Forget About It

This news story should be noted, for the record, before it’s buried in the continuing avalanche of other campaign news in this election season. The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold continues in his quixotic quest to make this story some sort of headline:

Donald Trump on Monday dismissed questions about his failure to disclose an improper $25,000 contribution in 2013 to a political group connected to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, who was at the time considering whether to open a fraud investigation against Trump University.

The donation, made by the Donald J. Trump Foundation, violated federal rules that prohibit charities from donating to political candidates. Trump and his team also failed to disclose the gift to the Internal Revenue Service, instead reporting that the donation was given to an unrelated group with a similar name – effectively obscuring the contribution.

“I never spoke to her, first of all. She’s a fine person, beyond reproach. I never even spoke to her about it at all. She’s a fine person. Never spoken to her about it, never,” Trump said Monday while campaigning in Ohio. “Many of the attorney generals turned that case down because I’ll win that case in court. Many turned that down. I never spoke to her.”

Marc Reichelderfer – who worked as a consultant on Bondi’s reelection effort – told the Associated Press in June that Bondi spoke with Trump and solicited the donation herself. Reichelderfer said that Bondi had not been aware of the complaints against Trump University when she asked for the contribution.

It was unclear on Monday whether Trump meant that he had never discussed the donation with Bondi – effectively contradicting Reichelderfer – or if he had simply never mentioned the Trump University case.

That may not be much, but it sure looks like Trump paid this woman twenty-five grand to drop her investigation of Trump University for making misleading promises and engaging in predatory marketing tactics. She got that money for her reelection campaign. She dropped the investigation. Someone noticed. This didn’t look good. Trump cleaned it up:

Trump paid the IRS a $2,500 penalty this year after reports surfaced about the gift and disclosure error. Representatives for the Trump Organization said that Trump reimbursed the foundation the full $25,000 from his personal account after watchdog groups and news organizations began asking questions.

But that didn’t clean it up:

Trump’s latest assertion that he had not spoken to Bondi about Trump University revived questions about why the New York real estate developer would have donated to the Florida attorney general.

Asked on Monday what he was “hoping to get out of that donation,” Trump responded: “I’ve just known Pam Bondi for years. I have a lot of respect for her. Never spoke to her about that at all. And just have a lot of respect for her as a person. And she has done an amazing job as the attorney general of Florida. She is very popular.”

That may be beside the point:

Trump has bragged about making political donations to politicians to curry favor with them and benefit his businesses, regularly using such statements to undermine his critics in both parties.

Even before the Foundation’s failure to disclose the contribution to the IRS surfaced this year, Bondi had faced intense scrutiny in the Florida media for accepting the donation. The Washington Post reported on the improper contribution in March and on the financial penalty Trump paid earlier this month.

The timeline of Bondi’s solicitation has raised suspicion among campaign finance watchdogs, who have characterized the contribution as a political bribe meant to influence Bondi’s decision.

Yes, this looks like one of the bribes Trumps likes to boast about – that’s how the world works, folks – but it seems to be a bribe nonetheless. And he says Hillary is crooked?

The Washington Post is all over this – or at least they assigned one reporter to the story – but the New York Times has none. They’re all over the Clinton Foundation scandal, such as it is. They have assigned no one to look into the Trump Foundation in any way at all, and Josh Marshall wonders about that:

We’ve had a number of looks recently at how The New York Times appears to be revisiting its ‘whitewater’ glory days with its increasingly parodic coverage of the “Clinton Foundation” – I’m adding scare quotes to match the dramatic effect, even though of course the Clinton Foundation is a named legal entity…

The latest installment from the Times explains how Bill Clinton’s request for diplomatic passports for aides accompanying him on a mission to secure the release of two US journalists held captive in North Korea constitutes the latest damning revelations about the corrupt ties between the Foundation and the Clinton State Department.

That was good for three or four thousand words, but it was the usual – there was nothing wrong with this at all, but it looks bad, it “casts a shadow” over everything about that foundation. The shadow became the story, and Marshall notes that is a bit odd:

The Times uniquely, though only as a leading example for the rest of the national press, has a decades’ long history of being lead around by rightwing opposition researchers into dead ends which amount to journalistic comedy – especially when it comes to the Clintons. But here, while all this is happening we have a real live specimen example of direct political and prosecutorial corruption, misuse of a 501c3 nonprofit and various efforts to conceal this corruption and the underlying corruption of Trump’s “Trump University” real estate seminar scam…

The core information here isn’t new and it’s definitely not based on my reporting. Much of it stems from the on-going and seemingly indefatigable work of Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold who’s been chronicling Trump’s long list of non-existent or promised but non-existent charitable contributions. In this case, it goes to a $25,000 contribution Trump made to the reelection campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2013. The neglected story has only popped up again now because Trump was penalized by the IRS for a relatively technical part of the corrupt act.

The New York Times didn’t cover that, but this was actually newsworthy:

This first problem was elementary and obvious, probably stemming from Trump’s almost pathological cheapness. He made the campaign contribution from his Foundation. This part is straightforward. You can’t do that.

But then, as Fahrenthold details, Trump or whoever was handling the paperwork went to great lengths to conceal the improper contribution. In this case, the efforts to conceal the contributions from the relevant federal authorities is a much bigger deal than the underlying offense since the initial contribution could conceivably have been made by someone in Trump’s organization who didn’t realize that funds couldn’t be commingled in this way. The first step could have been based in ignorance or haste; the second clearly stems from bad faith and possibly criminal intent.

But all of these pale in comparison to the essence of the transaction itself. Trump made this substantial contribution to Bondi at just the moment when her office was evaluating whether to bring legal action against Trump’s “Trump University” real estate seminar scam. Indeed, Bondi admits she reached out to Trump to solicit the contribution just as the decision was on her desk. She eventually declined to take legal action against Trump, overruling the recommendations of career investigators.

Now THAT is a story, and it’s not just Florida:

A mounting legal case was also underway in Texas, by career investigators under then-Attorney General and now Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott overruled the investigators recommendation for legal action. Shortly thereafter Abbott got $35,000 from Trump. In this case Trump at least made the contribution without the commingling of nonprofit funds that go them in trouble in Florida.

The one place where Trump’s money or influence didn’t make the cut was in New York State under Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The New York State case is one of several public and private lawsuits trying to recoup damages for victims of Trump’s seminar scam.

Some folks cannot be bribed. The California fraud case against Trump University, presided over by that judge “of Mexican heritage” who Trump says cannot be fair to him because of that heritage, also keeps rolling along, but Marshall says that the situation in Florida did merit a bit more coverage:

At the risk of stating the obvious, these facts are textbook examples of the sort of political and prosecutorial corruption journalists are supposed to uncover. Trump used money to buy protection from the consequences of his bad acts, from friendly politicians. He then tried to cover up his payment of protection money. And on top of all that he made the either bizarre or incompetent mistake of paying the protection money out of his Foundation – the money from which mostly comes from other people beside Trump.

So here you have straight-up bad acts, political corruption to enable prosecutorial corruption to escape the consequences of fraud perpetrated on vulnerable consumers. And yet the page space gets dedicated to Clinton Foundation stories which raise ‘questions’ that could ‘create appearances’ and all other journalistic workarounds reporters use when they haven’t found what they were looking for.

Why hasn’t the New York Times assigned even one reporter to this? Marshall offers this:

I think there are basically three reasons, some more understandable than others but none of them good. The first is that the Times had a decades-long institutional issue with the Clintons. There’s no other way to put. It goes beyond single reporters and even individual executives editors. Why this is the case I’ll leave to biographers and psychologists. But that it is the case is obvious from reading a quarter century of their reporting on the topic.

The other two reasons are different. Many reporters and editors simply take it as a given that Trump’s a crook. So stories about Trump’s corruption amount to what journalists call dog-bites-man stories – not really news because it’s the norm and wholly expected. The second related point is that many reporters and editors at a basic level don’t take Trump seriously as a real candidate. Journalists only probed so far into Ben Carson’s various multi-level marketing scams and churning through millions of dollars of small donor contributions to enrich consultants because Ben Carson was clearly never going to be president.

At some level, this is all true: Trump isn’t a real or a serious candidate by numerous measures. Except one measure that is the only meaningful one: he is the Republican nominee for President and even though polls suggest it’s unlikely he’ll be elected President there’s a very real chance he’ll become the US head of state and commander-in-chief of the US armed forces next January. So by the single test that really matters, Trump is as real as a candidate can be.

And the folks in the big city aren’t alone in this:

They’re just the tip of the spear of the generalized failure to apply even a small fraction of the scrutiny to Trump that they have to the Clintons or to make an honest evaluation of the fact that the story they were sold by various right wing groups – critical ones funded by none other than Breitbart’s Steve Bannon (now Trump’s campaign manager) – simply didn’t pan out.

In the simplest sense, they were just suckered and used and got played.

One day later, Marshall adds this:

Bondi asked Trump for money. Trump sent money. The investigation ended. The arrival of Trump’s check just four days after her office publicly announced their inquiry tells quite a tale.

Without a full investigation we can’t say definitively that Pam Bondi had her office drop the case because of Trump’s contribution. (It is unquestionable that she approved ending the investigation knowing that she had just successfully solicited a major monetary contribution from the target of the investigation. It also seems quite likely – though the information in the article doesn’t give us quite enough detail – that she solicited the money knowing her office was currently investigating Trump.) But corrupt quid pro quos are seldom so tightly aligned by the calendar. They also seldom involve the direct personal intervention of the principle involved – in this case, Bondi personally soliciting the contribution from Trump.

Based on the currently available information we can’t say for sure it’s corrupt. But the publicly available information would normally be more than enough to trigger an investigation or at least intense press scrutiny.

There will be no intense press scrutiny, and Paul Waldman is not happy about that:

In the heat of a presidential campaign, you’d think that a story about one party’s nominee giving a large contribution to a state attorney general who promptly shut down an inquiry into that nominee’s scam “university” would be enormous news. But we continue to hear almost nothing about what happened between Donald Trump and Florida attorney general Pam Bondi…

At this point we should note that everything here may be completely innocent. Perhaps Bondi didn’t realize her office was looking into Trump University. Perhaps the fact that Trump’s foundation made the contribution (which, to repeat, is illegal) was just a mix-up. Perhaps when Trump reimbursed the foundation from his personal account, he didn’t realize that’s not how the law works (the foundation would have to get its money back from Bondi’s PAC; he could then make a personal donation if he wanted). Perhaps Bondi’s decision not to pursue the case against Trump was perfectly reasonable.

But here’s the thing: We don’t know the answers to those questions, because almost nobody seems to be pursuing them.

For instance, there was only one mention of this story on any of the five Sunday shows, when John Dickerson asked Chris Christie about it on “Face the Nation” (Christie took great umbrage: “I can’t believe, John, that anyone would insult Pam Bondi that way”). And the comparison with stories about Hillary Clinton’s emails or the Clinton Foundation is extremely instructive. Whenever we get some new development in any of those Clinton stories, you see blanket coverage – every cable network, every network news program, every newspaper investigates it at length. And even when the new information serves to exonerate Clinton rather than implicate her in wrongdoing, the coverage still emphasizes that the whole thing just “raises questions” about her integrity.

But it’s different with Trump:

Here’s what happens: A story about some kind of corrupt dealing emerges, usually from the dogged efforts of one or a few journalists; it gets discussed for a couple of days; and then it disappears. Someone might mention it now and again, but the news organizations don’t assign a squad of reporters to look into every aspect of it, so no new facts are brought to light and no new stories get written.

The end result of this process is that because of all that repeated examination of Clinton’s affairs, people become convinced that she must be corrupt to the core. It’s not that there isn’t plenty of negative coverage of Trump, because of course there is, but it’s focused mostly on the crazy things he says on any given day.

That’s his immunity, and Waldman thinks that’s nuts:

The truth is that you’d have to work incredibly hard to find a politician who has the kind of history of corruption, double-dealing, and fraud that Donald Trump has. The number of stories which could potentially deserve hundreds and hundreds of articles is absolutely staggering.

Waldman then offers a partial list of those:

Trump’s casino bankruptcies, which left investors holding the bag while he skedaddled with their money –

Trump’s habit of refusing to pay contractors who had done work for him, many of whom are struggling small businesses –

Trump University – which includes not only the people who got scammed and the Florida investigation, but also a similar story from Texas where the investigation into Trump U was quashed –

The Trump Institute, another get-rich-quick scheme in which Trump allowed a couple of grifters to use his name to bilk people out of their money –

The Trump Network, a multi-level marketing venture (a.k.a. pyramid scheme) that involved customers mailing in a urine sample which would be analyzed to produce for them a specially formulated package of multivitamins –

Trump Model Management, which reportedly had foreign models lie to customs officials and work in the U.S. illegally, and kept them in squalid conditions while they earned almost nothing for the work they did –

Trump’s employment of foreign guest workers at his resorts, which involves a claim that he can’t find Americans to do the work –

Trump’s use of hundreds of undocumented workers from Poland in the 1980s, who were paid a pittance for their illegal work –

Trump’s history of being charged with housing discrimination –

Trump’s connections to mafia figures involved in New York construction –

The time Trump paid the Federal Trade Commission $750,000 over charges that he violated anti-trust laws when trying to take over a rival casino company –

The fact that Trump is now being advised by Roger Ailes, who was forced out as Fox News chief when dozens of women came forward to charge him with sexual harassment –

That may be a partial list but that will do:

The point is not that these stories have never been covered, because they have. The point is that they get covered briefly, and then everyone in the media moves on. If any of these kinds of stories involved Clinton, news organizations would rush to assign multiple reporters to them, those reporters would start asking questions, and we’d learn more about all of them.

That’s important, because we may have reached a point where the frames around the candidates are locked in: Trump is supposedly the crazy/bigoted one, and Clinton is supposedly the corrupt one. Once we decide that those are the appropriate lenses through which the two candidates are to be viewed, it shapes the decisions the media make every day about which stories are important to pursue.

And it means that to a great extent, for all the controversy he has caused and all the unflattering stories in the press about him, Trump is still being let off the hook.

Paul Krugman sees that too:

Americans of a certain age who follow politics and policy closely still have vivid memories of the 2000 election – bad memories, and not just because the man who lost the popular vote somehow ended up in office. For the campaign leading up to that end game was nightmarish too.

You see, one candidate, George W. Bush, was dishonest in a way that was unprecedented in U.S. politics. Most notably, he proposed big tax cuts for the rich while insisting, in raw denial of arithmetic, that they were targeted for the middle class. These campaign lies presaged what would happen during his administration – an administration that, let us not forget, took America to war on false pretenses.

Yet throughout the campaign most media coverage gave the impression that Mr. Bush was a bluff, straightforward guy, while portraying Al Gore – whose policy proposals added up, and whose critiques of the Bush plan were completely accurate – as slippery and dishonest. Mr. Gore’s mendacity was supposedly demonstrated by trivial anecdotes, none significant, some of them simply false. No, he never claimed to have invented the internet. But the image stuck.

And right now I and many others have the sick, sinking feeling that it’s happening again.

This really isn’t that much different:

True, there aren’t many efforts to pretend that Donald Trump is a paragon of honesty. But it’s hard to escape the impression that he’s being graded on a curve. If he manages to read from a TelePrompTer without going off script, he’s being presidential. If he seems to suggest that he wouldn’t round up all 11 million undocumented immigrants right away, he’s moving into the mainstream. And many of his multiple scandals, like what appear to be clear payoffs to state attorneys general to back off investigating Trump University, get remarkably little attention.

Meanwhile, we have the presumption that anything Hillary Clinton does must be corrupt, most spectacularly illustrated by the increasingly bizarre coverage of the Clinton Foundation.

And that makes no sense:

Step back for a moment, and think about what that foundation is about. When Bill Clinton left office, he was a popular, globally respected figure. What should he have done with that reputation? Raising large sums for a charity that saves the lives of poor children sounds like a pretty reasonable, virtuous course of action. And the Clinton Foundation is, by all accounts, a big force for good in the world. For example, Charity Watch, an independent watchdog, gives it an “A” rating – better than the American Red Cross.

Now, any operation that raises and spends billions of dollars creates the potential for conflicts of interest. You could imagine the Clintons using the foundation as a slush fund to reward their friends, or, alternatively, Mrs. Clinton using her positions in public office to reward donors. So it was right and appropriate to investigate the foundation’s operations to see if there were any improper quid pro quos. As reporters like to say, the sheer size of the foundation “raises questions.”

But nobody seems willing to accept the answers to those questions, which are, very clearly, “no.”

There really was nothing there – no “meetings with brutal foreign dictators or corporate fat cats facing indictment, followed by questionable actions on their behalf” – not a one – so Krugman suggests this: 

I would urge journalists to ask whether they are reporting facts or simply engaging in innuendo, and urge the public to read with a critical eye. If reports about a candidate talk about how something “raises questions,” creates “shadows,” or anything similar, be aware that these are all too often weasel words used to create the impression of wrongdoing out of thin air.

And here’s a pro tip: the best ways to judge a candidate’s character are to look at what he or she has actually done, and what policies he or she is proposing. Mr. Trump’s record of bilking students, stiffing contractors and more is a good indicator of how he’d act as president. Mrs. Clinton’s speaking style and body language are not.

In other words, focus on the facts. America and the world can’t afford another election tipped by innuendo.

No, forget about that. Have we ever had a national election that wasn’t tipped one way or the other by innuendo? Donald Trump is a shameless bigot and brutal bully. Hillary Clinton is crooked. Everyone knows this, and this news of how Donald Trump seems to have bribed at least two Republican states attorney general into dropping fraud investigations into his fake university reverses the innuendo – and that messes up everything. Waldman is right – the press and the public have already decided what’s what. This Trump bribery story will disappear soon enough, even if the worst is confirmed. This was just an attempt to preserve a record of it, as a curiosity.

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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