The New York prosecutor terrifying the president
The average American is brought up to see their country’s constitution as a kind of Holy Writ. It holds within it the creation of the union of the 50 sovereign states themselves, small nations which have agreed to act under a federal government, which creates the United States of America. And this is crucial to understand: that which the federal government does not legislate is a sovereign matter for each state.
For example, the governor of each state conducts national elections. This is within her/his power. Any issue regarding malfeasance is a statement about governance. This power is jealously guarded and is the reason that the supreme court, in a recent decision, returned to the lower courts the question of gerrymandering.
The Republican Party has literally redrawn the electoral map of the country, giving the states in which it holds sway the ability to give the GOP any election victory.
The supreme court has ruled that this is not a matter for them, and the implication is that each state determines its own electoral map. This map, so far, favours the re-election of Donald Trump. And since it is the electoral college which determines the winner, not the popular vote, he only needs one vote more than his opponent to win a second term. Add to this a metric known as the ‘incumbent advantage’, and Donnie looks set for the win.
But his favourability rating is historically and potentially disastrously low. No president has ever had approval ratings this bad.
He cannot even get above 45% – and this is after 900 days in office. He has thanked his pollsters, the ones who told him that he might be in trouble, by firing them. Hopefully he didn’t do this in the way he used to on his last reality show, The Apprentice.
Trump’s Fourth of July address sounded, oddly for him, non-partisan, a call to the nation to come together. Maybe he got word that some of the military chiefs would not join him if the event was too ‘MAGA’. Maybe, as the election season comes into full swing, he wants to blind-side Joe Biden, the one Democratic candidate for president he really fears. Or maybe he has his home state, New York, on his mind.
Because New York is certainly thinking of him. Most specifically, its new attorney general, Letitia James, the first woman and the first African American elected to this office. She ran her campaign partly on bringing him and his various state-based organisations and businesses before the bar of justice. So help her God.
Attorney general James grew up in Brooklyn at the same time as Spike Lee. She is as much black Brooklyn as he is, and this is crucial to understanding her dynamic. Like Lee, she attended what is called an ‘historically black’ institution – Howard Law School. The university, in Washington DC, was specifically set up in the 19th century by African Americans for African Americans. It was created in response to racial segregation, but also as a kind of cradle for those who would set out to change the picture for black people and other minorities in the United States.
The Brooklyn of James’ teen years and young adulthood would have been Ground Zero for Lee’s first film, Joe’s Bed-Stuy Barbershop: We Cut Heads (1983), a powerful depiction of African American male-bonding in a barbershop; her soundtrack would have included Public Enemy’s call-to-arms, Don’t Believe The Hype (1988); and, of course, The Cosby Show, that television masterpiece of African American ascendancy so powerful that the NBC was known in some quarters as ‘Network Bill Cosby’.
With her law degree, James became a public defender for the poor. She worked for Andrew Cuomo, the present governor of New York, on his diversity taskforce; then won election as the powerful New York City watchdog. She went after various banks for providing financial services to gun manufacturers. And in 2018, she was elected attorney general.
Trump has since complained on Twitter that she is harassing him, hounding his family and his businesses. In a particularly whiny tweet, he complained about how hard it was to live in New York City and that James was “Andrew Cuomo’s attorney general”.
James replied on Twitter that no one is above the law and that, by the way, he can call her Tish, the name she is known by.
This may all sound like a typical Trump feud. But it is much more serious than that… much more. New York State has the power to put him in jail after his tenure in the White House is done.
The US constitution does not say whether a sitting president can be indicted for a crime. It does give a kind of list of instructions as to what the congress may do. Those instructions can lead to impeachment, the indictment of a sitting president. This shows the unique position that the constitution gives the president, almost a monarchical one, which has come as a shock to many Americans.
The supreme court has never directly answered the question as to whether a sitting president can be indicted for criminal behaviour, but it did hear arguments in 1974 regarding the Nixon White House tapes.
The Department of Justice has issued advice that states that the president cannot be indicted, and this is the advice that Robert Mueller, the special counsel hired by the department, took. But Mueller left many hints to congress as to what they should do. Because he had not exonerated Trump of obstruction of justice. A crime.
It is at the state level that Trump and his family and businesses can be, and are being, vigorously investigated. Lawsuits by individuals are being filed. Even though he is immune, his family and his organisations are not. It is said that there are more than a thousand lawsuits directed, in some way, against him at present. In New York State, for example, there are James’ own cases: the criminal prosecution of Paul Manafort on state fraud charges; and ‘State of New York vs The Trump Foundation’, a lawsuit that particularly upsets the president.
Trump and James were both born in New York State and, most particularly, in what can be called Greater New York City. Queens, the home borough of Trump, was, at the time of his birth, a picture postcard image of America, a picket-fence haven of whiteness and sureness. James’ Bedford-Stuyvesant, in Brooklyn, was brownstone buildings full of apartments owned and rented by black people who had moved in after the ‘white flight’ of the post-war years. To places like Queens.
Trump is a son of New York State. But the state does not care, by and large, for him. He is considered anti-New York, the epitome of everything that it is not. And he knows it.
Whether he returns there or not in the fullness of time does not really matter. Tish James will be waiting for him.
Attorney generals are elected in the United States because they bring prosecutions in the name of ‘the people’. It will be ‘the people versus Donald Trump’. And Tish James will be there to make the case.