Is Trump a Criminal?
An interview with Gregg Barak.
“People have to understand that we severely underprosecute—as a society—white-collar and corporate crimes. We just ignore these crimes for the most part.”
“So Donald engages in serious white-collar and corporate crimes. And in terms of what the American people want, polling has—since the 1980s—shown consistent support for prosecuting white-collar and corporate crimes. But the US legal system declines to prosecute these sorts of crimes.”
“And real democracy could significantly reduce the crimes of the powerful—real democracy could produce a system where the law is enforced against the powerful and the powerful aren’t just accommodated.”
Gregg Barak is a criminologist—he’s Emeritus Professor of Criminology and Criminal Justice at Eastern Michigan University and co-founder of the Journal of White Collar and Corporate Crime. He’s written or edited 20 books including the following:
Criminology on Trump (2022)
Trump is the quintessential symbol of elite lawlessness—they don’t call him “Teflon Don” for no reason. Barak’s 2022 book about Trump received the following praise from Henry N. Pontell of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice:
Using a broad criminological perspective that draws on issues central to white-collar and elite offending, this important book provides a deep and novel analysis of Donald Trump’s behaviors before, during, and after his presidency. Barak effectively exposes the fundamental shortcomings of media-driven, and relatively narrow legal interpretations of such acts, and in doing so, issues a major rationale for crucial scholarly attention toward elite criminality while setting a copious conceptual table for future research.
Scholarly, rigorous and meticulously researched, informed by criminology, political economy and psychology, this is a hard-to-put-down, forensic and ultimately terrifying analysis of Teflon Don, whose life and times Hollywood would surely not have dared to conjure up as fiction. Barak magisterially documents Trump as the source of a devastating gamut of harms, through every crime in the book spanning the five decades before, during and after his presidency, and culminating in insurrection—failed, but for which he still evades accountability.
Award winning scholar Gregg Barak uses his critical eye to serve up a detailed and illuminating account of the decades long story of the organized deviant behaviors of Trump. In doing so he skillfully weaves together theories of personality and social structure in this fascinating and unique description of how a deviant life course emerges, and how that life course was projected as normal and even laudable in a (social) media-dominated age.
To the plethora of books written by journalists and family members about Donald Trump and his Presidency, Gregg Barak adds Criminology on Trump. Barak’s unique take on Trump and the Trump organization evolves out of decades of studying the political economy of corporate and white-collar crime and he brings the “tools, methods and theories” of the trade to lay bare Trump’s plutocracy and political corruption. It is a fascinating yet sobering tale of how money corrupts democracy and may destroy it.
Criminology on Trump is divided into the following chapters:
(1) “Family dynamics, privileged disadvantages, and coming of age”
(2) “A lifetime of deviance, deception, and dishonesty, 1970–2016”
(3) “Weaponizing the law, litigation, and legality”
(4) “Campaigns and policies of adversity, harmfulness, and divisiveness”
(5) “A sinkhole of organizational corruption”
(6) “State-organized abuses of power and obstruction of justice”
(7) “Pardons, prosecutions, and the politics of punishment”
(8) “Insurrection, divided selves, and the aftermath of a failed coup”
It’s not a law of nature that the crimes of the rich and powerful must go unpunished—we can join activism, create a democratic society, and bring an end to elite lawlessness. But elite lawlessness will continue as long as elites dominate the government—it’s foolish and silly and unreasonable to expect an elite-dominated government to somehow hold elites accountable for elite crimes.
I was honored and thrilled to interview Barak—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow and added hyperlinks to.
1) Why is it important to look at Trump—like you do in your 2022 book Criminology on Trump—through a criminological lens? What do people miss when they fail to apply this particular lens?
I wanted—in my 2022 book—to apply the scientific lens of criminology and give the 45th president his rightful place in the history of US crime. So it’s the first criminal biography of Trump.
People need to understand that Trump’s lifetime represents a genuine smorgasbord of lawlessness. This range of lawlessness checks off the boxes of all legal categories—Trump breaks criminal laws, civil laws, administrative laws, international laws, constitutional laws…you name it and he violates those laws. So Criminology on Trump is an investigation of the world’s most successful outlaw—Donald J. Trump.
Trump has—over the course of five decades—been accused of sexual assault, tax evasion, money laundering, nonpayment of employees, defrauding customers, defrauding contractors, defrauding investors, defrauding bankers, and defrauding charities.
The lens of criminology is important because most people don’t understand what crime is, what criminality is, what criminals are, and what crime and social control are all about—people don’t really have an appreciation of the various relationships between criminal law and civil law and constitutional law and international law and so on.
So journalists do a top-notch job of gathering facts and data, but they don’t really properly analyze Trump through the lens of selective enforcement of the law and the lens of differential application of justice—these are the two fundamental tools that are always at play.
To understand how Donald gets away with things, you need to understand the context of these different legal systems, the way in which he violates each legal system differently, and the way in which he resists and fights these different legal systems through our system.
Donald is a consummate user of the law—Donald uses the law as an expert. He uses the law against anyone who is coming after him for violating the law.
So I think that people are missing this crucial framework of analysis when it comes to Donald.
2) So people don’t understand Trump’s actual intelligence and expertise and mastery when it comes to the law?
For sure. I mean, think about it—here’s a man who’s been involved in more than 4000 lawsuits. He’s involved in a lawsuit as often as he plays two rounds of 18 holes in a day—he’s involved in a new lawsuit about every third day of the week.
You have to understand that he had more litigation involved in his four years in office than the previous two or three administrations—which were eight-year administrations—put together. And much of that litigation is still ongoing.
Nobody has as much litigation experience as Donald J. Trump—nobody.
3) Why did Trump choose criminality? His father gave him a massive fortune—he didn’t have to go down a criminal path.
He adopted the criminality that his father was doing before him—he adopted his father’s modus operandi in terms of the fraud that his father had been doing. So he just incorporated that modus operandi and then created various other schemes along the way.
So fundamentally, he’s doing with his children as his father did with him and his siblings.
And he’s rational—he has premeditation and he has malice aforethought.
But in fairness to Donald, he couldn’t have begun his business ventures back in the 1980s without the assistance of organized criminals and political fixers—it’s just not possible to enter the hotel business and the construction business and the casino business and the gaming business without any involvement in organized and political crime.
It’s important to understand that there are very fine lines—Donald has laundered money, but a lot of people have laundered money all over the United States and a lot of that laundering is actually legal. So there are blurry lines between honesty and dishonesty and also blurry lines between legality and illegality.
And it’s crucial to keep in mind that the law is applied in a highly selective manner.
4) Why hasn’t Trump faced justice for his crimes?
He hasn’t been criminally prosecuted, but he’s been held accountable in the sense that he’s paid out large sums of money for violations of the law.
People have to understand that we severely underprosecute—as a society—white-collar and corporate crimes. We just ignore these crimes for the most part.
So Donald engages in serious white-collar and corporate crimes. And in terms of what the American people want, polling has—since the 1980s—shown consistent support for prosecuting white-collar and corporate crimes. But the US legal system declines to prosecute these sorts of crimes.
Consider the 10,000 investment bankers who engaged in securities fraud and exploded Wall Street—not a single one of the 10,000 was prosecuted.
5) How many crimes has Trump committed so far?
Well, on a certain level Donald has been violating the law daily for the last 50 years because he has certain rackets and schemes that are illegitimate and that remain in place.
6) Do you think that Trump’s children are happy about all of the stress and risk that comes from being sucked into all of this criminality instead of being able to live a clean and risk-free and stress-free oligarchic lifestyle?
Oligarchic lifestyles are extremely affluent but aren’t “clean” or “risk-free” or “stress-free”.
Trump’s children have been engaged in criminality with their father their whole life. It’s not new to them—they understand what they’re involved with.
They understand that Donald tried to take control of Fred Trump’s estate when Fred was in his 80s—Maryanne Trump and Fred hired an attorney and stopped Donald from doing that. So they understand that their father will pursue his own interests over theirs and that they will pursue their own interests over his—that’s just the understanding that the family has.
7) Trump has been accused of sexual assault many times—what should we make of that?
He’s an abusive male and a chauvinist and a sexist—he treats people in general as objects and he treats women as sexual objects. But I can’t speak to whether he’s committed sexual assault, although there are some two dozen women who have accused him of sexual misconduct and some of those women have accused him of sexual assault.
It’s true that Donald’s wife said in a sworn divorce deposition that he raped her—as a criminologist, my approach to that fact is that spousal rape is a very common occurrence in American society.
So it’s like our very sick gun culture—our very sick gun culture is normal because we’re a very sick society.
8) I assume that there was a massive amount of swampery and grift during Trump’s presidency—just look at the 22 May 2022 story about Saudi Arabia. So how can we ascertain Trump’s pre-presidency net worth and Trump’s post-presidency net worth so that we can compare those two figures and then quantify and characterize and assess the extent to which Trump monetized the presidency? You need to know his net worth going in and his net worth going out.
He was constantly operating various violations of the emoluments clause 24/7 during his time in office. So who knows the amount of money that was accumulated during that time.
And you’ve got the whole pay-to-play situation at his Washington hotel. And all manner of things could’ve gone on when officials came to visit.
We probably won’t ever be able to investigate his finances and get a sense of the amount that he accumulated during the presidency. This is why Donald is the master, though—he’s sitting there and he’s got 50 lawsuits right now that he’s fighting simultaneously.
9) What about the 28 September 2020 story about tax fraud? Do you know all about the revelations that that story discusses?
I know these revelations well. But you have to understand that this is part of the Trump family’s modus operandi—that’s how they move the money from one generation to the next generation.
They have so many scams that are elaborate and that are well developed. And a lot of people have written about these scams. But my goal with my 2022 book was to write about all of Trump’s various scams and to put it all together in the way that a criminologist would put it all together.
10) Tish James’s investigation in New York was supposed to uncover all sorts of crimes—why didn’t that investigation go anywhere?
Well, Trump and his two children will testify on July 15th—Trump exhausted all of his appeals.
James is going after the pattern of deflating property values for tax purposes and then inflating property values for loan purposes. But everybody sort of does that—games like that are why the richest corporations in the world don’t pay any taxes.
There are many types of crimes that James didn’t look into—it takes all your resources just to do what she’s doing, which is one particular area. And James has indicated that there could still be a criminal case, but I suspect that that won’t happen.
11) And just to clarify, Trump has the resources to hire really good legal teams and really wear people out legally and really outlast people legally, correct?
He’s gone through a lot of talented lawyers over the years.
But Donald’s a crook through and through—everything he does. There’s a line from James D. Zirin’s 2019 book Plaintiff in Chief about how everyone who’s been in any kind of relationship with Donald has eventually wound up involved in a lawsuit against Donald or else as the target of one of Donald’s lawsuits.
And according to that 2019 book, Donald often stiffs his lawyers—if they lose—and doesn’t reimburse them for their services.
12) How much legal threat does Trump face from Merrick Garland regarding the coup attempt?
The coup attempt is exponentially more serious than any other crime that Donald has ever committed in his life.
I think that Garland will prosecute Donald for something unless Donald goes down in Georgia first.
My strong view is that Trump was never delusional for a single moment about the 2020 election’s outcome—he’s not a fool, and he knew months in advance based on the polling data that he was probably going to lose the 2020 election.
14) How do you respond to the profound and understandable cynicism that many people have where they say “We shouldn’t even pay attention to politicians’ crimes—they never get held accountable anyway so there’s no point paying attention”? I’ve encountered this cynicism—the correct response to this attitude seems to be that we need to work to change things so that politicians are no longer depressingly immune from justice.
I don’t know any folks who say that we shouldn’t pay attention to politicians’ crimes—it’s true that there are people who say we shouldn’t pay attention to the crimes of particular offenders like Donald Trump, but that’s an unusual position.
And in the scheme of things, political criminals are actually held far more accountable than—for example—corporate offenders are.
We need to implement changes that will bring to an end the current situation where we underenforce the law in the areas of white-collar and corporate crime—that underenforcement is what drives much of the political crime in the first place.
15) Could pro-democracy activism produce democracy? And could democracy end elite lawlessness?
And real democracy could significantly reduce the crimes of the powerful—real democracy could produce a system where the law is enforced against the powerful and the powerful aren’t just accommodated.