One possible lesson of the many brazen, conspicuous scandals related to President Trump and others in his orbit: The U.S. government has been massively underinvesting in enforcement and prosecution of white-collar crime.
.. There was the apparent treatment of the Trump Foundation as a personal checkbook, from which Trump used other people’s charitable donations to settle his for-profit businesses’ legal disputes and to purchase gigantic portraits of himself. The operation of Eric Trump’s personal foundation also has raised similar questions of self-dealing, according to Forbes.
.. Or there’s the fishy stock trades by Trump cronies, including Carl Icahn and even the current commerce secretary, Wilbur Ross. Ross shorted the stock of a Kremlin-linked company days after he learned journalists were reporting a potentially negative story about the firm.
Or former national security adviser Michael Flynn’s failure to register as a foreign agent working on behalf of Turkey.
There’s a clear reason so many Trump-related figures likely felt free to engage in dodgy behavior in broad daylight: They didn’t expect anyone to care. And absent the scrutiny that came with Trump’s political success, such activities probably would have gone ignored.
.. Federal prosecutions of white-collar crime — a category that includes tax, corporate, health-care or securities fraud, among other crimes — are on track this year to reach their lowest level on record.
.. But the downward trend in white-collar and official-corruption prosecutions predates the Trump presidency. The Barack Obama administration, you may recall, was often criticized for failing to hold corporations and executives accountable in the wake of the financial crisis.
Some argue that big corporations and the wealthy have become too politically influential. Jesse Eisinger, in his excellent book “The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives ,” blames a culture of risk aversion in the ranks of the Justice Department. Eric H. Holder Jr., an attorney general under Obama, once suggested that corporate consolidation left some firms too big to jail.
But undoubtedly part of the issue is resources.
After 9/11, for instance, terrorism investigations became more of a priority, crowding out available dollars and personnel for white-collar investigations.
.. Astonishingly, this decline in enforcement is now being cited as evidence of innocence. Manafort’s lawyer, in his opening statement last week, shamelessly suggested that his client must not be guilty of tax fraud because he’d never been audited.
.. Joseph diGenova objected to Mueller’s criminal prosecution of Manafort in part because Manafort “has no criminal record.”
.. Manafort’s prosecution today is less a sign of Mueller’s overreach, and more a sign of the rest of our federal government’s decades of underperformance.