At a rally in Austin, Texas, in August 2016, then-candidate Donald Trump declared, “It’s impossible to figure out where the Clinton Foundation ends and the State Department begins. It is abundantly clear that the Clintons set up a business to profit from public office. They sold access and specific actions by and really for I guess the making of large amounts of money.”
Trump’s “drain the swamp” refrain was the rhetorical centerpiece of his presidential campaign. He tapped into the widespread sentiment that most Americans believe the political process is corrupt and that politicians are co-opted by special interest influence and big donors. Democracy is effectively rigged in favor of those with deep pockets who use their checkbooks to buy proximity and influence with elected officials.
Just to be clear: It is.
This week, we found out that Trump’s personal attorney, Michael Cohen, leveraged his perceived proximity to the president to get lucrative “consulting” contracts from companies like AT&T and pharmaceutical behemoth Novartis. Cohen reportedly “was promising access to the new administration” and told his would-be clients that he could help them “understand” the administration’s approach to public policy.
Taken at face value, Cohen did what every single person working on K Street in D.C. does: trade on their proximity to their former bosses on Capitol Hill to benefit their clients. The entire Washington economy is built on this revolving door between government and the private sector. I’m not saying it’s good or isn’t in need of dire reform, I’m just saying a lot of the outrage about Cohen’s influence peddling is superficial, at best.
My problem with the Cohen deals, aside from the glaring ineptitude of whoever signed these agreements with him in the first place and the still unknown implications for the Russia collusion investigation, is that they completely contradict everything Trump promised and everything his supporters purportedly cared about during his campaign. It is hypocrisy of the worst kind.
You cannot run for office and attack your opponent every day about the appearance of pay-to-play and then turn around and do the exact same thing at a more egregious level.
They say you can learn a lot about somebody based on what they try to keep hidden.
In 2016, then-Sen. Jeff Sessions went on CNN and called for the appointment of a special prosecutor to investigate former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation. “The fundamental thing is you cannot be secretary of state of the United States of America and use the position to extort or to seek contributions to your private foundation,” he said. “That is a fundamental violation of law and that appears to have happened.”
And yet, since Jan. 1, 2017, the Republican National Committee has spent $763,335 at Trump-owned properties. The president’s own re-election campaign has spent $551,643 at his hotels and golf resorts.
“Since becoming President, Trump has visited a Trump-branded-or-owned property every 3.1 days ― more than twice a week,” The Washington Post recently reported.
So, using Trump’s own words (slightly adjusted) from August 2016: It’s impossible to figure out where the Trump business ends and the White House begins. It is abundantly clear that Trump and his businesses are profiting from his time in public office.
And it’s surely worse than what we already know. Trump is the first president of the modern era to not release his tax returns, making it impossible to know the full extent of how much he is benefitting from his time in public office, despite promising back in 2014 that “If I decide to run for office, I’ll produce my tax returns, absolutely. And I would love to do that.”
They say you can learn a lot about somebody based on what they try to keep hidden. In this case, Trump is keeping both his finances and his meetings in the dark.
All the while, those closest to him have been taking cues from Trump and enriching themselves by selling access to the Oval Office.
Whatever you might have thought about the activities of Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, there’s no denying that Trump and his cronies are engaged in a much more flagrant version of pay-to-play. And, given what we don’t know about Trump, his tax returns and those he meets with, it certainly appears as if something much more nefarious is yet to be revealed.
My only question is where did all those voices chanting “lock her up” go? It’s gotten awfully quiet now that Trump and friends are making millions while in office.
Kurt Bardella is a HuffPost columnist. He was a spokesman for former House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.), Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), Rep. Brian Bilbray (R-Calif.) and Breitbart News. Follow him on Twitter at @kurtbardella.