The Moral Confusion Around Trump’s Felony Conviction

The homepage of The New York Times announced the conviction of Donald Trump on 34 felony charges Thursday afternoon in the kind of large-scale, black letter headline we typically associate with yellowed century-old newspapers declaring war has come. “TRUMP GUILTY ON ALL COUNTS,” it blared above a photo of the former president looking weary in some crowded public space.

Scrolling down the page a little, you’d have found a link to one story noting the historicity of this moment and a link to another story detailing each of the 34 charges. Together on the homepage, the headline of the first paired with a bulleted summary of the second made for a strange juxtaposition: “Donald Trump has become America’s first felon president,” it said, and below that, a bulleted list: “11 counts related to invoices, 12 counts related to ledger entries, 11 counts related to checks.” Wait, invoices? This isn’t exactly the crime of the century.

And that highlights the core problem with the most common responses to this verdict in our political discourse: Among Trump’s antagonists and admirers alike, there is a great deal of calling evil good and good evil (Isa. 5:20).

I doubt this is deliberate dissembling. The most animated reactions I’ve observed have not been calculated—quite the opposite, in fact. Outside the chattering class especially, those responses have looked like organic outbursts of elation and schadenfreude, or else indignation and resentment. On both sides, I believe that most people sincerely see their reactions as stands for justice. But even with innocent motivation, this is a kind of moral confusion.

Let’s start with Trump’s opponents, among whom there was great rejoicing when the verdict dropped. But what, exactly, is the nature of the crime? Unlike Trump’s Georgia indictment, which I find morally and legally compelling, the crimes of which Trump has been found guilty in New York are arcane and ethically unintuitive.

This case has been widely summarized as concerning payments Trump made to conceal his affairs with two porn stars. That’s part of it, but that’s not the crime, because it is not illegal to have affairs with porn stars or to pay to keep adulterous liaisons secret.

What Trump has actually been convicted of, in brief, is violating a New York State law against falsifying business records to conceal his willful violation of federal campaign finance law (as well as some other laws) that would have required him to disclose the multi-step payment process to hide the stories of the affairs so that his 2016 presidential campaign would not be harmed by public knowledge of his infidelity.

The charges are felonies instead of misdemeanors, as records falsification charges normally would be, because the falsification is supposed to have covered up another crime—a crime for which Trump was never charged, let alone convicted.

If that strikes you as at once tortured and surprisingly mundane, you are not alone in that instinct. When Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg first released the charges last year, they were met with almost universally raised eyebrows among the mainstream and even left-leaning legal commentariat.

Politico, hardly a pro-Trump rag, dubbed the whole thing a head-scratcher. CNN commentator Fareed Zakaria called it “a case of trying the right man for the wrong crime.” Vox’s Andrew Prokop made a detailed case that, though Trump is no “sterling adherent to the rule of law” (true), this is a politicized prosecution: a fishing expedition focused “on an obscure or technical matter” using a novel legal theory and spearheaded by an elected political opponent of the defendant.

I rehearse all that to say: This verdict does not deserve to be called “good.” Maybe it’s technically legally correct—I don’t have the legal expertise to say. But even if that’s true, this conviction looks to be the result of a case motivated far more by political rivalry than a real interest in justice and the rule of law.

We don’t know yet what Trump’s punishment will be (sentencing is scheduled for July 11), but in the unlikely event that he is actually imprisoned for this nonviolent crime, a response of elation would be not just unseemly but unjust (Prov. 24:17, 1 Cor. 13:6).

Now let’s turn to Trump’s supporters. The former president has denied the allegations of adultery and concealment of that evil. But he previously admitted to at least one of the payments on multiple occasions, and Rudy Giuliani also publicly discussed it when he was Trump’s lawyer. And given Trump’s very public history of commentary (and photoshoots) making his sexual proclivities known, his denials are questionable, to say the least.

Trump has spent decades both naturally attracting and deliberately crafting a reputation as an “immoral, impure or greedy person” known for his lechery, “obscenity, foolish talk,” and “coarse joking”—all things, it should go without saying, that “are improper for God’s holy people” (Eph. 5:3–5). Does anyone believe his denials of the porn star affairs?

Frankly, I doubt even his most enthusiastic voters buy it. He is transparently not a man of good character. He is not the kind of man about whom these allegations seem implausible. I am fortunate enough to know many such men, as I expect you are. If the same allegation were made against them, my response would be complete incredulity. I’d laugh. But Trump? His words say no, but his entire public character says yes. The whole thing is tawdry and shameful, and associating with it is liable to corrupt our character too (1 Cor. 15:33–34).

In short, it may well be fair to say Trump is a victim of a certain injustice here, as many on the right have charged. Looking at the legal questions, I’m inclined to agree. But that does not make him an embattled hero worth following and defending. Examining Trump through a moral lens, it should be vanishingly easy to say his life does not deserve to be called “good.”

As Christians, of course, we confess that “there is no one who does good, not even one,” that “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (Rom. 3:12, 23–24).

Looking at Trump’s travails—some undue but many wrought by his own hand—that confession should move us not so much to elation or indignation, schadenfreude or resentment. It should move us to humility, to recognize that we are no less in need of redemption. What good is it for someone to gain a major court victory or even the presidency, yet forfeit their soul?

Bonnie Kristian is the editorial director of ideas and books at Christianity Today.

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