LAMAR HANKINS | REFLECTIONS | An old lawyer’s thoughts on Trump’s 34 New York convictions

Donald Trump caricature by DonkeyHotey / Flickr / Public Domain.

By Lamar Hankins | The Rag Blog | June 13, 2024

[Listen to Thorne Dreyer’s interview with Lamar Hankins on Rag Radio, Friday, June 14, 2024, 2-3 p.m., on KOOP 91.7-FM in Austin, and streamed at]

I followed Trump’s trial in New York half-heartedly. I am not drawn to spectacles as I once might have been. For good or bad, I vacillate on the matter of electoral politics. I find them particularly tedious, especially the presidential sweepstakes. This is not because of old age having turned me cynical — even though I will be 80 later this year. I am as involved with political issues as I was 60 years ago during the civil rights and Vietnam War era. Human rights, colonialism, war, political hypocrisy, equal rights under law, the Bill of Rights, and many other social and political issues concern me deeply.

I began turning against electoral politics at the national level in 1992 because of the hypocrisy and callousness of Bill Clinton. I became unwilling to give myself over to the level of dishonesty required of many mass movements, including political ones. I have friends who are active in political parties, and I admire their tenacity and character. I gravitate instead toward organizations that focus on specific ills I would like to eliminate or ameliorate.

While political parties are not to my liking, I have never lost faith in democracy.

While political parties are not to my liking, I have never lost faith in democracy and the compromises that are necessary conditions of living together in community or, at least, proximity. But I never believed in what Hubert Humphrey would have called “the fundamental goodness of America” (in the words of journalist James Traub’s biography of Humphrey). I believe we should be honest about our history. We should feel shame when we accuse others of being colonizers because that is exactly what we did to the indigenous people we found on the North American continent when we “discovered” it. We continue to try to control political outcomes in other countries, usually to satisfy the desires of economic elites. And the internment of Japanese-Americans is difficult to forgive, as is our historic antisemitism and ethnocentrism, along with the several inexcusable wars we have spawned during my lifetime.

I am not a purist. I know that life is messy and full of quicksand, potholes, boulders, and mountains. This is the human condition, but it shouldn’t stop us from trying to make the world a better place for all. I became an attorney in 1977 because I wanted to use the legal system to benefit those who seldom see much benefit in our society. I did not become a lawyer to help people like Trump — someone who uses people, games the legal system against them, follows racist business practices, and does as he wishes to whomever he wishes. What I learned on this journey is that the deck is stacked, but it can be rearranged on occasion to create some fairness and equity.

What has made me laugh derisively in the aftermath of Trump’s conviction in New York on 34 counts of state tax fraud (in conjunction with his intention to “commit another crime” or “aid or conceal” another crime when falsifying records by conspiring “to promote or prevent the election of any person to a public office by unlawful means”) is Trump’s response to the guilty verdicts.

For his entire life, he has used the justice system to beat up other people.

Trump’s claims are farcical — “justice is dead in America,” his trial was “rigged,” Biden is behind the charges made against him (this is a New York state prosecution, not one engineered by anyone in the federal government), he’s a “political prisoner,” and the justice system has been perverted against him. For his entire life, he has used the justice system to beat up other people. The perversion of that system is in favor of the wealthy and hazardous for those in the middle and bottom rungs of society.

Trump’s convictions do not seem like a “dark day” to me, as he has described them. They seem like a rare instance of sunshine when a wealthy, well-connected person has been held to account — at least, so far. We still have the sentencing and appeals that will give Trump other opportunities to wriggle free from legal accountability for his lifetime of misdeeds — racism, rapes, sexual harassment, fraud, contract violations, lies, violations of national security law, fomenting insurrection, and treason, among others. He is a life-long cheater, who has gotten away with most of his wrongdoings. While those weren’t on trial in New York, at least he was found guilty of something, reminiscent of Al Capone and his tax evasion conviction.

Trump has incurred more than $100 million in legal fees over the past three years, most of them paid, apparently, by his Save America and MAGA PACs, or rather by some wealthy donors and the hapless folks who donated to the PACs. They are funding over $90,000 a day in legal expenses for his various cases.

In a just system, every defendant should get such vigorous representation.

If every criminal defendant had that kind of money to spend on their defenses, we would need far fewer prisons because vigorous defenses would mean that the innocent and those who are not well-represented would get far better outcomes from a system weighted against them. I’m not suggesting that Trump should not have the best defense lawyers money can buy. Of course, he is entitled to every bit of due process and vigorous representation that he can afford. But in a just system, every defendant should get such vigorous representation.

As to what sentence may be appropriate for Trump the felon, views vary. While only 10% of others in New York who have been similarly convicted have received jail time, is that a reason such a person convicted of 34 instances of criminal violations should escape jail time? Some pundits have suggested that it is too difficult to protect an ex-president in a prison. Of course, this is nonsense. Arrangements can be made with New York prison authorities to accommodate secret service concerns within a prison facility in New York.

The justification for incarcerating Trump for his crimes have been neatly summed up by Washington Post columnist Jennifer Rubin:

[C]onsidering the context of Trump’s crimes and his propensity to threaten judges, juries and witnesses, significant prison time is the only punishment that fits the crime and this convict. . . . Justice Juan Merchan has already recognized Trump’s crime was especially significant because of its momentous consequences: concealing possibly outcome-determinative information from the voters in 2016. . . . In addition to the gravity of the offense, the factors weighing most heavily in favor of a significant prison sentence are Trump’s conduct and character. . . . In this case, character and conduct also encompass how Trump treats the criminal justice system. . . .

Merchan should take into account that Trump has hurled threats and smears at witnesses, jurors and the judge (including his family). He also should consider the racist attacks and implicit threat of violence directed at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg. The felon who will stand before him has tried to intimidate witnesses and delegitimize the New York courts as corrupt. In continuing to incite his mob (that now threatens the safety of the anonymous jurors) and demean the courts as “rigged,” Trump does far more damage to the people of New York (not to mention the country) than he did with any single criminal act. The potential that New Yorkers will be less willing to serve as jurors after watching the vitriol unleashed on these 12 people could be among Trump’s most enduring injuries to the court system. . . . Merchan must exercise his discretion in sentencing Trump to actual incarceration for at least a year to shelter the independent judiciary — judges, jurors and witnesses — threatened by this felon and his rhetoric. If he does not, he puts New Yorkers and the Constitution at risk.”

It seems unjust that Trump avoid a punishment that is appropriate for his crimes.

It seems unjust that Trump avoid a punishment that is appropriate for his crimes, especially considering that several of his hirelings and associates have not avoided incarceration: Trump White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, former Trump lawyer and “fixer” Michael Cohen, Trump campaign co-chairs Rick Gates and Paul Manafort, former Trump administration trade official Peter Navarro, former Trump campaign advisor George Papadopoulos, and longtime Trump confidant and lobbyist Roger Stone, and Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg. Others connected to the Georgia case against Trump have pleaded guilty to crimes and may serve jail time.

Of course, we have a history of letting high officials off the hook for their crimes. Richard Nixon escaped incarceration through President Gerald Ford’s pardon, while five others involved with Nixon’s criminality served prison time. About a dozen people involved in Iran-Contra crimes during the Reagan administration were pardoned by President George H. W. Bush.

Going easy on the perpetrators of crimes involved with our political system only weakens that system, demoralizes the honest people connected to our government, encourages corruption, and makes the criminal legal system less just.

Trump’s criminal cases make clear that we have a system of unequal justice in this country. For that, there is no remedy available given the way our present government is constituted.

[Rag Blog columnist Lamar W. Hankins, a former San Marcos, Texas, City Attorney, has a Doctor of Jurisprudence degree from the University of Houston. Hankins is retired and volunteers with the Final Exit Network as an Associate Exit Guide and contributor to the Good Death Society Blog.]

Read more articles by Lamar W. Hankins on The Rag Blog and listen to Thorne Dreyer’s Rag Radio interviews with Lamar.

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