Trump's paid-speech scandal: The political press has hammered Hillary for so much less

The mogul made millions endorsing a scam marketing firm. Where are the calls for him to release his transcripts?

Published June 1, 2016 8:45AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump   (AP/Patrick Semansky/John Locher/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump (AP/Patrick Semansky/John Locher/Photo montage by Salon)

This article originally appeared on Media Matters.

Signaling long ago that it would never tire of writing about -- and generally denouncing -- the topic of paid speeches Hillary Clinton gave as a private citizen, the press keeps piling on. Just last week, The Washington Post added to its already mountainous Clinton speech coverage by publishing another long take, this one complete with charts and graphs.

Following the press’ lead, Republican operatives are reportedly scouring the political countryside in search of what are now often portrayed as Clinton’s near-mythical speech transcripts.

But note that this media spotlight only searches out one target: Hillary Clinton.

And that’s been among the most baffling elements of the media’s obsession with Clinton’s speaking fees: Why are her lecture circuit earnings the only ones that matter? When so many prominent Republican candidates previously cashed big checks making paid speeches (and some of them cashed the checks while running for president), why are only the Democratic front-runner’s speeches considered to be newsworthy and borderline controversial?

Those recent Republican candidates include Mike HuckabeeBen CarsonJeb BushCarly FiorinaMitt RomneyHerman CainNewt Gingrich, and Rudy Giuliani, who pocketed more than $11 million in the thirteen months prior to announcing his candidacy in 2007.

And yes, Donald Trump.

It turns out that a big chunk of Trump’s speaking fees revolve around ACN, a controversial multilevel marketing company that’s been accused of bilking people out of millions of dollars.

If presented in proper context by the press, Trump’s long-running and lucrative relationship with ACN would essentially eliminate questions about Clinton’s speeches. And if queries persisted, the press would have to demand Trump also release nearly a decade worth of transcripts.

In truth, there has been some good reporting on Trump's questionable relationship with ACN. (Interestingly, some of it has been done by the conservative press.) But apart from the initial flurry of reports last summer, Trump’s ACN association -- like so many scandals involving the presumptive Republican nominee -- has largely faded from view. And virtually none of the coverage has focused on the issue of paid speeches, or suggested Trump release transcripts to his six-figure ACN pep rallies, the way the press has hounded Clinton over that issue.

Here’s the key point: Clinton’s paid speeches, whether to financial institutions, universities or trade associations, have never represented endorsements. On the other hand, Trump has spent years giving paid speeches and appearances specifically to ACN and quite clearly endorsing the company: “ACN has a reputation for success, success that’s really synonymous with the Trump name.”

In 2009 and 2011, ACN executives appeared on Trump’s NBC reality show, Celebrity Apprentice. And during one episode, Trump touted a “revolutionary” videophone that ACN was rolling out: “I simply can’t imagine anybody using this phone and not loving it.” (The product quickly flopped.)

ACN’s website once bragged how, "Trump is a fixture at ACN International Training Events, setting the record for the most appearances from the ACN stage by any ACN special guest speaker." (The boasts have since been deleted.)

In fact, it seemed the whole point of his speeches and personal appearances were for Trump to boost ACN’s brand and convince more people to buy into its sales system. “To prop up its business, ACN relies heavily on Trump to recruit news salespeople into the fold,” The Daily Caller noted.

Being a multilayered marketing company means ACN relentlessly recruits people to sell its products.

As Slate explained:

Products sold through the multilevel marketing model aren’t sold in stores. Instead individuals purchase a startup kit (always encouraged, but not always required) and then contract with the company for the right to sell the merchandise to other individuals. They receive a commission on each sale but are not actually employed by the company. So far, so familiar. That’s the classic Avon Lady model.

But selling goods one by one to your neighbors and friends isn’t the way to riches, no matter how much you hound them or otherwise guilt-trip them into making purchases. So multilevel marketing companies incentivize their salespeople to recruit other salespeople, promising them a cut of all that person’s sales, as long as both the original seller and the new recruit remain active.

Becoming an ACN salesperson costs money. The company charges a $499 initiation fee, and then “ACN representatives are charged a $149 annual renewal fee, and they often pay $39.99 a month for a package of technology and marketing materials, plus extra fees to attend company meetings and conferences.”

Trump now seems to realize the political downside to his ACN cheerleading. When asked about his cozy, decade-long relationship with ACN, Trump last year told The Wall Street Journal he didn’t really know much about the company. (“I know nothing about the company other than the people who run the company.”) This is a company, as the Journal reported, that has paid Trump “millions of dollars” “over the past decade.”

Indeed, Trump once bragged that in 2006 the company paid him $2.5 million for a single speech. And last year when Trump filed a financial disclosure with the Federal Election Commission, three ACN speeches/appearances from 2014 and 2015 were listed among his income. Trump pocketed $450,000 for each one.

Why are Trump’s ACN six-figure paychecks a big deal? And why, if Hillary Clinton had spent years hyping a company as suspicious as ACN, would there probably already have been Republican-led congressional hearings into that relationship?

From the Journal [emphasis added]:

Mr. Trump’s endorsement helped entice people such as Donna Roberson, 47 years old, a disabled Army veteran near Tacoma, Wash., who signed up as an ACN independent business owner in 2011. In an interview, she recalled thinking at the time: “If he’s pushing it, it’s got to be a good company to get into. Yeah, we can make money at this.”

Ms. Roberson, a single mother of four, said she lost as much as $2,000 on ACN“I feel like it’s a big scam,” she said. “It was costing me more to stay in the company than what I was making.”

Here are some additional reasons why Trump likely wants his ACN past to disappear:

  • In 2010, Montana’s securities commissioner alleged ACN was an “illegal pyramid scheme” and sought to have it shut down, according to WSJ. State regulators dropped the charge after the company promised to better train its workers.
  • The Journal also laid out how Maryland regulators accused ACN affiliate Xoom Energy of jacking up energy rates for its customers and is seeking at least $1 million in payments for customers.
  • Xoom is also the subject of a class action lawsuit in North Carolina and is accused of making “false and misleading” sales pitches. “The lawsuit includes the text of almost three dozen online complaints alleging similar acts of fraud against ACN and/or Xoom,” National Review reported.
  • A former ACN salesman confessed to a local ABC affiliate in New York that he was unintentionally “robbing people” when he got them to sign up for Xoom Energy.

In other words, ACN is a mess and ACN is precisely the kind of questionable company a presidential candidate should stay away from, and certainly the type of company a candidate should not have spent years breathlessly endorsing in exchange for $450,000 paychecks.

Keep that in mind the next time reporters hover around Clinton speech transcripts.

By Eric Boehlert

Eric Boehlert, a former senior writer for Salon, is the author of "Lapdogs: How the Press Rolled Over for Bush."

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