The Next Best Thing to Trump as Special Topic



I have read about several faculty members who are using the Trump presidency as the topic for courses in various disciplines. When I was younger, I would have been tempted to try to develop a composition course around the topic, but with age, I have become somewhat less recklessly masochistic.

But I think that I may have stumbled on a safer alternative.

The trial of Martin Shkreli for fraud is underway. If the jury selection process and the opening statements are any indication, the trial will do to the legal system what Trump’s election has done to the political system: specifically, it will make one wonder what has happened to very basic rhetorical standards and norms of behavior.

Shkreli is the guy whose biopharmaceutical company Retrophin raised the price of Daraprim, a drug used to treat newborns and HIV patients, from $13.50/pill to $750/pill, a 5000% increase. In the public appearances in which he blithely attempted to defend this price gouging, Shkreli became a sillier and yet much creepier real-life version of that fictional king of greed from the Reagan era, Gordon Gecko. It has not helped that Shkreli’s surname brings to mind some sort of demonic beast with fevered eyes, bloody gums, and tentacles.

But Shkreli is actually not being tried for his price gouging. He also ran a hedge fund, and when he made some bad stock choices, he allegedly turned the fund into a Ponzi scheme, using new investments to disguise the losses on the existing investors’ accounts. Then, when the Ponzi scheme was on the verge of collapse, he allegedly defrauded the holders of Retrophin stock by redirecting millions in profits from the drug company to the hedge fund.

During the jury-selection process, more than 250 prospective jurors had to be rejected because they openly expressed their disdain for Shkreli. This total is truly remarkable when one considers that jurors are asked to fill out questionnaires that allow them to be screened for any bias against the defendant prior to the in-court jury selection.

Given the predisposition of most prospective jurors to want to punish Shkreli for something—for anything—it is perhaps not surprising that his attorney should attempt to minimize his criminality in a variety of not entirely—or, at times, not even tenuously—coherent suggestions. All in all, the attorney’s opening statement is a fairly astounding piece of rhetoric.

In it, the attorney argued that the investors defrauded by Shkreli really did not lose all that much, and he surrounded that assertion with straw-man arguments and distracting details:

They are “crybabies” and high rollers, not people who needed money for rent or food, he told the jury, which is largely made up of working-class people, judging from the job descriptions given during jury selection.

These investors, he said, knew investing in hedge funds generally, and this hedge fund particularly, was risky; they also made a lot of money with Mr. Shkreli.

One “inherited a hedge fund from her daddy” and invested that with Mr. Shkreli. A “fabulously wealthy” couple was “on the dysfunctional spectrum” themselves, tried to “adopt” Mr. Shkreli (not formally, Mr. Brafman clarified) and gave him religious advice. One of the Retrophin board members, he said, “was flying to Mykonos or some other island and Martin Shkreli was like a hermit in his office” working away.

Once, after an investor encountered Mr. Shkreli in the slippers-and-stethoscope get-up when he dropped by the office, the investor said, “But Martin, you’re not a doctor,” according to Mr. Brafman. Mr. Shkreli responded, “I’m comfortable this way,” the lawyer said.

“Maybe he’s just nuts, but that doesn’t make you guilty,” Mr. Brafman said. (Clifford)

Yet, somehow, despite repeated assertions of Shkreli’s “genius”–largely based on his managing to make all of his investors “whole” again before he was indicted–his attorney has suggested that Shkreli himself may have ultimately been the real victim:

Some board members at Retrophin, many twice Mr. Shkreli’s age, “bullied” and “frightened” Mr. Shkreli, Mr. Brafman said, and questioned his sexuality.

“Whether Martin is gay or straight or bisexual is irrelevant; it’s 2017,” Mr. Brafman said. “Get a life, board of Retrophin. The Retrophin board? A bunch of thugs.” (Clifford)

After emphasizing that Shkreli entertained another potential investor while wearing “fluffy slippers,” his attorney attempted to frame the allegations of Shkreli’s criminality as a failure to appreciate his eccentric genius and even a failure to have sympathy for the ways in which his eccentricities encouraged cruel innuendo about him:

Martin Shkreli is odd, his attorney told a federal court on Wednesday. The former hedge-fund manager’s investors and colleagues made fun of him behind his back and wondered whether he was autistic. Some questioned his sexuality, the jury was told.

“Is he strange? Yes. Will you find him weird? Yes,” said Shkreli attorney Benjamin Brafman. “But [his investors] used his genius and made millions. . . . Despite his flaws and dysfunctional personality, Martin Shkreli is brilliant beyond words.”

After struggling for more than two days to seat a jury, Shkreli’s attorney spoke directly to the Brooklyn native’s reputation as the worst of Wall Street.

“As Lady Gaga would say: He was born this way,” Brafman said. . . .

Even after being indicted, [Shkreli] struggled to take his attorney’s advice to stay quiet, continuing to battle critics on Twitter and hold hours-long talks about his life on YouTube. . . .

While the prosecutor repeatedly called him a liar, Shkreli took notes and then smiled at one point.

In defending Shkreli, Brafman echoed the argument Shkreli himself offered in defending his price hike: He might be obnoxious. He might be outrageous. But what he did was not illegal. It was capitalism at work.

Brafman appealed to the egos of  the seven women and five men chosen for the jury: They had survived more than two days of intense questions and were “savvy New Yorkers” and would be able to use their “street smarts” to see that Shkreli is not guilty.

“You can’t convict him for the people skills he lacked,” he said.  “If you want to call him names, call him names—just don’t call him guilty.”

When Brafman finished speaking, Shkreli stood and hugged him. (Merle)

Shkreli and his attorney, or reasonable facsimiles, really ought to be guests on Comedy Central’s The Trump Show. Now that would be a meeting of the minds.

Postscript: I wrote this post last evening, before Trump’s tweets about Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski, in which he dubbed them “Crazy Mika” (and “Low IQ Mika”) and “Psycho Joe” and in which he claimed that she showed up at a Mar-a-Lago holiday celebration still bleeding from a face lift. As Shkreli’s attorney might say, I rest my case.


The italicized passages are from news reports written by Renae Merle for the Washington Post (available at and by Stephanie Clifford for the New York Times (available at:


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