Thirty-eight years in prison for a crime he did not commit; originally sentenced to death row, later commuted to life-in-prison; 8 of those years in solitary confinement; stabbed by a fellow inmate after being incorrectly labeled a snitch by corrections officials; granted conditional parole in November 2017.
I had the pleasure of meeting Joe—a thoughtful, educated, hardworking, peaceful man—while visiting friends in Virginia last week. He has been out of prison less than a year. He is learning what it feels like to live free.
This is who I thought of a few days ago when I heard that Michael Cohen, the president’s longtime personal lawyer, confessed in open court that then-candidate Trump directed him to commit a crime in order to win a federal election.
This is who I thought of when I heard that Paul Manafort, the president’s campaign manager during five crucial months, had been convicted on several counts of bank fraud. “Prosecutors built a case that Manafort for years hid millions from U.S. tax authorities in overseas accounts, spending the money to maintain a lavish lifestyle and lying to banks to generate more cash.”
There are now five convicted felons connected with President Trump. He revokes security clearances for lifelong civil servants who dare speak against him. He decries the media as “fake, fake, disgusting news” for not covering him as the beacon of love he ironically espouses himself to be. He has an enemies list.
Yes, an enemies list. But we are supposed to take him seriously, not literally, right?
The Washington Post reports the president has lied more than 4,000 times since taking office and, “not surprisingly, immigration is the top single source of Trump’s misleading claims, now totaling 538. Thirty times just in the past five months, for instance, the president has falsely claimed his long-promised border wall with Mexico is being built, even though Congress has denied funding for it.”
I can already hear the arguments: But I’m pro-life and/or pro-gun. The main stream media is #FakeNews. Immigrants are taking over our country. Democrats are obstructionists. I still would not have voted for Hillary Clinton. We did not elect a saint, we elected a businessman.
And yet, to quote John Dean advising President Nixon back in 1973, it feels overwhelmingly like “We have a cancer within-close to the presidency, that’s growing. It’s growing daily. It’s compounding.”
Cohen’s lawyer, Lanny Davis, tweeted in part, “Donald Trump directed him to commit a crime by making payments to two women for the principal purpose of influencing an election. If those payments were a crime for Michael Cohen, then why wouldn’t they be a crime for Donald Trump?”
And conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens tweeted, “I’ve been skeptical about the wisdom and merit of impeachment. Cohen’s guilty plea changes that. The president is clearly guilty of high crimes and misdemeanors. He should resign his office or be impeached and removed from office.”
All of this brings me back to Joe, a man imprisoned and almost put to death multiple times for a crime he did not commit. For all the talk of impeachment and justice and the rule of law, I have zero faith in our supposed system, in the rule of law, that the president or any of the admitted felons who surround him will, in the end, pay much at all for their many crimes.
“When you’re a star, they let you do it,” Donald Trump once said, and boy was he right. “You can do anything. Grab ’em by the pussy. You can do anything.” And therein lies the stomach-churning travesty of this sick joke of a presidency.
It was such an honor to meet Joe, to spend time in his presence. He now works for the Innocence Project, a program whose goal is to “free those who have been wrongfully convicted, and reform our criminal justice system.”
It was enlightening to have lunch with Joe and mutual friends in a Tibetan restaurant, to get a tour of his (first?) apartment, to hear about what it feels like to know you are hours from death only to be “stayed,” and to listen to him directly and truthfully answer any question, anything we asked, about what it was like to spend his entire adult life thus far, 38 years, wrongfully imprisoned.
At a 2017 Iowa campaign rally, the future president of the United States said, ”I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody, and I wouldn’t lose any voters.”
Turns out he can. This is what it looks like to be free and rich and untouchable, even criminal, in America, while a man like Joe spends 38 years in prison. This is how our system works. Take it both literally and seriously.