Trump Time Capsule #94: Pay to Play

Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, at the center of a "pay-to-play" controversy involving Donald Trump, speaking at the Republican National Convention in July. (Mike Segar / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Over the weekend I mentioned signs of the press beginning to “normalize” Donald Trump. This was especially so in equating “doubts,” “questions,” “clouds,” and the “atmosphere of entitlement” that surrounded Hillary Clinton and the Clinton Foundation, with the actual offenses, lawsuits, bankruptcies, unpaid contractors, anti-trust settlements, bogus-visa issues, and other legal problems surrounding Donald Trump and his enterprises. Paul Waldman of the WaPo has an eye-opening catalog of them here.

This is a for-the-record placeholder note on the past few days’ developments in two related areas: what is known or alleged about Trump-enterprises, and how coverage increasingly equates them to “doubts” and “questions” about the Clintons.

1. Yesterday Paul Krugman did a NYT column called “Clinton Gets Gored” on this pattern of “normalizing” Donald Trump through press coverage. The column was notable because the unnamed/“sub-tweeted” object of much of his complaint was the news operation of the same paper in which it appeared.

The Times is the greatest and most admirable news operation in the United States, perhaps in the world. But in my view, and apparently Krugman’s as well, from the “Whitewater” era through today its political coverage has applied an unusual presumption of crookedness to the Clintons, out of proportion to their many real-world failings. You can read Krugman’s argument, and this fascinating online discussion between Norman Ornstein and Roger Cohen.

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2. To illustrate possible disproportionality:  David Farenthold of the Washington Post has been fearless and indefatigable in tracking the story of Trump’s failure to follow through on the vast majority of the charitable “commitments” he claims to have made, and his involvement in outright pay-to-play schemes involving his shady and lawsuit-plagued Trump University.

The most prominent recent example involves the Attorney General of Florida, Pam Bondi. As Farenthold describes it: Bondi was considering an investigation of Trump University; the Trump Foundation donated $25,000 to her campaign; she dropped the investigation. Bondi also spoke this summer at the GOP convention. You can argue about motivations on all sides, but there is no doubt that this sequence of events occurred—or that the IRS has fined Trump for a violation of tax laws in the case. The AP also had a very tough story on the Trump-Bondi case back in June. For the record, both Trump and Bondi deny that this was meant as a payoff or bribe.

This case differs from the “clouds” and “doubts” and “appearance of coziness” in most of the Clinton-scandal episodes, in that—whatever the motives—the transfer of money was followed by the desired result. In the Clinton cases, you’ll see phrases like “donors sought access” (rather than got access) or “while no hard evidence of favoritism exists...” That’s because the “play” part of pay-to-play generally did not occur.

The NYT, which has been all over the Clinton Foundation story, had noticeably failed to mention the Bondi case—until just now, when a story introduces it in the context of a criticism Bill Clinton has made of Trump. See for yourself, with my emphasis added:

Addressing an issue that has dogged the campaign, Mr. Clinton defended the Clinton Foundation. And he criticized Mr. Trump over his own foundation, referring to a Washington Post report that found that his charitable organization paid the Internal Revenue Service a $2,500 penalty this year after improperly giving a political contribution to a campaign group with ties to the attorney general of Florida, Pam Bondi.

Again: I admire, defend, respect, sometimes write for, and am a decades-long print subscriber of the NYT. But I don’t understand why its reporters can say on their own authority that a certain issue has “dogged the campaign” for one candidate, while couching hard legal evidence about the other as part of the charge-and-counter-charge “They all do it!” fray of the campaign. This paragraph is quite a remarkable distillation of what I was talking about in the previous post.

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3. Over the weekend Trump’s running mate Mike Pence said he would release his tax returns very soon, and that Trump would release his when “the audit is completed.” Two facts about this posture of Trump’s have been known for a long time (as I laid out in #51, back in July).

First, that the IRS itself completely dismisses an audit as any barrier to releasing the returns. Fine with us for you to disclose them! the IRS has said. Second, if Trump stonewalls until the election, he will be the first nominee since Richard Nixon to do so—and Nixon’s own duplicity is much of the reason this has been an ironclad expectation since then.

A third possibility is one Matt Cooper of Newsweek raised last month: that the returns might not even be under audit. All we have to support that belief is Trump’s own word. But we also had his word that the NFL had sent him a letter complaining about scheduled dates for the debates, which the NFL immediately denied; and that the Koch brothers had sought a meeting to offer him support, which they also immediately denied. As Cooper points out, if there’s a real audit, there’d be a letter from the IRS saying so. That would not be a reason to stonewall on the returns, but it would be one step toward substantiating his excuse.

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4. Bonus reading for the day: Josh Marshall on the Bondi case and differential scandal coverage; Daniel Drezner on the same theme Tom Levenson on the Clinton “scandals” and the heavy reliance on “while there is no evidence of special favors...”; David Roberts from early this summer, on the foreseeability of this kind of coverage; David Graham from earlier today on whether Trump was telling the truth earlier on when he bragged about donating to politicians to win favors, or now when he says there were no strings attached to his donation to Pam Bondi. Sixty-two days and a few hours until election day.