised to appeal the ruling.) The Trump Organization was fined $1.6 million, a tiny amount compared with its revenues. Meanwhile, the New York attorney general has accused Trump of a different fraud scheme in which he offered widely fluctuating valuations on properties, allegedly in an attempt to save on tax bills or reduce his loan costs.

For now, however, the Manhattan verdict is largely symbolic—although symbolism matters in politics, as Trump has long grasped. And together with the new classified documents, it demonstrates how no trespass is too large—or too small—to tempt him.