When Donald Trump declared himself essentially above the law last month, he opened a new and disturbing chapter in the history of presidential power. But as Trump the man, he was playing by the same old book as always, and while America at large might be surprised by his hubris, New Yorkers have been dealing with it for decades. Indeed, many of the postures, strategies and gimmicks Trump has employed as commander in chief he perfected as a Manhattan real estate mogul. And while he seems obsessed to the point of paranoia about unlawful elements entering the country via the Mexican border, he has never had a problem with criminal elements in his own backyard—especially if they help him make more of the almighty dollar.
For a classic example of Trump’s attitude toward the law—and his fellow human beings—one need look no further than the Polish Brigade debacle.
In 1980, when Trump began construction on his titular 5th Avenue high-rise, he ran into a small problem: there was another building in his way. But Trump didn’t relent; he knocked it down. The building was the Bonwit Teller, a ornate architectural landmark with an elaborate grillwork and facade. Trump promised to preserve the most important architectural pieces, but he didn’t. And instead of demolishing the building using proper technology and unionized workers, he brought in scores of undocumented workers to take down the building with nothing but sledgehammers in the dead of winter. These workers—later determined to be immigrants from Poland—received no hard hats, no goggles, and no masks. They worked twelve hours a day, seven days a week, sleeping onsite at night despite the freezing temperatures. They were promised the meager (and illegal) sum of four dollars an hour, but mostly they were not paid at all. When one intrepid worker finally sued Trump for unpaid wages, the judge awarded $325,000 in damages, plus interest. The whole scam was oiled and managed by unions who were themselves in the pockets of mafia, who in turn lined the pockets of Trump’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, and Trump himself. As a result, Trump’s racket went unchecked for months, and one of New York’s iconic buildings went up on the backs of exploited immigrant laborers.
All this might seem to contradict some of President Trump’s oft-tweeted sentiments about immigrants, swamp-clearing and the common man, but it all makes sense if you take Trump at his word and see America—and the presidency—as a business. Yes, Trump might rail against “criminal” immigrants who break the law, and yes, he might posture against corruption in the name of populism, but Trump’s notions of ethics and accountability stem directly from whatever makes him the most money. And if that means he employs undocumented immigrants one day, cheats them the next, and bars them from the country years later, so be it. In Trump’s view, government is nothing more than a glorified cartel, where the powerful set the prices and the law is whatever the market deems good. It’s an attitude he’s taken straight from his real estate dealings all the way to the White House, and his attitude toward the Russia investigation is just the latest maneuver in a series of fiats backed by wealth.
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