The day after Scott Pruitt resigned as head of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Norman Eisen and Noah Bookbinder, of the watchdog organization Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, D.C., wrote an op-ed in The New York Times on the ethical trainwreck of Pruitt’s tenure. They recalled a long string of horrors, and then in a plot twist at the end they glimpsed a brighter tomorrow: “Mr. Pruitt’s case demonstrates that in America, no one is above the law and common decency. Even if it’s possible to hold off the flood after the cracks in the dam begin to appear, at some point the dam eventually breaks.”
It’s a consoling, even a cheering, thought—but is it true? Not that I can see. A great many people are above the law, and even more are above common decency—think of the crowds of people cheering every racist or sexist remark Trump makes at his rallies. Bernie Madoff was above the law for many years, until the 2008 crash yanked him downward, and I doubt that his is the only Ponzi scheme there has ever been. Eisen and Bookbinder acknowledge that the flood can be held off but then say that at some point—eventually—it no longer can. But what if “at some point” and “eventually” never arrive? That’s always going to be the case for some people, the ones who don’t live long enough to see it happen.
It also seems all but certain that there are plenty of people above the law and common decency who are getting away with it because they haven’t been caught and never will be. The ProPublica reporter Jesse Eisinger wrote a book elegantly titled The Chickenshit Club: Why the Justice Department Fails to Prosecute Executives, which argues that prosecutors no longer try hard enough to go after the big fish because they want an unbroken record of wins. It would be nice to think that at some point the dam will eventually break, but that doesn’t mean it’s generally true.