HACKBERRY, La. ― President Donald Trump’s pledge to replace a critical but decrepit Interstate 10 bridge ― but only if he gets another four years in the White House, that is ― sounds like the kind of quid pro quo that a 1948 corruption statute was designed to stop, experts said.
“It raises the specter of that,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel at the nonprofit Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “Is he promising that benefit as a reward for their support?”
Trump has more than a year and a half left in his first term, but nevertheless tied his support for the bridge project to his reelection during Tuesday’s “official,” taxpayer-funded visit to a new liquefied natural gas facility here.
“If we win this election, which is just 16 months away, we’re giving you a brand new I-10 bridge,” Trump said during 48 minutes of rambling, rally-style remarks. “So we’re going to start planning and development right away. And we’ll have it all set to go day one, right after the election.”
The 1948 law states: “Whoever, directly or indirectly, promises any employment, position, compensation, contract, appointment, or other benefit... as consideration, favor, or reward for any political activity or for the support of or opposition to any candidate... shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than one year, or both.”
The White House press office declined to elaborate on Trump’s language. Canter said that Trump’s linking an important local project to his own political goals certainly makes it seem suspect.
“If he supports the bridge, then he should be supporting the bridge now. It shouldn’t be after the election,” she said. “To try to tie it to the election is not appropriate. Is it illegal? I’m not sure I’d go that far... You would have to show that it was a promise in consideration for them voting for him.”
What residents of that corner of Louisiana could do to further support Trump is unclear. During the 2016 presidential election, Trump defeated Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton statewide by 20 percentage points, 58-38. That margin was 65-31 in Calcasieu Parish, where the existing bridge crosses the Calcasieu River, and 88-8 in Cameron Parish, the location of Sempra Energy’s new gas plant where Trump spoke.
The condition of the bridge is also not in dispute. Plans to refurbish or replace the 67-year-old through-truss structure have been underway for nearly two decades, but have been stopped by a lack of money. A 2002 study estimated that a replacement would cost half a billion dollars.
“The bridge has been a long-term issue here in southwest Louisiana. It needs to be replaced. There’s no question,” said Mike Danahay, a former Democratic state lawmaker and now the mayor of Sulphur, a town just west of the bridge, which Trump’s motorcade passed through en route to the natural gas plant. “I was pleased that the president was able to actually traverse that bridge and experience it and see the condition it’s in.”
Trump’s commitment to replace the bridge if he won reelection received raucous applause, the most of any line in his speech. Danahay, who attended the event, said area residents were thrilled to hear that the federal government would finally be paying for the project.
“I would hope that it would not be contingent upon reelection, of course,” Danahay said. “I’m always a little leery about things that are said in the heat of a campaign.”
Robert Weissman, head of the liberal group Public Citizen, said that while Trump doing and saying unethical things is no longer news, his promise of a new bridge likely falls short of breaking the law.
“There are a huge number of ethical transgressions by Trump that are basically corrupt but might not violate the law,” he said, adding that it never occurred to Congress that such specific guidance would ever be necessary “because no one ever imagined Donald Trump or anyone like him becoming president.”
Weissman said Louisiana voters should be wary of promises from Trump. Middle-income voters nationwide, after all, were promised a 10% tax cut after the 2018 midterm elections. Trump never took the first step to deliver on that.
“He’s obviously also a liar,” Weissman said, which makes Trump’s word questionable generally. “So people would be stupid if they relied on that.”