Opinion by Frida Ghitis
(CNN) — Editor’s note: Frida Ghitis, a former CNN producer and correspondent, is a world affairs columnist. She is a weekly opinion contributor to CNN, a contributing columnist to The Washington Post and a columnist for World Politics Review. The views expressed in this commentary are her own. View more opinion on CNN.
It was yet another startling moment in the seemingly endless legal saga of former President Donald Trump, the front-runner for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.
A New York judge on Monday declared Trump and his adult sons liable for “persistent violations” of state law. Judge Arthur Engoron found they engaged in insurance and bank fraud and other manner of misdeeds, canceled the Trump Organization’s business certification and set the stage for a trial in which the state is asking for $250 million in damages.
If the judge’s scathing decision in the civil case was remarkable, it was not particularly surprising given all we have learned in the past few years.
The judge found that Trump wildly inflated valuations for his businesses and his homes to secure loans and conduct other business. He ordered that Trump’s New York businesses be dissolved. A trial could begin next week to consider the amount of damages owed in the lawsuit by New York Attorney General Letitia James.
Of course, Trump denounced the ruling, saying his company had “been slandered and maligned by this politically motivated Witch Hunt.” (Trump’s company, by the way, had already been convicted of tax fraud in New York in an unrelated case.)
Trump’s record of civil and criminal cases is so long that journalists have struggled to keep up, routinely publishing articles that summarize, catalog and compile the astonishing volume of scandals and court actions, all involving behavior by the former president that ranges from disturbing to outrageous.
Trump, as we know, is the first former or current president in the history of the United States to be charged with a criminal offense.
Not only did he make history, but his record is unlikely — God help us! — to be surpassed. He has been indicted in four cases. And that’s not counting his two impeachments — another record — during his presidency. (He has pleaded not guilty in the four criminal cases and denies any wrongdoing.)
The only part of this that is genuinely surprising is that Trump still enjoys so much support. He remains the top choice for his party’s nomination, with 52% of Republicans and Republican-leaning independent voters backing him, according to a recent CNN poll.
Nothing Trump does or says can shock us anymore — not his thinly veiled calls for the execution of a US general, or his continuing claims that he won an election he lost by a wide margin or even his threats to punish his critics if he wins reelection.
But how is it possible that such a man is not only the leading candidate for a once-conservative, traditional-values party but also that few of those challenging him in the primaries dare spell out the truth that he nearly destroyed US democracy — and is still at it?
The digest of Trump’s misdeeds is filled with transgressions big and small. Over the years, he stiffed small businesses, plumbers, electricians, even waitresses, who worked for him, refusing to pay what they said he owed them.
He used his purported charitable fund, the Trump Foundation, to settle legal problems. He even took $20,000 from the donations to buy a 6-foot-tall portrait of himself, according to The Washington Post. The foundation was dissolved, and Trump paid $2 million to charities as part of a legal settlement.
There’s Trump University, alleged to be a fraud by would-be students who paid tens of thousands of dollars to learn from the supposed genius businessman. Trump paid $25 million to settle a class action lawsuit, insisting he did nothing wrong.
When a jury in a defamation lawsuit found that Trump had committed sexual abuse against the writer E. Jean Carroll, the former president’s lawyers sought to have the verdict thrown out, arguing that Carroll did not accuse Trump of abuse but of rape. The judge then clarified that “the jury found that Mr. Trump in fact did exactly that.” In other words, the judge in the civil suit said Trump raped Carroll.
The list goes on. The most serious cases are still pending. Trump stands accused of trying to overturn the 2020 election, of mishandling secret national security documents, of trying to subvert the election in Georgia.
That he retains his hold over the GOP is proof of Trump’s one overarching talent, his skill as a demagogue, and of the success of the strategy he put into place early on — one designed to discredit and undercut anyone who sought to point out his lies.
Gradually, Trump persuaded his backers that if they ever heard a negative comment or a disturbing piece of news, it was inevitably fake news. His allies in right-wing media, particularly Fox News and its stars, magnified the effort. And by the time Fox was forced to settle and pay $787 million over lies about the election, smaller right-wing outlets had multiplied, promoting Trump’s dangerous fantasies and vengeful conspiracy theories.
The bulk of the GOP leadership has fallen into line, either for fear of upsetting Trump’s supporters or because they, too, are true believers. Few are willing to point out that Trump’s resume is hardly presidential or that his legal problems are of his own making.
If anything goes wrong, it isn’t Trump’s fault. Ever.
Bad news? Blame the fake news media. Criminal federal indictments? Must be a politicized Justice Department. Damning investigation, thousands of pages of evidence? Must be a “deranged” prosecutor. Nineteen people, including Trump, indicted in Georgia? That would be another “racist” prosecutor. Or maybe the problem is that an Indiana-born judge looking into one of Trump’s cases is “Mexican.”
Whatever the case, whatever the circumstance, it’s not Trump’s fault. He is always the victim, and his followers — astonishingly — seem to believe it.
After decades of him facing no consequences, it looks like the mountain of legal troubles is threatening to topple the former president. But his political strength appears intact.
In his ruling on Monday, Engoron trashed Trump’s “preposterous” legal arguments, even citing an earlier judge’s order in another case fulminating about Trump’s “history of abusing the judicial process.”
It’s not surprising that the court found Trump committed fraud, or that a former loyal aide now calls him the gravest threat to US democracy. What is most unsettling and disappointing is how many millions of people believe his version of events regardless of the evidence. Or simply don’t care.
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