In a stinging rebuke of former President Donald Trump’s treatment of the legal system, a state court judge held Trump in contempt of court Monday, essentially for failing to comply with subpoenas issued by the New York attorney general’s office. Justice Arthur Engoron ordered Trump to pay $10,000 a day until he either hands over documents that respond to the subpoena or swears under oath that he has no documents related to the subpoena.
These are the actions of a man who not only dances outside the bounds of legal rules but actively tries to destroy the dance floor.
It is important to focus on what Engoron’s finding means and what it does not. The New York attorney general's investigation involves Trump’s businesses and, to put it simply, whether he devalued the value of his holdings to obtain favorable tax treatment and inflated the value of his holdings to get large loans. The attorney general’s office has already stated that it uncovered multiple “misleading statements and omissions” in financial documents it reviewed during the investigation. But Engoron did not conclude that Trump or the Trump Organization is liable for financial fraud.
There is a reason we have an old and famous saying, “It's not the crime, it's the cover-up.” Engoron’s holding Trump in contempt is closer to a reprimand for a cover-up, not a finding of liability or guilt for underlying wrongdoing. And in some ways, it is the cover-up that is the most dangerous. It keeps the public and law enforcement from knowing the truth. It attempts to undermine investigations and possible punishments for wrongdoing. It fundamentally cuts at the fabric of our justice system. A member of the New York attorney general’s office said Trump did not hand over “even a single responsive document” in response to a subpoena in December.
Trump’s apparent failure to comply with a subpoena is emblematic of his push toward lawlessness. His approach to investigations has generally been to delay, obfuscate and attack the investigators. We saw that pattern play out during, among other instances, special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and both the first and second impeachments of Trump by the House. Just on Monday, Trump’s attorney claimed that the New York attorney general’s investigation “is a political crusade” and added that the "attorney general's investigation has seemingly become aimless."
Trump’s recalcitrance with respect to investigations serves dual purposes and unmasks him for who he is, someone with little to no regard for the rule of law. By failing to comply with subpoenas, Trump can delay investigations. This not only actually thwarts the ability of investigators to uncover the truth; it also makes it look as though investigations into Trump drag on. These are the actions of a man who not only dances outside the bounds of legal rules but actively tries to destroy the dance floor. That these are the actions of our former chief executive, charged with executing the laws of our country, should be a gut punch.
Sadly, we have seen versions of this behavior before by our presidents.
Sadly, we have seen versions of this behavior before by our presidents. Before he resigned in disgrace, President Richard Nixon faced articles of impeachment for obstruction of justice, contempt of Congress and abuse of power. The articles of impeachment did not accuse Nixon of ordering the break-in at the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate building; he was about to be impeached largely for trying to cover up the investigation into the break-in. More recently, President Bill Clinton was impeached for perjury (lying under oath to a federal grand jury) and obstruction of justice. Clinton was not impeached for allegations of sexual harassment from Paula Jones, an Arkansas state employee who sued him (Clinton denied the allegations), or for an allegedly illegal land deal related to the Whitewater investigation. Clinton was impeached for covering up and attempting to cover up things that were discovered along the way, like an extramarital affair with Monica Lewinsky.
Engoron’s decision to hold Trump in contempt may not only be short-lived; it might also fall short of the punishments some may feel Trump deserves. It does, however, serve as an important reminder that the cover-up matters. Any attempt to undermine, stall or halt investigations matters.