On a debate stage during the 2016 Republican primary, Donald Trump explained why he’d given money to Democratic politicians: “I give to many people,” he said. “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.”
Trump has embraced this style of quid pro quo politics throughout his business career, and from his perch in the White House, he now encourages it in others. Such a transaction—an investigation in exchange for military aid—lies at the heart of the impeachment trial.
Like oligarchs in the former Soviet Union, the Trump family accrued wealth by controlling a highly valuable national resource with the permission of the governing class: New York real estate. And they understood that maintaining and growing that wealth meant ingratiating themselves with successive generations of New York politicians. All New York real-estate developers do this. The Trumps did it to an extreme degree.
Although large corporations have long used donations to sway officials, what distinguished the Trumps was their unusually transactional understanding of contributions as a straight-up fee for service. Multiple high-level New York elected officials told me that they were on the receiving end of both large donations and heated phone calls from Trump, demanding to know why he hadn’t yet received a tax abatement, or a zoning change, or another favor.