Throughout his epic, scandal-ridden career, Donald Trump has set an astounding record of impunity, consistently staying one step ahead of prosecutors, plaintiffs and creditors.
He is the only president to be twice impeached and twice acquitted by Republican senators.
He spent nearly three years under investigation for what looked like collusion with Russia, only to leave with impunity.
His former lawyer, Michael Cohen, was jailed for paying money for his silence to an adult entertainer known as Stormy Daniels, but Man 1, the man who ordered him to write the check, was never prosecuted.
This account of the escapes would have made Houdini jealous.
But Trump remains at gunpoint. He is still looking for a way to escape.
A House committee is examining his attempts to cancel last year’s presidential election, including his actions when a crowd of his supporters stormed the Capitol on January 6.
A Georgia attorney is investigating whether he violated state election fraud law when he demanded that officials “find 11,780 votes,” the number he needed to nullify Joe Biden’s victory in the state.
New York City attorneys are looking into allegations that Trump, or at least his family business, which he runs, committed tax and banking fraud.
But don’t count it.
“His life has been a series of lessons showing that with the help of an aggressive lawyer and a lot of insolence, you can achieve almost complete immunity,” Norman Eisen, an adviser to the House Judiciary Committee during Trump’s first impeachment, told me.
The former president’s most notable battles are against the Democratic-led House of Representatives, which last week asked the Justice Department to prosecute his former aide Stephen K. Bannon after Bannon refused to comply with the subpoena.
Trump ordered Bannon and other former associates to blockade the walls on the grounds that all his conversations with them are protected by executive privileges.
It’s a legal doctrine that allows the president to protect internal White House deliberations from congressional surveillance – a claim that Trump made widespread claims when he was president.
In this case, the assertion sounds far-fetched: How can a former president assert his executive power, especially when talking to someone like Bannon, who was not a government official at the time?
But constitutional lawyers say Trump has several arguments he can make. He’ll probably try them all.
First, the former president really has the right to assert his rights to the executive branch. Trump can thank former President Nixon for this, which is fitting. In 1977, Nixon tried to prevent the federal government from publishing his presidential documents; he lost, but in deciding the case, the Supreme Court said that former presidents can claim their privilege under certain circumstances.
As for Bannon, the Justice Department has long argued that executive privilege can protect the president’s meetings with non-employees if the discussion is about official matters. In January, Bannon reportedly called on Trump to block Congress from certifying Biden’s election, then told listeners to his January 5 podcast, “The hell is out tomorrow.”
“If the cases are to be discussed on the merits, Trump and Bannon are unlikely to win,” Jonathan Schaub, a former Justice Department attorney who now teaches at the University of Kentucky School of Law, told me.
“Executive privilege does not apply to actions taken in a personal or political capacity, and it does not apply when there are specific allegations of wrongdoing.”
But it’s not about winning.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about the delay,” Schaub said.
Trump and his supporters know that if they manage to tie the knot of a House committee before the 2022 congressional election, the chances are good that Republicans will gain control of the House and stop investigating.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democracy from San Francisco) and Committee Chairman Benny Thompson (Democracy) know this too. This is the main reason they asked the Department of Justice to prosecute Bannon for criminal contempt; it’s faster than a civilian suit.
The next step is for Atti. General Merrick Garland, who angered some Democrats by staying away from Trump’s investigations.
President Biden said last week that he believed Garland should prosecute Bannon and those who reject congressional subpoenas. It was an inappropriate Trump-style act of presidential idle talk; Garland refused, saying he wanted to return the Justice Department to its apolitical standards.
But Biden was right in essence; without threat of persecution, Bannon and others will continue to obstruct.
Meanwhile, Trump has made his defense almost entirely political, not only condemning the House investigation, but also praising the crowd that has invaded the capital.
“The uprising took place on November 3, election day,” he said in a written statement last week. “Jan. 6 was a protest! “
He used the investigation to raise money for his political action committee, which raised millions.
“The left will never stop persecuting me,” he wrote in an email to donors last week. “Please deposit ANY AMOUNT IMMEDIATELY to make a statement on the left that you will ALWAYS side with YOUR president.”
And in this, no matter how legal disputes turn out, lies the answer to the persistent question about Trump: what makes him flee?
The ego is, of course, partly. The desire to take revenge on your opponents.
But there are two more practical reasons.
One of them is money. Political contributions may be the Trump family business’s most reliable source of income right now.
Another, no less important, is the strengthening of its legal protection. As long as he’s running (or even sort of running), Trump may condemn every investigation and subpoena as just another piece of political vendetta. It’s a way to rally his troops – and make every attorney think twice.
First, he wants another president: he is running for re-election so as not to go to jail.