Donald Trump used to have a simple theory for how politicians worked. “When you give,” he said last year, “they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”
Now, this year’s Trump seems to think last year’s Trump was wrong.
The Republican nominee is facing new scrutiny over a 2013 episode where his pay-to-play theory of politics seemed to work perfectly — and casting it, instead, as an innocent transaction with no strings attached.
Back then, Trump’s charitable foundation gave a $25,000 donation to a group backing the reelection of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi. Then, Bondi’s office made a decision that benefited Trump: It declined to pursue an investigation into fraud claims against Trump University.
That case fits an old pattern in Trump’s political giving. Unlike wealthy executives who spread their money broadly — loyal to the same candidates or ideologies year after year — Trump’s gifts have been tightly focused on his own personal and business needs.
He raised money for Jeb Bush while lobbying Bush’s allies to soften the governor’s opposition to casino gambling. He started giving to Virginia state candidates after purchasing a golf course and, later, a winery in the state. And he backed two county commissioners in Palm Beach County, Fla., amid a dispute over airport noise at his Mar-a-Lago estate.
But this week, Trump is no longer playing the self-funding insurgent, and Bondi is one of his prominent supporters. Now, Trump has adopted the same line as many career politicians: that political donations are not always intended to buy favors.
By implication, he is defending the very system that last year’s Trump said he knew, disdained and wanted to fix.
“I’ve just known Pam Bondi for years,” Trump said this week.
The 2013 donation to the pro-Bondi group, And Justice For All, resurfaced after The Washington Post reported that Trump had paid a $2,500 tax penalty on his gift.
That penalty was triggered by a narrow tax issue. Trump’s donation had been paid by the Donald J. Trump Foundation, not out of Trump’s own pocket. The Internal Revenue Service prohibits such nonprofit groups from making political gifts.
Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s campaign — stung by criticism of Clinton’s relationships with donors to the Clinton Foundation — has seized on the Bondi donation to make a broader attack on Trump’s character.
Clinton spokesman Brian Fallon has tweeted about the tax penalty 28 times since The Post reported it on Sept. 1, often exhorting other media outlets to cover the donation. Clinton told reporters Monday that there are “so many things that are questionable” about the Trump donation to Bondi, while her husband, former president Bill Clinton, sought Wednesday to draw a distinction between the Clinton and Trump foundations.
“My charity helps people,” he said during an appearance in Orlando. “[Trump’s] is used to pay off your attorney general.”
This year, the Associated Press reported that Bondi — first elected in 2010 — personally solicited a gift from Trump in 2013. The donation arrived in September, a few days after news reports indicated that Bondi’s office was reviewing complaints against Trump’s real estate seminar company.
Afterward, Bondi’s office declined to pursue the case. Trump University, which has ceased operations, is still facing three other lawsuits, including one from the New York attorney general. The lawsuits allege that Trump University engaged in deceptive advertising practices, including by telling potential seminar participants that course instructors had been hand-selected by Trump when they had not been.
In Florida this week, Bondi’s office has said that Trump’s gift had no influence on her handling of the Trump University case. Her spokesman, Gerald Whitney Ray, said Bondi was not involved in the decision not to pursue an investigation.
“The matter never rose to the attorney general’s level for any decision of any kind,” Ray wrote in an email to The Post.
The Post asked Ray to provide a timeline identifying when Bondi asked Trump for the donation and when she learned about her office’s work on Trump University. Ray did not respond.
For Trump, the answer to this kind of question used to be easier.
Did he use money to influence politicians?
“I’ve given to everybody. Because that was my job. I gotta give to them,” Trump said at a campaign rally in Iowa in January. “Because when I want something, I get it. When I call, they kiss my ass.”
A look back at Trump’s history of political giving shows that his donations followed his business interests, much more than they followed any political philosophy.
In 1988, for instance, the New York businessman founded a political action committee in Florida called the Noise Pollution Action Fund.
That committee had a narrow purpose. It was focused on elections in just one county, Palm Beach, and concerned with just one issue, low-flying airplanes from a nearby airport. Trump’s real concern was that the planes made too much noise over his beachfront estate, Mar-a-Lago.
That foray into local South Florida politics did not go well. Two candidates supported by the Noise Pollution Action Fund lost.
Almost a decade later, Trump made another targeted effort to influence state politicians in Florida. He wanted to soften Republican opposition to casinos in the state so he could operate one in partnership with a local Indian tribe.
That, also, did not pan out.
Trump hosted a $500-a-head fundraiser at his Trump Tower apartment for Bush, who was then running for governor. Trump donated $50,000 to Florida’s Republican Party.
The casino was never built. During a GOP presidential debate, when Bush was running against Trump, the former governor taunted the businessman with that failure. “You wanted it, and you didn’t get it,” Bush said.
“I promise,” Trump retorted. “If I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”
In more recent years, as Trump University came under greater scrutiny by state regulators, Trump made donations to attorneys general in four states.
He gave $5,000 to California’s Kamala Harris (D), whose office said she is still looking into allegations against Trump University. He gave $12,500 to New York’s Eric Schneiderman (D), who later filed suit against Trump University.
Trump also gave $35,000 total in 2013 and 2014 to Greg Abbott, who was then the Texas attorney general and running for governor.
Several years before, while Abbott was attorney general, his office had investigated Trump University. That case ended in 2010, with Trump University agreeing to shut down all its operations in Texas. A spokesman for Abbott, now the governor, said Abbott had not ever spoken to Trump until 2013, long after the Trump University investigation had concluded.
“It would be absurd to suggest any connection between a case that has been closed and a donation to Governor Abbott three years later,” said the spokesman, Matt Hirsch.
Of all those cases, it was the Florida case — the donation to Bondi — that seemed the best fit to Trump’s old puppet-master theory about the effect of big money in politics. “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it,” Trump said at the GOP convention.
Now, it has become an obstacle for this year’s Trump, whose campaign has pivoted to cast Clinton as the true master of the broken system. Pointing to newly released State Department emails showing that Clinton Foundation donors had access to agency officials under Clinton, Trump said last month: “It’s called pay-for-play, and some of these were really, really bad. . . . You’re paying and you’re getting things.”
When asked about his gift to Bondi, Trump first told reporters, “I never spoke to her about it at all.”
Later, Trump’s campaign spokeswoman said that Trump had actually spoken to Bondi but only about the donation. They have never spoken about Trump University, according to the spokeswoman Hope Hicks.
There are a number of possible reasons for Trump’s shift in rhetoric. For one thing, Trump is now actively working to fundraise for his campaign, attending the same kind of closed-door events with wealthy donors that he once criticized. His campaign has also signaled its support for the assistance of big-money super PACs, which he once denounced.
In addition, there is an important legal difference between talking in general about buying political influence — and talking about a specific instance where influence was bought.
It is illegal for an elected official to accept a campaign contribution in direct exchange for taking government action. It’s also illegal for a private citizen to make that kind of donation.