This article has been updated.
Among the various claims made by Donald Trump during his campaign announcement was one that has come back to haunt him.
"Hey, I have lobbyists," Trump said in June 2015. "I have to tell you, I have lobbyists that can produce anything for me. They’re great."
It was an early form of an argument that he has made repeatedly over the course of the campaign: He knows how corrupt the system is because he took advantage of that corruption as a businessman. He put it more aggressively in an interview with the Wall Street Journal a month later.
"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," he told the paper. "As a businessman, I need that."
During the first debate of the Republican primaries, Fox News' Bret Baier questioned Trump on that point.
"You said recently, quote, 'When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,'" Baier said.
"You'd better believe it," Trump replied. He continued:
I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.
That's the pay-for-play Trump has talked about so much recently in another context. He paid; they played. With his characteristic bravado, Trump bragged about being a participant in the corruption that he was setting out to fix.
As far as rhetoric goes, it's a tricky line to walk. But when questions arose about Trump actually giving money to get a benefit from politicians, those comments came back to haunt him.
At issue is a contribution made by Trump's foundation to a political group associated with the attorney general of Florida. The Post's David Fahrenthold has been tracking money flowing in and out of Trump's nonprofit for months, and he reported last week that the organization had to pay a fine for giving to a 527 political organization, a violation of rules governing nonprofits.
- Aug. 2013: New York's attorney general files a lawsuit against Trump, accusing Trump University of perpetrating fraud.
- Sep. 13: The office of the attorney general in Florida says through a spokesperson that it is "reviewing the allegations" in the New York suit. The Orlando Sentinel found that "dozens" of complaints were filed with the state against the school (called "Trump Institute" in Florida), dating to 2008.
- Sep. 17: Justice For All receives a check from the Trump Foundation.
- Oct. 15: Bondi's office hands over documents to CREW indicating that it told reporters that it was never considering joining the New York lawsuit.
This June, a consultant who worked with Bondi's campaign told the Associated Press that Bondi had personally asked for a contribution from Trump, saying the "process took at least several weeks, from the time they spoke to the time they received the contribution."
On Monday, Trump denied that he'd been asked for money. "I never spoke to her, first of all," he said. Bondi is 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," he added. Bondi endorsed Trump in March.
The problem here is obvious. Staffers for Bondi say she didn't know about the Trump University case when she requested the contribution, and there's no smoking gun proving quid pro quo. What there is Trump's record of bragging about how he leveraged quid pro quo on his own behalf.
In Texas, another state where questions have been raised, the situation is different. The state similarly declined to sue Trump University. A former regulator in the attorney general's office in the state says he was told to drop a case against Trump University after the program agreed to stop operating in Texas, CBS News reported in June. At the time, the state's attorney general was Greg Abbott, now Texas's governor. And, like, Bondi, Abbott got contributions from Trump, this time from the man himself.
But those contributions came at least three years after Abbott's office deep-sixed the investigation. "It's absurd to suggest any connection between a case that has been closed and a donation to Governor Abbott three years later," Abbott's spokesman told CBS. That's a fair rebuttal: While Trump may have appreciated the decision by Abbott, it's hard to think that there was some sort of agreement that Trump would wait three years and then give Abbott $35,000. That's 0.07 percent of the total Abbott raised for his election in 2014, a portion that seems unlikely to warrant committing a crime to acquire.
It's because of Florida and because of Trump's big words about corruption that Texas has been looped into the conversation at all. The most generous assessment of what Trump actually did is that he bragged about his savvy and manipulations to impress the listener, in the way that a tough guy might brag about how he gets into fights. When the police come calling to inquire about a string of assaults, though, the tough guy changes his tune.
The most worrisome assessment is that Trump wasn't just bragging and that, at some point, he gave a politician money directly for a political favor.
We generally misunderstand the role of money in politics, which is rarely about direct bribery. Instead, it's about building a relationship, to Trump's point, ensuring that when you call, the politician picks up.
The Bondi situation looks like something more than that, with Trump and the attorney general trying to explain it away in different directions. Had Trump never insisted during the first part of his campaign that he did exactly this, that task would be easier.
Update: On Sept. 14, the New York Times reported that the check from the Trump Foundation was dated four days prior to the Sentinel story.