A number of observers have been wondering why there hasn’t been more media attention paid to David Fahrenthold’s report finding that Donald Trump paid a penalty to the IRS after it emerged that Trump’s charitable foundation had violated the law with a contribution to a campaign organization linked to the Florida Attorney General, at the time she was probing allegations about Trump University.
It’s a good question, given that revelations about Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation are regularly deemed newsworthy on the grounds that they merely “raise questions,” even if the answers to those questions aren’t necessarily nefarious.
But there has been some media pressure on Trump to respond to questions about this, and per this report in the Post, he has now denied anything improper occurred:
Donald Trump on Monday dismissed questions about his failure to disclose an improper $25,000 contribution in 2013 to a political group connected to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was at the time considering whether to open a fraud investigation against Trump University.
The donation, made by the Donald J. Trump Foundation, violated federal rules that prohibit charities from donating to political candidates. Trump and his team also failed to disclose the gift to the Internal Revenue Service, instead reporting that the donation was given to an unrelated group with a similar name — effectively obscuring the contribution.
“I never spoke to her, first of all. She’s a fine person, beyond reproach. I never even spoke to her about it at all. She’s a fine person. Never spoken to her about it, never,” Trump said Monday while campaigning in Ohio. “Many of the attorney generals turned that case down because I’ll win that case in court. Many turned that down. I never spoke to her.”
Marc Reichelderfer — who worked as a consultant on Bondi’s reelection effort — told the Associated Press in June that Bondi spoke with Trump and solicited the donation herself. Reichelderfer said that Bondi had not been aware of the complaints against Trump University when she asked for the contribution.
Now, it is perfectly possible, as Trump says, that nothing untoward was intended in this case, and it really was the result of a series of errors.
But here’s one thing we do know: Trump himself has given a lot of money to politicians for the express purpose of getting them to do his bidding.
We know this, because Trump repeatedly confirmed it to be the case himself, during the GOP primaries. And while this fact might not tell us anything more about the situation involving the Florida attorney general, it does point to something interesting about the limits of Trump’s bravado, and the new political constraints he’s now operating under in the general election.
In July of 2015, Trump, who was then getting attacked by his GOP rivals for having donated money to Hillary Clinton, justified it this way in an interview with the Wall Street Journal:
“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,” Mr. Trump said. “As a businessman, I need that.”
At a subsequent GOP debate in August of 2015, Trump was pressed on his claim that politicians “do whatever the hell you want them to do” when you give them money, and that this is why he does that. He replied: “You better believe it.” And he also said:
“When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”
In one sense, of course, Trump was speaking in a refreshingly unvarnished way about a real problem with our system — big donors get rewarded with more access to public officials, and even sometimes with more influence over them. And to reiterate, these comments don’t necessarily tell us anything about what Trump did or didn’t do with regard to the attorney general of Florida. Nor does all of this negate the fact that Clinton has a perception problem of her own in this regard: Recent national polls — one from Suffolk, the other from Monmouth — have shown that majorities either don’t think Clinton took sufficient steps to avoid conflicts of interest when it came to donors to the Clinton Foundation or think that those donors were rewarded with special treatment.
But as Philip Bump points out, what this does mean is that we have a “record” of Trump’s own extensive “bragging about how he leveraged quid pro quo on his own behalf.”
What’s more, it should be noted that this was more than merely a defense against charges that Trump had previously given to Democrats. It was a key argument Trump made to GOP primary voters: That he is uniquely qualified to bust up and reform our corrupt political system, because he is intimately familiar with how that corruption works — from the inside. At a GOP debate as recently as March, he said:
“These super PACs are a disaster, by the way, folks. Very corrupt….There is total control of the candidates, I know it better than anybody that probably ever lived….I know it so well because I was on both sides of it, I was on the other side all my life and I’ve always made large contributions. And frankly, I know the system better than anybody else, and I’m the only one up here that’s going to be able to fix that system, because that system is wrong.”
In other words, Trump’s argument was that he gets how badly the system is rigged against you by bought-and-paid-for politicians, because he has bought and paid for politicians himself. That actually was his explicit argument, and it was one he made repeatedly.
That sort of bravado worked in the primaries, as long as it was kept very general, and as long as it was pitched to GOP primary voters, who perhaps thrilled at his brash unmasking of the truth about corrupt weenie elite politicians. But now that he’s in a general election, and he’s facing the intense scrutiny that entails, the specifics of what this might have meant in practice are now getting forced out into the open. Nor is this sort of chest-thumping bravado an adequate defense against it. Indeed, memories of it may inspire even more scrutiny now. Or they should, anyway.