The case against Trump is hardly small or petty. Here's why | Mike Kelly

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Some years ago, I commuted to work on a road where police regularly set up a speed trap.

It was annoying. Sometimes it seemed petty — or so I felt.

I would be cruising along, lost in thought or listening to the radio, at 40 miles per hour — the speed limit in one town. Then, suddenly, as I crossed the town line, I had to remind myself to take my foot off the gas, pump the brakes and drop my speed to just 25 miles per hour.

Often a police officer was waiting just over that town line.

Many motorists were ticketed –— me included. We complained. We whined. Some even hired attorneys and went to court to challenge the speeding tickets. But in the end, everyone paid their fine.

People protesting against former President Donald Trump gather outside of the Manhattan Criminal Court before his arraignment on April 4, 2023 in New York City. Trump will be arraigned during his first court appearance today following an indictment by a grand jury that heard evidence about money paid to adult film star Stormy Daniels before the 2016 presidential election. With the indictment, Trump becomes the first former U.S. president in history to be charged with a criminal offense.

Simply put: We broke the law. We were guilty. It was a slam-dunk case for the local prosecutor and the cops, pure and simple.

We didn’t like the law. We didn’t like the indiscriminate way it was applied — a speed trap one day, no speed trap the next. But it was the law. And speeding is clearly illegal.

I thought of my exasperating speed trap experience as I listened to supporters of former President Donald Trump — and Trump himself — complain that the 34-count indictment against the former president was just small stuff, haphazardly applied to a famous guy. As one of Trump’s attorneys, Joe Tacopina, noted: “We all know that had Donald Trump not been Donald Trump, and it was John Smith, this case would have never been brought. If he was not running for reelection, there is no way this case would have been brought.”

The complaints also took the form of this question:  If a former president is going to be hauled into court, shouldn’t the crime be significant?

Even one of Trump’s most vocal critics, Sen. Mitt Romney, the Utah Republican and former GOP presidential nominee who voted to impeach Trump after the Jan. 6, 2021 assault on the U.S. Capitol, lashed out at Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg for bringing charges against Trump.

Romney, in a statement, said Trump’s “character and conduct make him unfit for office,” but that Bragg “has stretched to reach felony criminal charges in order to fit a political agenda.”

“No one is above the law, not even former presidents,” Romney added, “But everyone is entitled to equal treatment under the law.  The prosecutor’s overreach sets a dangerous precedent for criminalizing political opponents and damages the public’s faith in our justice system.”

More Mike Kelly: As Donald Trump pleaded not guilty, a bizarre carnival unfolded outside

But was it really an overreach?

When I was caught in that speed trap, I also complained that the police were overreaching — indeed, perhaps overlooking their responsibility to stop truly dangerous drivers. The haphazard nature of the speed trap was not equal treatment under the law. Just as damaging, it set a bad precedent for how the town’s police behaved — picking off speeders here and there when the cops felt like it.

Anyway, wasn’t driving only a few miles faster in a 25 mph zone a minor offense?

It’s a good question.

More: Trump lawyers blast DA Alvin Bragg's case, but legal experts say they'll regret it. Here's why

Think of Trump’s dilemma along the lines of that speed trap that snared me and plenty of other motorists. If police want to make the roads safe, shouldn’t they have been chasing drivers who were truly reckless, not commuters who forgot to slow down when they entered a zone where they were supposed to drive only 25 mph?

Apr 4, 2023; New York, NY, USA; Former President Donald Trump in court for his arraignment on April 4, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Seth Harrison-USA TODAY ORG XMIT: USAT-707964 ORIG FILE ID:  20230404_ajw_usa_059.JPG
Apr 4, 2023; New York, NY, USA; Former President Donald Trump in court for his arraignment on April 4, 2023. Mandatory Credit: Seth Harrison-USA TODAY ORG XMIT: USAT-707964 ORIG FILE ID: 20230404_ajw_usa_059.JPG

Clearly, the police could have been focusing attention on more dangerous drivers — even more dangerous crimes.

But the police also had the law on their side. The 25 mph speed limit was clearly posted. Any motorist who ignored it was liable to get caught — and ticketed.

And that’s precisely what took place.

It’s the same with Trump.

The New York law is clear. If you wipe away all of the salacious details about Trump’s paying hush money to a former porn star who supposedly spanked his behind and slept with him, the case against him essentially can be reduced to the fact that Trump is accused of cooking the books — basically lying in his business records.

Yes, he reportedly hid his hush payments on those records to also camouflage the fact that the money was being directed to an alleged extramarital paramour — a sexual affair, incidentally, that took place as Trump’s wife was recovering from childbirth. Yes, the news about this alleged sexual tryst might have impacted Trump’s presidential election. (Just before the payments were made, a recording of Trump claiming he could “grab” women by their private parts surfaced.) And, yes, Trump also reportedly wanted to hide these payments on his tax records.

These are not exactly capital crimes. But they are still crimes just the same. And this is the reckoning that America needs to face with Donald Trump.

If Trump broke the law, shouldn’t he pay for it? Just like anyone else?

Trump's track record: He gets away with breaking the rules

From the moment he descended his gold-colored escalator at Trump Tower in 2015 to announce that he was running for president, American voters faced a Faustian bargain. Trump brought many gifts to a presidential campaign. He was charismatic and unafraid to broach subjects — immigration, for instance — that many politicians avoided. He was emerging as a transformative politician who gave voice to many voters who felt forgotten by the traditional political parties.

But Trump also had a well-documented history as a showman, a narcissist, a liar and overall sleazy guy with a history of changing positions on issues as easily as he changed socks. In short, he could be a supreme jerk and a phony.

Trump seemed to have no guardrails, no rules. If he could push boundaries to make a profit, he did. (He bragged about this habit continually on his TV show, “The Apprentice.”) He also had a long history of accusations that he often refused to pay his bills to his workers or that he regularly falsified real estate records to gain tax advantages or favorable treatment from banks who loaned him money.

Trump’s principles seemed like a moveable feast. He seemed to have no problem changing his skin to suit his needs at the moment. For instance, before he ran for president, he claimed to be pro-choice on abortion. Once he ran for president, he was suddenly anti-abortion. Conversion is a wonderous experience, but Trump's change of heart seemed all too convenient.

Trump’s claims as he entered that first presidential campaign that that he was not a bigot seemed undercut by his history of outright racism, especially against the five young African American men who came to be known as the Central Park Five. Before that, federal authorities cited Trump and his father with orchestrating a scheme to deny apartments to African Americans.

Then came Atlantic City and Trump’s refusal to live up to his contractual obligations in paying workers who built his casinos. Also, in Atlantic City, Trump was investigated by New Jersey state regulators who raised questions about how he financed his casinos.

But those regulators looked the other way.

It was the same pattern with many others when it came to Trump.  From the women who worked for him — notably, smart women like Kellyanne Conway —  to the squads of lawyers, bankers, politicians, publicists, image-makers, athletes and others who came into his orbit, few raised questions when Trump bended the rules.

'Witch hunt' — or a crime?

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a press event at Mar-A-Lago on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Palm Beach FL. Former President Trump returned to Mar-A-Lago Tuesday evening after facing arraignment in New York earlier in the day.
Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a press event at Mar-A-Lago on Tuesday, April 4, 2023, in Palm Beach FL. Former President Trump returned to Mar-A-Lago Tuesday evening after facing arraignment in New York earlier in the day.

So now we come to a Manhattan courtroom, a judge and a prosecutor with Trump claiming to be the martyred victim of a “witch hunt.”

The case against Trump may seem small. Filing false business records to cover up hush money payments to a mistress hardly seems like the kind of misdeed that should affect national politics — and perhaps the world. But this is not about politics or the world.  

The law is the law, not matter how small and no matter how big the person is who is accused of breaking it.

Think of Trump’s dilemma as a speed trap. He knows it’s wrong to cook the books. Yet the evidence shows that he never pumped his moral, legal and ethical brakes. 

It may not be a huge crime.

But it’s a crime just the same.

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for the USA TODAY Network as well as the author of three critically acclaimed non-fiction books and a podcast and documentary film producer. To get unlimited access to his insightful thoughts on how we live life in the northeast, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.

Email: kellym@northjersey.com

This article originally appeared on NorthJersey.com: Donald Trump arrest: NY case is not small nor petty