Today in History: On June 12, 1931 Chicago gangster Al Capone was indicted for income tax evasion and various violations of the Volstead Act (prohibition). Here, he leaves a courtroom in Chicago in the custody of U.S. marshals where he was facing charges on Oct. 24, 1931.
Photo by AP

To defend Trump, his allies complain about ‘the Al Capone approach’

Updated

For Donald Trump and his supporters, last week was quite unpleasant. Not only was the president’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, convicted of multiple felonies, but Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, directly implicated the president while pleading guilty to a variety of criminal charges.

Soon after, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch argued, by way of a defense, “They’re trying to Al Capone the president. I mean, you remember. Capone didn’t go down for murder. Elliot Ness didn’t put him in for murder. He went in for tax fraud. Prosecutors didn’t care how he went down as long as he went down…. Whatever avenue is needed to bring down the president, they’ll take it.”

Yesterday, Mediaite noted that Harvard Law professor Alan Dershowitz, a prominent Trump defender, went on Fox News to push a very similar line.

Dershowitz went on to argue that the investigation into the Trump organization will deter businessmen from running for office out of fear of a “legal colonoscopy.”

“They usually do it with the mafia,” Dershowitz said. “It’s the Al Capone approach. If we can’t get him on the grounds that we’d really want him on, let’s go after him on taxes, let’s go after him on business.”

From a distance, it’s hard to say whether this rhetoric pushback is coordinated or coincidental. Maybe the president signaled to his supporters that he likes this talking point, or maybe they’ve pushing the line independently.

Either way, Trump’s backers have apparently forgotten that Al Capone was the bad guy. Drawing a parallel between the American president and a violent mob boss isn’t the sort of pitch that makes Trump look better.

Circling back to our coverage from last week, I think I understand the point Dershowitz and Loesch have tried to make. Donald Trump is facing a wide variety of serious allegations, and his alleged finance violations seem less dramatic than some of the more alarming possibilities. His allies are therefore drawing an equivalent: just as Capone was busted for tax evasion instead of murder, Trump may face finance accusations instead of charges related to cooperation with the president’s Russian benefactors.

Part of the problem is how this presents Capone as some kind of victim of prosecutorial abuse. I’m not an expert in Capone, but as I recall, law enforcement of the era considered the gangster to be a dangerous public menace who was careful to avoid being directly implicated in murders. Prosecutors suspected him of all kinds of offenses, many of them violent, but they struggled to make the charges stick.

So, they got a dangerous criminal off the streets by convicting him of the crime they could prove. Dershowitz and Loesch haven’t suggested that Capone was innocent, only that the charges that brought him down weren’t as dramatic as some of the other crimes he was accused of.

All of which means we’re supposed to see Donald Trump as some kind of equivalent to Capone – but in a good way.

I half-expect one of the Republican president’s supporters to eventually push this Capone-related argument in an even more comical direction: “Trump might be a criminal, but everyone thought he might be charged with something else, so these other crimes shouldn’t really be seen as a big deal.”