Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away with It

Image of Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away with It
Release Date: 
January 31, 2023
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“For those who have spent the last several years sharpening their knives with Trump in their sights, Untouchable may offer justification, while Trump defenders will likely rail against this as yet another in a long line of partisan witch hunts.”

From Gerald Ford’s pardon of Richard Nixon to Kenneth Starr’s reluctance to prosecute Bill Clinton for perjury, and right on up to the seeming lack of will of prosecutors to hold Donald Trump criminally responsible for his malfeasance, Americans have been sent a clear signal: There are indeed those who are above the law in this nation of laws. That begs the question: Are they truly above the law or have they simply perfected the art of insulating themselves from liability?

Former federal prosecutor and current CNN legal analyst Elie Honig tackles that political hot potato in his new book Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away with It. The subtitle appears to provide his answer: Powerful people, such as presidents, know how to game the system and evade comeuppance for their misdeeds through a series of gambits designed to split the hook of culpability; gambits not available to mere mortals like the rest of us.

But it wasn’t politicians who initially conceived the stratagem. It was the mob. Politicians merely perfected it, aided by a political system in which half the country generally clamors for accountability while the other half screams for exoneration. That, itself, distinguishes politicians from mobsters. The latter don’t have the public relations machinery, nor the bully pulpits, of so-called public servants.

After all, mobsters are professional criminals, right? While politicians are . . . amateur criminals? Or are they simply better positioned to survive because of the United States’ two-party system?

For Honig, the conversation on the subject never drifts far from Donald Trump, whom he describes as “a lawless Houdini, repeatedly escaping (and at times being rescued from) the clutches of law enforcement.” It’s hard to tell whether the author has a vendetta against Trump or whether the former president is simply the latest, most visible, most convenient, and perhaps most flagrant, example of his thesis. As the saying goes, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.

His point, for which Trump is a convenient poster boy, is that there are those in our society who are treated differently from the rest of us. He writes: “[I]f you look at the statue of Lady Justice, as she holds the scales of justice in her hands, you’ll notice that she’s not actually blind. She wears a blindfold. Occasionally, as it turns out, she takes a peek to see who’s in front of her.”

The author walks the reader through myriad tools and tactics the rich and powerful use to escape justice. The most notable tools are money and power. But they also include time-honored mob traditions of insulating one’s self from the foot soldiers who carry out orders transmitted through multiple layers, often delivered in the first instance in vague, but implied, terms; witness intimidation; buying the silence of witnesses; providing the best, and most numerous, attorneys—you know, if one attorney is good, 12 are better; and manipulating inherent systemic biases.

Honig cites example after example of the use of these tactics by organized crime, but for him, as noted, all roads lead to Trump. He concludes with a section bluntly entitled “Pursuing Donald Trump,” in which he tracks myriad potential criminal cases that could be brought against the former president. For the most part, he concludes that those cases may never be brought, often because of a lack of will to pursue a difficult, politically explosive prosecution.

But that is no excuse, he says, throwing down the gauntlet to prosecutors, both state and federal. “You don’t slink away because a case looks challenging or imposing, or because a defendant is simply too powerful to pursue.”

The author touches briefly on other so-called “untouchables” like Jeffrey Epstein, Harvey Weinstein, and Bill Cosby, although they ultimately were “touched,” albeit belatedly. To their victims, the ultimate “touch” may well seem like merely a glancing blow because these men were able to elude justice for years, if not decades. One wonders if they made the calculation that dancing with the devil is worth it provided you can delay paying the piper—and if you delay long enough, maybe you can escape making that payment altogether.

Most of what the author discusses is arguably old news, but the book does gather it all in a singular place. For those who have spent the last several years sharpening their knives with Trump in their sights, Untouchable may offer justification, while Trump defenders will likely rail against this as yet another in a long line of partisan witch hunts. As with everything in politics, there are two sides to the question, with the view from both sides blurred by political filters.

The ultimate question left unanswered by Untouchable is whether Donald Trump will ever be “touched,” no matter how lightly. “For years this one extraordinarily powerful man, unburdened by ethics, shame, or even a logical sense of self-preservation, has floated above the law, often while pissing down on it—first as president and then, more confoundingly, as a private citizen stripped of the unique protections afforded only to the sitting occupant of the Oval Office.

Few can legitimately deny that the justice system often does seem skewed in favor of the rich and powerful. But, as Honig concludes, “Sometimes the fight itself is worth it. And imperfect justice is preferable to no justice at all.”