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Column: History suggests Trump may once again emerge unscathed


Former President Donald Trump has now been convicted of a felony, the first chief executive of the United States to have that unfortunate distinction, in a case involving payments to two women to keep quiet.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg and others note that this proves, “no one is above the law.”

However, the strong counterargument is that Trump is a special target. Bragg, along with New York State Attorney General Letitia James, promised to “get” Trump during their campaigns for office. She has also succeeded, with the former president convicted in a bench trial of massive civil fraud.

Both judgments may be overturned on appeal. Bragg’s predecessor, Cyrus Vance Jr., declined to pursue the case. The charge then was a misdemeanor, but that statute of limitations ran out. Bragg therefore upped the charge to a felony, even though the alleged facts are unchanged.

Lost in the current — seemingly endless — media accusation, speculation and blame-casting, is the fact that Trump is a remarkable long-term survivor.

Serious crime reporter Ovid Demaris provides valuable insight in his important book, “The Boardwalk Jungle.” The volume is an in-depth history and analysis of criminal enterprises in New Jersey, especially over the past half-century, including Trump’s involvement.

In 1974, voters in New Jersey rejected legalizing gambling, but in 1976, they collectively changed their minds, or at least a sufficient number did. In a new referendum, voters approved legalizing gambling, but only in licensed casinos in Atlantic City.

That city has a long, extremely colorful and disturbing history as a lucrative center of illegal activity by organized crime. During Prohibition, the city became an enormous offloading port for illegal liquor. State and local authorities simply did not enforce the law, turned a collective blind eye to massive criminal activity and profited accordingly.

Political boss Enoch “Nucky” Johnson was chief executive of an efficiently run, and at times brutally violent, organization that implemented, regulated and profited from this activity. The successful television series “Boardwalk Empire” (not to be confused with Mr. Demaris’ book) dramatizes this fascinating and important history.

The end of Prohibition heralded the long-term decline of traditional organized crime in the U.S., but Atlantic City remained a bastion of corruption. The principal Philadelphia mafia family, headed for many years by Angelo Bruno, oversaw a relatively stable environment.

Introduction of legalized gambling in Atlantic City led the much more violent organized crime families in New York to take large, active investment positions. Suddenly and effectively, a shotgun blast removed Bruno when he thought he was in safe territory.

Atlantic City became completely open for many aggressive new investors. Trump joined in, highly visible.

However, the bygone world of Nucky Johnson was not going to return, thankfully, and legalized gambling also opened the door to aggressive, often imaginative criminal prosecution. The Banking Secrecy Act of 1970 provided important new enforcement opportunities by requiring banks by law to cooperate with investigations of potential money laundering.

The FBI ABSCAM sting operation resulted in the conviction of seven members of the U.S. Congress, including one senator, and others. Numerous public officials, gamblers and entrepreneurs, have fallen afoul of the law, plus extremely aggressive enforcement of regulations.

In 1984, the Atlantic City hotel/casino named for Trump opened. In 2014, the business folded. Investor Carl Icahn bought the deed, shielding Trump.

Trump, unlike others, provided no incriminating audio or video evidence, and faced no criminal prosecution.

Maybe his luck has changed. Then again, maybe not.

Arthur I. Cyr is  author of “After the Cold War” (Palgrave Macmillan and NYU Press).

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