Is President Donald Trump more like Richard Nixon or Al Capone? That’s not a question many commentators in search of historical analogies will ask as the House begins televised hearings on Trump’s impeachment this week.
But it should be. In my view, the answer to the question is that the legal travails of both Nixon and Capone offer insights that can deepen our understanding of the impeachment inquiry that has been initiated against Trump.
The parallels between Trump and Nixon, of course, are plentiful and obvious. Like Nixon, Trump has used the presidency for personal political gain. Like Nixon, Trump has obstructed Congress in its efforts to carry out its oversight responsibilities, subverting the separation of powers among the legislative, executive and judicial branches of government that forms the bedrock of the U.S. Constitution. And like Nixon, Trump has lied repeatedly about his misconduct.
I’ve been writing about Trump’s inevitable impeachment in this column since December 2016. I’m a big fan of the analogy to Nixon, especially now that the impeachment hearings will begin to air on live TV in the fashion of the Senate’s 1973 Watergate probe.
But no single analogy can capture every aspect of something as momentous as a presidential impeachment. There’s always a need for additional context and comparison. That’s where the question of an analogy to Capone comes in, as there are some clear differences between Trump and Nixon, and some equally powerful traits Trump shares with Capone.
For Trump, rules, including the rule of law, are meant to be broken. Defiance, fueled by a volatile mix of psychopathology, sociopathy and ignorance, is his brand.
One of the major disparities between Nixon and Trump is the personal character of the two men. Without in any way eulogizing Nixon, our 37th commander in chief was a model citizen compared to our 45th. Nixon was also a lawyer, highly educated and intellectually rigorous. In the end, when his crimes were exposed and his base of support had eroded, Nixon saw the handwriting on the wall and grudgingly bowed to the rule of law and resigned.
Trump won’t do that. For Trump, rules, including the rule of law, are meant to be broken. Defiance, fueled by a volatile mix of psychopathology, sociopathy and ignorance, is his brand.
In both style and to a certain degree substance, Trump is more mobster a la Capone than politician a la Nixon.
Just last week, in yet another confirmation of Trump’s corrupt business practices, a New York judge ordered the president to pay $2 million in damages to various nonprofit organizations to settle a civil law enforcement action brought against him by the state’s attorney general for misusing donations raised by his now-defunct charitable foundation. Instead of being directed to support public-interest causes, the funds were funneled to promote Trump’s 2016 campaign, pay off his personal debts and purchase a portrait of himself that was subsequently hung at his Doral golf resort outside of Miami.
The judge also ordered Ivanka, Donald Jr. and Eric Trump—who were officers of their father’s foundation and were named as defendants in the lawsuit—to receive “fiduciary” (essentially, honesty) training to ensure they never commit similar infractions in the future.
Last week also saw U.S. District Judge Paul L. Friedman, who sits in the District of Columbia, deliver an extraordinary speech to a gathering of fellow jurists and prominent lawyers, claiming Trump’s rhetoric “violates all recognized democratic norms.”
“We are in unchartered territory … witnessing a chief executive who criticizes virtually every judicial decision that doesn’t go his way and denigrates judges who rule against him, sometimes in very personal terms,” Friedman said. “He seems to view the courts and the justice system as obstacles to be attacked and undermined, not as a coequal branch to be respected.”
As far as we know, Trump has never gone full-Capone and actually ordered one of his capos to literally take out any of his business or political opponents. But lest we forget, during the 2016 campaign, Trump boasted he could “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and not “lose any voters.”
And lest we think Trump was simply waxing hyperbolic, one of the president’s private attorneys told a three-judge panel of the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals in October that Trump could not be investigated or prosecuted until he leaves office, even if he really did shoot someone on 5th Avenue. The astounding assertion was advanced in support of Trump’s attempt to prevent Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance from obtaining Trump’s income tax returns. The circuit court ruled against Trump on Nov. 4.
The battle over Trump’s tax returns, and what they might reveal about his crooked financial dealings, is reminiscent of the painstaking federal effort to bring Capone to justice. When Capone was finally held to account, it wasn’t for masterminding the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre of 1929, in which seven of his gangland Chicago rivals were killed, or for the violent extortion and bootlegging empire he had built. The Feds never got Capone for his most heinous offenses. Instead, Capone was arrested, tried, convicted and sent to prison in 1931 for the mundane white-collar crime of income tax evasion.
Still, Capone’s conviction brought his career as a mafioso to a close. After serving his time in custody, Capone was paroled in 1939, suffering from syphilis and early-onset dementia. He died in Florida eight years later, with what his doctor described as the mentality of a 12-year-old child.
As federal prosecutors did with Capone, House Democrats are pursuing a narrow impeachment case against Trump. Thus far, the impeachment inquiry has centered on the bribery/extortion scandal involving the president’s efforts to pressure Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky to dig up political dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden in exchange for the release of some $391 million in military aid previously approved by Congress.
The narrow focus of the Trump impeachment probe has disappointed many observers, including some on the left, who want Trump impeached and tried in the Senate for his worst crimes, not just for the Ukraine plot.
Ideally, as I’ve written before, Trump would be brought up on a laundry list of additional charges, including:
- Using the presidency for personal economic gain;
- Committing campaign finance violations by paying hush money to Karen McDougal and porn star Stormy Daniels;
- Obstructing justice in connection with the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller;
- Abusing the pardon power to reward political allies;
- Abusing emergency powers to build his border wall;
- Incarcerating undocumented immigrant children in prison settings;
- Attempting to strip millions of Americans of health insurance;
- Promoting tax reform to benefit the super-rich;
- Gutting environmental regulations and pulling out of the Paris climate accord, and
- Refusing to enforce the Voting Rights Act and promoting an ideology of white supremacy.
But we don’t live in an ideal world, or anything approximating it. A Ukraine-focused impeachment probe is likely the only one we’re going to get. And it is not without its merits.
Among the virtues of a narrow focus is that it’s easy for its proponents to present, and it’s easy for the public to understand. As long as it succeeds in producing an article of impeachment endorsed by a House majority, a narrowly focused probe deserves to be supported.
To be sure, it is highly doubtful that Senate Republicans will follow the example of Capone’s jury and vote to convict Trump and remove him from office in an impeachment trial conducted in the upper chamber. But if the impeachment case against the president is skillfully prosecuted in the Senate, it will severely damage Trump’s reelection prospects and hasten the demise of his political career, much as the tax-evasion prosecution of Capone brought an end to the career of the most notorious mobster in American history.