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Committing Crimes to Stay Out of Prison

Vacations, even short ones, can be hell on one’s writing schedule, so once again I offer you a rerun. Last July, I proposed an overriding motive for Trump’s behavior, one that was evident well before 2016. As motives go, it was remarkably obvious, yet to this day it goes virtually unmentioned in the media. Now, as the January 6th committee hearings heat up, it is more clear than ever that fear of punishment was the lodestar that guided Trump’s every move. Rereading this post, I realized that I might have written the exact same piece, practically verbatim, yesterday morning. From July 20, 2021:

We have arrived, at long last, at the beginning of what will soon be an avalanche of legal issues that are likely to dominate the rest of Donald Trump’s life.

What will come of these cases remains up in the air, and the pace of legal procedure is frustratingly glacial. But regardless of the actual charges — or the evidence being brought — it has been evident to anyone paying attention that criminal behavior was the background hum of Trump’s entire career.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s been evident to Trump as well. Which is why virtually his entire presidency begs to be seen — almost exclusively — through the lens of a guy fearing punishment. He was committing crimes to stay out of prison. An unusual approach, to be sure, but it's the underlying cause of every vile action of the Trump era. 

The media only rarely ties cause and effect together, which is disturbing. It’s not that they haven’t chronicled Trump’s crimes, it’s just that they either didn’t see, or couldn’t acknowledge, the obvious link between the threat of punishment and Trump’s obsession with getting reelected at any cost. Yes, his authoritarian instincts and admiration for fascists were there for all to see — and for the media to bemoan — but those things were never more than a means to the end of saving his own skin. Ultimately, he’s a coward.

From the minute he refused to disclose his tax returns, when he was still just a candidate, we all should have seen the avalanche building. He certainly saw it. He knew what he’d done, even if we didn’t.

All that sleaze Michael Cohen testified to Congress about. All those years of bilking banks, insurance companies, and the IRS. All those bent real estate deals with Russian oligarchs. All the sucking up to Putin.

In the lead-up to 2016, Trump had to know there were too many crimes for the press and, ultimately, the legal system to ignore. He knew people would eventually connect the dots.

Any sane person would’ve laid low. He could’ve stayed in the private sector and happily laundered Russian money well into his dotage, with nary a sniff from any law enforcement body.

Yet somehow, in a feat of narcissism so prodigious it will keep the psychoanalytic community busy for decades, he chose to run for president. With eyes wide open, he upped his visibility a thousandfold, guaranteeing the attention of reporters, investigators, and prosecutors at the federal, state, and local levels. No doubt a few foreign governments, as well.

This is almost operatic — or perhaps Shakespearean — in the scope and scale of its hubris. He knew it would all catch up to him, yet he did it anyway. He had gotten away with so much for so long, he was sure he could bullshit his way out of anything.

And the campaign he ran — if that’s the right word — was so lame. He never expected to win, never took it seriously, never saw it as anything but a branding exercise mixed with grift. But despite his best efforts to screw it up, he lucked into a perfect storm of aberrant political forces that would, miraculously, hand him the presidency. History is still laughing its ass off.

And rather than seeing this as a chance to accomplish something meaningful in his life — which surely never entered his mind — he instead saw the presidency as the grift that keeps on giving.

It was a sociopath’s dream — a grift with benefits. He had the entire apparatus of the U.S. government to steal from and screw around with. He had the entire Republican party, now reduced to shameless sycophancy, doing his deviant bidding. He had a get-out-of-jail-free card, courtesy of a fawning Attorney General, valid for as long as he could stay in office.

Which was, of course, the catch. The staying in office part. That four-year term was just so unfair. But now that he had the media and the entire legal system following his every move, he knew he needed another four years — or, better yet, eight. Voting him out would be the shot that sets off the avalanche, and prison would be inevitable. So with a year or so left, around 2019, he knew he had to crank up the crazy a few more notches.

And you have to hand it to him, he totally committed to crazy, to hanging on to power no matter what it would do to the country, to democratic institutions, to the American Experiment itself. He didn’t care. He just needed to stay out of jail.

The Ukraine plot seems almost quaint now, yet it was only 2019. Imagine taking such huge risks, just to slime Joe Biden, one of the most squeaky clean politicians of all time. Even Putin had to be embarrassed at the ineptitude. It was all quite stupid, but if you see it through the lens of Trump’s prison obsession, it makes a warped kind of sense.

Then came Covid. Where he made the nation's health policy all about his reelection, as opposed to saving lives. Where his desperation, malevolence, and staggering incompetence combined so catastrophically. The virus was always going to kill in heartbreaking numbers, but at least half of those deaths cry out to be seen as murders. Of all Trump’s crimes, mass murder was, by a wide margin, the most heinous. Yet ironically it’s the one he’s least likely to ever be punished for.

I won’t even try to recap the run-up to the 2020 election, but between the sabotaging of the postal service, the demented photo op with Bible in hand, his own brush with death by Covid, his constant lying about mail-in ballots, and the attempts at undermining both the Justice and Defense establishments, the crazy was now turned up to eleven. And that was before he lost. Before he started inciting open insurrection.

And still it continues. We now have the Big Lie, his last-ditch effort and, in a way, his masterpiece. Even out of office he has managed to pull the country inside out, singlehandedly threatening the existence of free and fair elections going forward. Through sheer chutzpah and breathtaking mendacity, he has brought us to the very cusp of systemic breakdown. And he’s done it without hesitation, without the slightest twinge of self-doubt. Let alone conscience.

To this day, Trump has only two things on his mind: staying out of prison and scamming all the money he can from his idiot base. The second provides the financing for the first, which is crucial for him, since his legal exposure is spectacular, and his financial ruin is likely to be precipitous. He’ll need every dollar he can get, and he’ll steal it any way he can.

One of the more amazing things about Trump is that he never hits bottom. His behavior goes from bad to worse to unimaginably worse — then goes downhill from there. 

Keep that in mind as he tries to outrun the avalanche.

 

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