Can voters tolerate alleged crimes?


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Political polls can be maddening. Who’s up? Who’s down? And, if it’s only March, who cares? We still have eight months until Election Day.

But one footnote in the recent spate of polls to measure support for the presidential campaigns of Joe Biden and Donald Trump had nothing to do with politics and everything to do with right and wrong. For that reason, it’s worth studying especially now, as Trump steamrolls his way to the Republican presidential nomination.

In the most recent survey by The New York Times/Siena College Poll, voters were asked if they thought Trump “committed any serious federal crimes.” 

Trump supporters will likely call such a question unfair. I can hear the Trump Nation chorus now: “What about Biden?” But those Trumpists overlook a not-so-small fact: Trump has been charged with multiple crimes in four criminal trials — the first and, so far, only president in U.S. history to face criminal charges.

Also, pay attention to the language of the question in the Times/Siena survey about whether Trump “committed any serious federal crimes.” Such a question does not address allegations that Trump broke state laws in New York and Georgia. Trump supporters say the New York charges of paying hush money to an alleged mistress who happened to be a porn star are petty and those in Georgia are akin to a crazy-quilt prosecutorial patchwork aimed at unfairly punishing Trump.

No matter how you feel about the New York and Georgia charges, they pale in significance to the laws federal prosecutors say Trump broke. And this is why the polling question, dealing only with federal charges against Trump, is so significant. Those federal charges include Trump’s alleged mishandling of classified documents and his reported efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and block Biden from the presidency.

The responses from voters about those charges are jaw-dropping.

Do we really want a president accused of federal crimes?

For starters, consider the overall results cited by the poll: More than half all voters — 53% of those surveyed — thought Trump committed a serious federal crime in either the classified documents case or his conspiracy to interfere with the presidential election. Only 36% said Trump broke no federal law. Perhaps most noteworthy of all, a mere 11% said they didn’t know or had no opinion. 

In other words, most voters have basically made up their minds about Trump’s guilt even before he goes to trial.

From there, the results worsen. One-fifth — or 20% — of all Republicans think Trump is guilty. That includes 20% of voters who call themselves Trump supporters.

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Now, think about those figures for a moment: One in five Americans who actually think Trump should be president also think he’s a crook — the federal variety.

Considering that the federal charges against Trump involve his dunce-like hoarding of top-secret files — including defense war plans — and his reported efforts to stop the peaceful transition of a president, this is no small revelation. As the polling question notes, these are “serious” crimes. They’re not in the same category as allegedly paying a porn star not to blab before the 2016 presidential election about a supposed sexual affair that reportedly included spanking the former president’s backside with a magazine that included his photograph on the cover.

The more serious meaning to be drawn from these poll results does not involve Trump, however. It really involves the voters — and, by extension, what sorts of standards are now in play for judging a presidential candidate. 

If 20% of Trump’s voters already think he’s broken the law, why are they even considering the possibility that he should be president? Or, as the presidential oath proclaims, why place him in a position to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution,” which is the basis for the laws that Trump supposedly broke?

Has America’s tolerance for criminal behavior changed that much?

An important guilty plea in lower Manhattan

Incredibly, this confluence of criminality and politics gets more ominous.

On Monday, Allen Weisselberg, who kept watch over Trump’s books for decades, walked into a Manhattan courtroom and admitted that he lied to officials who had been investigating the former president for alleged financial fraud.

Weisselberg’s guilty plea on perjury charges comes just two years after he pleaded guilty of tax fraud after investigators found that he gave himself off-the-books gifts, including a luxury apartment and a Mercedes-Benz. For that transgression, Weisselberg spent nearly 100 days in a Rikers Island jail cell. 

That 2022 plea bargain sentence came with a promise from Weisselberg to testify in the fraud case against Trump in which New York State Supreme Court Judge Arthur Engoron recently ruled that the Trump Organization should pay more than $400 million in penalties and interest fees for years of cooking the books.

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But in his own testimony, Weisselberg apparently could not tell the truth. Or, as Engoron deftly noted in his ruling, Weisselberg’s testimony was “intentionally evasive.” 

Hence, the new perjury plea bargain — and what prosecutors hope will be a five-month jail sentence for the 76-year-old Weisselberg.

What’s interesting here is that prosecutors, despite sending Weisselberg to jail, can’t convince him to spill all the beans — truthfully — about Trump’s financial games. 

Weisselberg has not explained why he clammed up. But it’s worth knowing that Trump has been paying all of Weisselberg’s legal bills. And, as if that’s not enough, Trump is paying him a $2 million severance. But that $2 million is coming to Weisselberg in incremental installments. In other words, Trump still has his financial claws in Weisselberg. 

“The Trump Organization keeps Weisselberg on a short leash. And it shows,” Engoron wrote in his decision.

Weisselberg is just another hustler. He’ll likely survive another five months at Rikers Island, then move on with his retirement. But, just like those voters who say they support Trump even though they feel he broke the law, Weisselberg has come to symbolize what America has become.

Basic standards of right and wrong have been tossed out the window. And it’s only eight more months until Election Day. Who knows what else will get tossed?

Mike Kelly is an award-winning columnist for NorthJersey.com, part of the USA TODAY Network, as well as the author of three critically acclaimed nonfiction 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


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