With Congress on its summer recess, we’ve gotten a bit of a break from Republicans’ ad nauseam complaints that Donald Trump is a victim of a “two-tier system of justice” — one that goes after him and others in their party, the other favoring Democrats, who supposedly run the whole caper from the White House.
But with a fourth indictment of the former president likely any day now, expect his choir of sycophants to take up the chant again.
The claim would be laughable if it weren’t so sadly cynical. The country has a two-tier system all right, and it’s been long recognized, no matter which party holds power: It favors the wealthy and prominent and for everyone else, especially poor Americans and people of color, not so much.
Not only has that system benefited Trump throughout his life, it also has defined him, helping him to build a daunting reputation as a litigious fighter in business and politics.
When he was a real-estate developer and casino owner, Trump essentially got away with all manner of alleged skulduggery dating to his days as understudy to his father, thanks to the Trumps’ penchant for hiring crafty lawyers and exhausting prosecutors with delay tactics and countersuits. The son took an early lesson from the Trumps’ long fight in the early 1970s against federal charges of racial bias in renting their New York apartments, for which they hired the shady and ultimately disbarred lawyer Roy Cohn.
As Trump would later write, “We ended up making a minor settlement without admitting any guilt.”
He had much more to gloat about in the subsequent decades — cases for which the Trump Organization was held liable, but not its owner, or which ended with no-fault legal settlements and fines that he could pay and for the most part, shrug off. The firm was guilty of evading taxes. He embezzled money from his charitable foundation. He defrauded students at his sham real estate “university.” And Trump and his companies were hit with hundreds of liens and judgments over time for failing to pay contractors, suppliers, employees and others.
For Trump, the fines and the legal fees were just the cost of doing business.
Even as Trump was skirting legal lines in New York and New Jersey, he was always a high-society voice for tough-on-crime tactics against everyone else — consider his 1989 condemnation of the five Black and Latino teenagers wrongfully convicted of raping a Central Park jogger.
Given his successes at exploiting the system as a businessman — pushing envelopes, crossing lines and skating away from serious punishment — why wouldn’t Trump figure he could operate the same way as a politician and president? Accountability for thee, but not for me.
The man who now bleats daily about President Biden’s “weaponization of government” in 2016 led campaign rallies in chants of “Lock ‘er up!” against his Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton. As president, he pressured senior administration officials —unsuccessfully — to get the Justice Department and the IRS to follow through, and not just against Clinton.
“He was always telling me that we need to use the FBI and IRS to go after people — it was constant and obsessive and is just what he’s claiming is being done to him now,” John F. Kelly, Trump’s former White House chief of staff, told the New York Times. Former Atty. Gen. William Barr and former national security advisor John Bolton, among other appointees, alleged similar score-settling pressure from Trump.
Ironically, this beneficiary of a system that favors the wealthy and well-connected built his political appeal by capitalizing on average Americans’ grievances against opportunistic “elites.” It takes one to know one, Trump has told them, and his marks lap it up. After eight years of this demagoguery, they believe him when he nonsensically says after each indictment that government thugs are “coming after you — and I’m just standing in their way.” And they send hundreds of millions to his political coffers.
It is because Trump commands such unflinching support from so many Republican voters that most party officials, including his rivals for the 2024 presidential nomination, also come to his defense. They echo his false whataboutism equating his own predicament with Biden’s supposed impunity and Hunter Biden’s supposed “sweetheart deal” on tax and gun charges.
Most of all, they echo his warped definition of the two-tier justice system. Trump recently compiled dozens of Republicans’ quotes in an email; it’s almost comical to see such fealty to the Dear Leader’s talking points on one screen. Of course, one of the quotes is from Speaker “My Kevin” McCarthy: “House Republicans will continue to uncover the truth about Biden Inc. and the two-tiered system of justice.”
But such echoes are dismaying. Here’s what presidential candidate and South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott said after Trump’s indictment for his efforts to overturn the 2020 election: “What we see today are two different tracks of justice. One for political opponents and another for the son of the current president.” Scott, the Senate’s only Black Republican, surely knows better than to define the justice system’s inequities that way.
Missing from nearly all Republicans’ rhetoric is mention of the more than 1,000 Americans charged to date for answering Trump’s summons to come to the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. If they did note that fact, the politicians might have to explain why all those people have been held accountable, but not the man who misled them into seeking to keep him in power.
And then those Republican politicians would be talking about the real two-tier system of justice. They can’t have that.