Book review of Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away With It by Elie Honig


This engaging book demonstrates how those who can exert substantial power of some kind — through public office, great wealth, control of a crime family — have consistently been able to avoid paying a price for serious wrongdoing. Elie Honig, a former prosecutor and current legal analyst at CNN, recognizes that the theme of “Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away With It” is far from revelatory. His emphasis is on the nitty-gritty, the how and why this happens. He is a fluid writer and careful researcher, and even as someone who has taken a professional interest in criminal justice for decades, I was surprised to learn a lot of fascinating tidbits. I had no idea, for example, that, as Honig tells it, in 2012 front-line prosecutors in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office favored indicting Ivanka Trump and her brother Donald Trump Jr. on criminal fraud charges. According to Honig, the charges were dropped by the district attorney himself, Cyrus Vance Jr., after a visit from Donald Sr.’s lawyer, Marc Kasowitz, who made a $50,000 donation to Vance’s reelection campaign a few weeks later.

If you are a fan of Donald Trump’s, this is probably not the book for you. Although Honig reviews the wrongdoing of many people, including mobsters, Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby, it is Trump and his frequent brushes with the law, many in plain sight during the course of his presidency, that are Honig’s recurring focus.

Honig recounts his experience as a federal prosecutor in Manhattan, bringing down the hit-men, capos and top bosses of the Gambino crime family. Then he pivots to episodes in which Trump used the same tactics the mobsters did to avoid criminal punishment. Honig repeatedly says Trump’s behavior resembles that of a crime boss. “Daniel Marino — the Gambino family powerhouse,” he writes, “has a few things in common with Donald Trump. . . . Both understood and leveraged money, status, and fear to protect their own interests and to silence or destroy anyone who posed a threat.” Honig doesn’t shy away from the inflammatory assertion that a man who was president acts just like a mob kingpin, and he lays out the similarities.

Marino ordered the murder of his own nephew, Honig writes, telling a confederate, “Do what you have to do.” According to Honig, “Trump showed a similar ability to convey his criminal instructions without quite saying the words out loud” (but of course never to order a murder). Trump, Honig notes, “famously did not email or text.” Even the closest confederate to turn on Trump, his lawyer-fixer Michael Cohen, described the elliptical ways Trump directed him, in private conversations, to engage in illicit conduct. Honig quotes Cohen explaining how he knew that Trump wanted him to lie to Congress about Trump’s plans to build a hotel in Moscow, a project that continued long after Trump publicly claimed it had ended: “I lied about it too because Mr. Trump had made clear to me, through his personal statements to me that we both knew to be false and through his lies to the country, that he wanted me to lie.” Similarly, Honig writes, “Cohen has claimed publicly that it was generally understood in the Trump Organization that it was fine — encouraged, even — to cook the books, and that Trump himself had created and stoked this culture.” So far, Trump has managed to evade responsibility, but his onetime chief financial officer, Allen Weisselberg, wasn’t so lucky. In January, Weisselberg was sentenced to serve five months in jail and five years on probation after pleading guilty in August to 15 counts, including tax fraud, conspiracy and grand larceny.

Honig describes how Trump has attempted to silence those who might turn against him — even before they do. Trump, Honig notes, has adopted a practice, used by mobsters and large corporations, of attempting to control the choice of lawyers by potential witnesses in investigations of his actions. He does this by paying for the witnesses’ counsel, which potentially keeps the client and the attorney obedient and beholden to Trump. Consider Cassidy Hutchinson. The former White House aide testified before the House committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol only after she dropped the lawyer the Trump team had provided for her.

Honig details the way Trump was able to vastly expand his arsenal of defenses after he was imbued with the powers of the presidency. Previous administrations used claims of executive privilege selectively, Honig writes, but “Trump blew the lid off” the practice. “He applied executive privilege across the board, regardless of content or context” — even after he left office, when the doctrine is plainly inapplicable — as a way to thwart criminal and congressional investigators, the author asserts. Honig points out how, with only the thinnest excuses, Trump slurred and/or demoted “key witnesses” in the first impeachment proceedings, targeting government officials who testified against him, including “[Lt. Col.] Alexander Vindman … former Ambassador to the Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch … and former ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland in a public retributive display.” Using his power to reward cohorts, he granted pardons to those who kept their mouths shut, such as Roger Stone, Paul Manafort, Michael Flynn and Steve Bannon.

Beyond the tricks that the powerful employ to their advantage, Honig also identifies institutional biases within the justice system that discourage prosecution of the rich, famous and powerful. For example, the Justice Manual, which guides federal prosecutors across the country, essentially requires an extra layer of review by the Justice Department in cases involving prominent people. And the courts for decades have applied stinting statutory interpretations in corruption cases against public officials, an approach that, frankly, bears little resemblance to the more expansive readings of the laws that govern when the defendants are ordinary citizens.

“Untouchable” becomes especially valuable when Honig provides original reporting and analysis, rather than simply collating items already known to close followers of the news. For eight years, Honig was an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York (sometimes called “the Sovereign District of New York” in a nod to the office’s fabled independence; detractors, however, say the S stands for “Self-impressed”). He has used that access to provide a new account of the conflicts within that office when Cohen turned against Trump and, amid other information, detailed the hush-money payments Cohen made at Trump’s direction right before the 2016 election to Trump’s former paramours Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal. Honig also describes how Trump’s Justice Department appointees required extensive trimming of the draft indictment of Cohen to remove details that would have damaged Trump politically.

Honig is particularly trenchant in his analysis of the criminal investigation led by Fulton County, Ga., District Attorney Fani Willis into Trump’s attempts to influence Georgia election officials. Many commentators have acted as if an indictment is a foregone conclusion, and even a slam-dunk case, because of a recording that Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger made of Trump asking him to “find” more than 11,000 votes that would have allowed Trump to carry the state. Honig, however, sees a line of obstacles for Willis. He cautions that there would be years of litigation, possibly all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, over the federalism issues that would arise if a state prosecutor charged a former president in connection to acts he committed while he was in office. And even if Willis cleared that hurdle, Honig points to a lesser-known federal statute that might force her to try her case in the far-less-hospitable forum of the federal court, rather than in Fulton County, home to Atlanta, where she was elected.

Despite those difficulties, Honig is emphatic that Trump must be prosecuted for his crimes against democracy, but not by a state court prosecutor for a single episode. Rather, he argues, the case must be brought by the Justice Department, which should charge Trump for his scheme to avoid the transfer of power after the 2020 election. Honig is sharply critical of Attorney General Merrick Garland, whom he says has acted with “paralyzing reticence” and has “behaved more like a tepid bureaucrat than a determined prosecutor.” I find Honig’s repeated bashing of Garland for his reluctance to pursue Trump puzzling, since elsewhere Honig indicates where Garland got his marching orders. Before taking office, President-elect Joe Biden made a political calculation. “The new president had already made clear in public that he did not want his Justice Department to pursue Trump,” Honig writes. Biden changed his mind only in April 2022, after seeing the massive evidence assembled by the Jan. 6 committee. Garland’s appointment of a special prosecutor, Jack Smith, followed several months later.

Time will tell if Smith delivers the justice that Honig believes Trump deserves, or if Trump, like countless other powerful figures, slips away unpunished.

Scott Turow, a former federal prosecutor, is the author of the novels “Presumed Innocent” and “Suspect.”

How Powerful People Get Away With It

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