Democracy Dies in Darkness

The Plum Line | Opinion

Mulvaney to bankers: Here’s how the game works

April 25, 2018 at 4:00 PM

(Aaron P. Bernstein/Reuters)

When Donald Trump campaigned for president, he repeatedly explained how his extensive experience as a business executive dealing with politicians made him uniquely qualified to clean house in Washington. As he put it: “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

Many voters took statements such as this to mean Trump would actually “drain the swamp.” Instead, President Trump has set off a tidal wave of corporate kowtowing and currying of favor that in another country we might call corruption.

Here’s the latest example, courtesy of Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget director and temporary head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB).

Speaking Tuesday to a conference hosted by the American Bankers Association, a trade and lobbying group, Mulvaney — a former congressman — explained how Washington works. Via The Post’s James Hohmann, here’s what he said:

“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” Mulvaney said. “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”

Mulvaney’s helpful tutorial for lobbyists came near the end of his presentation, after he told them he will try to end public access to a database for consumer complaints about the financial services industry, a change long sought by the sector. As he put it, his role as head of the CFPB does not oblige him “to run a Yelp for financial services sponsored by the federal government.”

Mulvaney is also promoting legislation that would end the CFPB’s financial independence from politicians by changing its funding stream from the Federal Reserve to Congress, where, presumably, lawmakers meeting with financial services lobbyists (who have been generous with their checkbooks) might have something to say about how the CFPB should operate.

This isn’t all that Mulvaney has done for the financial services sector. Over the past several months, Mulvaney, who has called the CFPB a “sick, sad” joke, has made strenuous efforts to make those words a reality. Under his watch, the CFPB has closed or scaled down numerous investigations of financial services malfeasance, including in areas such as discriminatory lending and payday loans.

It must be just a coincidence that the payday-loan biz gave Mulvaney just under $32,000 in the 2015-2016 election cycle.

All of this is of a piece with the Trump administration, where campaign promises to drain the swamp have given way to a remarkably ambitious expansion of it.

Trump successfully presided over Republican tax reform legislation that would almost certainly result in him saving hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars annually — we can’t be certain, because even as he did this, he steadfastly refused to release his tax returns.

Trump’s Washington hotel is basically an official stop for foreign diplomats and others who would like the administration to look kindly on them. The main organizations now using Mar-a-Lago to host events are right-wing activist groups. Trump has repeatedly made it clear that companies that displease him will be punished, while his administration will smile upon those that have his back.

Ethical quagmires are everywhere. There’s Environmental Protection Agency head Scott Pruitt, who rented a condo at below-market rates from the wife of an energy industry lobbyist. Federal Communications Commission head Ajit Pai? He’s under investigation by his own agency for possibly timing new network-ownership rules to benefit Sinclair Broadcasting. Multiple current and former administration figures have produced questionable first-class and government travel bills.

To be fair to Mulvaney, he did take a moment to explain how constituents could get his ear. “If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions,” he said. Great to hear!

There’s a famous line by journalist Michael Kinsley that says a gaffe is when a politician accidentally tells the truth. But in his speech, Mulvaney committed no such thing. He wanted his message to be heard loud and clear. The Trump administration and the GOP are open for business. Ladies and gentlemen, if you haven’t opened your wallets yet, please do so now.

Helaine Olen is a contributor to Post Opinions and the author of "Pound Foolish: Exposing the Dark Side of the Personal Finance Industry." Her work has appeared in Slate, the Nation, the New York Times, the Atlantic and many other publications. She serves on the advisory board of the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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