In a way, it’s fitting that we’re learning of Paul Manafort’s lenient sentence just as House Democrats have voted on and passed H.R. 1, a sprawling anti-corruption, pro-democracy piece of legislation that constitutes an ambitious and comprehensive Democratic blueprint for draining the swamp in the Trump era.
President Trump’s former campaign chairman has been sentenced to only 47 months in prison for multiple financial crimes, far less than sentencing guidelines recommended. Lawmakers and public defenders immediately pointed out that this revealed hideous racial and wealth-based disparities in sentencing.
Writing at the Atlantic, Franklin Foer detailed Manafort’s decades of work on behalf of tax-dodging multinational corporations and murderous authoritarians, his dalliances with international oligarchs and his own “industrial scale” tax evasion via offshore accounts. As Foer notes, all throughout, "he acted with impunity, as if the laws never applied to him.”
Manafort is going to prison, but his light sentence might not do much to disabuse him of that notion. In this sense, Manafort stands as a reminder that the Trump presidency, in so many ways, reflects a much larger crisis of elite corruption and impunity.
After all, we are now in the midst of discovering whether Trump can indulge in industrial-scale wrongdoing, misconduct, corrupt self-dealing, and likely criminality with impunity, as if rules and laws don’t apply to him.
The Democrats’ bill, which just passed the House on a party-line vote, offers the foundation for the Democratic answer to this.
A blend of corruption and plutocracy
Trump came to office by promising to drain the swamp of elite corruption and take on the plutocrats who rig our political economy to enrich themselves. Those promises were immediately tossed aside, and we are now consumed in a debate over whether our system has an answer to what the real Trumpism has turned out to be — a particularly toxic blend of corruption and plutocracy.
We have learned from Trump’s longtime former lawyer Michael Cohen that his tax returns may contain the clues to extensive financial fraud, including gaming assets for insurance and tax avoidance purposes. Cohen also told us that Trump’s tax returns might illuminate how extensive tax fraud vastly inflated the size of Trump’s inherited fortune.
Trump’s ascension to the presidency itself rests to no small degree on that foundation of fraud, since that inherited fortune helped bolster Trump’s self-made businessman mystique despite being vastly inflated through nefarious means, which he concealed by refusing to release those returns.
Trump’s tax returns might also shed light on his corruption in office — on his extensive self-dealing in potential violation of the Constitution, and on how he personally profited off of the massive corporate tax cut he signed. That tax cut was an enormous giveaway to America’s corporate elites. And as Brian Beutler has detailed, the plutocrats who reaped the gains helped Trump sell the plan by actively helping to create the illusion that it was pro-worker, demonstrating the seamy overlap between their bottom lines and his self-dealing.
There is no legal requirement that a presidential candidate release his tax returns. Major candidates have done so for decades because they recognize an obligation to the public. Trump wiped his shoes on this obligation, and thus has exploited the lack of any such requirement to get elected and then to enrich himself with his office.
Thus, as Will Wilkinson writes, Trump’s presidency represents “the apotheosis of the crooked class." He not only relied on a tax system that facilitates gaming and the evasion of accountability to create the mystique that got him elected; once in office, Wilkinson points out, Trump furthered this on behalf of that class: “The IRS has been starved of resources, audits of big corporations and the wealthy are down, and big banks and corporations have been given more leeway to rip people off with impunity.”
The Democratic anti-corruption bill
The bill that Democrats voted on today would drain that swamp. It would require major presidential candidates to release 10 years of tax returns and require that presidents and vice presidents divest to avoid financial conflicts of interest. It would bolster transparency on campaign spending and fortify ethics rules constraining lobbyists in all kinds of ways. It would thwart voter suppression and extreme gerrymanders while making participation easier. Political scientist Lee Drutman has described the bill as “the most transformative pro-democracy package in decades.”
The GOP Senate will, of course, refuse any vote on the bill. But in so doing, as Jacob Levy says, Republicans will demonstrate that they don’t believe their ideas can triumph without “election-rigging.” And they will leave behind Democrats as the sole party of real reform.
And amid a great deal of talk about Democratic division, this is an agenda that actually commands a great deal of unity. There is disagreement among Democrats over how to break the outsize influence and power of the wealthy, with some favoring higher taxes than others and some leaning harder into structural economic reforms than others.
But this bill shows massive consensus around a set of proposals that would counter elite corruption and influence. Last fall, more than 100 House Democratic candidates campaigned on a letter supporting such reforms — and they came from all types of districts. The group End Citizens United closely tracks what the 2020 Democratic hopefuls support on campaign finance issues, and they note that all the top tier candidates have gravitated toward a much more robust reform agenda by unifying against taking corporate PAC and lobbyist money.
This broad reform agenda helped elect a Democratic House in 2018. And it will likely be central to the agenda that Democrats rally around in 2020, as part of a vow to carry out the unrigging and swamp-draining that Trump promised — and reneged upon.