(Reuters/Brendan McDermid/AP/LM Otero/Photo montage by Salon)

The GOP owns Trump University's sleaze: Republicans have been tolerant of con artists for decades

Republicans want distance from Trump U, but their party's long acceptance of grifters makes the stigma stick


Amanda Marcotte
June 7, 2016 2:00PM (UTC)

The Trump University scandal just keeps gaining media steam as new details about the scam keep getting released. Now the blowback is expanding beyond the Donald Trump campaign itself and affecting other Republicans.

And it's not just the ones who embarrass themselves by standing by Trump as he is exposed as a fraud and a racist. The governor of Texas, Greg Abbott, and the state's current attorney general, Ken Paxton, are now under fire for taking measures to protect Trump from paying legal or political penalties for perpetuating this fake university grift. The whole incident shows yet another way that, far from being some kind of anomaly, Trump is simply the logical extension of the way the Republicans have been doing business for decades now.

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Last week, John Owens, a former deputy director of the attorney general's consumer protection division, came forward with allegations that his division was all ready to file a lawsuit against Trump and Trump University, asking for $5.4 million in damages, penalties and fees for defrauding Texas consumers who signed up for the scam courses. But while Owens says the case was strong, the attorney general's office, then controlled by now-governor Abbott, decided to quash the case instead.

"The decision not to sue him was political," Owens told the Dallas Morning News. "Had [Trump] not been involved in politics to the extent he was at the time, we would have gotten approval. Had he been just some other scam artist, we would have sued him."

To back this argument up, Owens points out that his office "routinely got approval to sue people. We routinely went after bogus schools that offered false diplomas." But, in this case, Abbott's office decided against the effort to recoup the money that Texans lost to Trump's get-rich-quick scheme, instead agreeing to drop the suit if Trump University stopped working in Texas. Now the current AG, Paxton, is trying to silence Owens, which just makes it look more like a cover-up.

That said, David Morales, the former head of the consumer protection division, might be able to keep Abbott from taking the blame for this, through the old-fashioned method of taking the bullet for his former boss.

"My decision to approve the request to investigate and to devote state resources to that investigation was made without regard to the fact that the company was associated with Donald Trump," Morales told the Texas Tribune. "To be clear, I did not discuss this matter with General Abbott."

Morales' statement is probably the end of this particular kerfuffle, barring any new information linking Abbott to this decision. But the whole thing shows how deep and scalding the water that Republicans find themselves in truly is.

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There isn't any attempt here to deny or minimize the extent of the fraud. Instead, Abbott's communications director, Matt Hirsch claimed his boss is exonerated because, "Trump U was forced out of Texas and consumers were protected." Which, while the word "fraud" wasn't used, amounts to a tacit admission that they know Trump U is fraudulent, so much so that it had to be forced out of the state to protect Texans from Trump's economic predation.

As with most things in this Trump-dominated election cycle, it's important to take a moment to really consider this and not allow yourself to become numb to it: The governor of Texas has basically admitted, in public, that the presidential nominee of his own party is a grifter who was running a fraudulent business that had to be strong-armed out of the state. Trump is so undeniably corrupt that even his own party members are having to admit it and just try as hard as they can to keep their distance.

But it won't be easy for them. One of the major reasons a transparent huckster like Trump was even able to get the Republican nomination is that the party has spent decades being tolerant, even welcoming, to all manner of grifters and frauds who, for whatever reason, see the conservative base as a bunch of easy-to-exploit marks for their shady money-making schemes. From Glenn Beck to Mike Huckabee to Sarah Palin, the entire Republican party is full of sleazy operators who use hyperbolic reactionary rhetoric as a sales tactic to push all manner of snake oil.

Trump U, for instance, has a lot in common with SarahPAC, the political action committee run by Sarah Palin, that fundraises by promising donors that the money will help elect more conservative politicians into office. The problem is that almost none of the money raised goes to candidates, and instead seems mostly to be spent on promoting Palin's brand, leading to more book sales and paid appearances for her.

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"Of the 417 leadership PACs that made at least one contribution in that cycle," Open Secrets reported in October 2014, "SarahPAC was one of only 19 to give less than 10 percent of its total expenditures to candidates, other PACs or party committees." Of the PACs that spent over a million dollars, Palin's was only one of 3 to be so parsimonious with donation to candidates.

In fact, the amount of money that SarahPAC spent on its ostensible mission is so low it's almost hard to believe. In the two-year cycle for the 2014 midterm elections, SarahPAC spent $2.7 million overall. Only $150,000, or 5.5%, actually went to candidates. The rest went to paid consultants, buying Palin's books for giveaways, travel for Palin and her staff and other activities that are more properly understood as "advertising Sarah Palin" than fundraising for candidates.

Palin is hardly alone in the sleazy behavior. Scam PACs are a major problem on the right, with dozens and possibly hundreds of groups rising up, claiming to be there to help elect Republicans, but actually just taking most of the money for themselves instead.

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Scam PACs aren't really surprising, however, since conservative politicians and pundits have long been ensconced in all number of sleazy direct mail and other schemes for decades. Newt Gingrich appears to be making a mint of his direct mail scams, which include sending out fake awards and charging people fees ranging from $2,000 to $5,000 to collect them. Mike Huckabee's email list is always hawking fake "cures" and other shady products. Glenn Beck has been deeply involved in a gold-selling scam through the company Goldline. Multiple conservative outlets and even former senator Scott Brown have been outed for pushing fake Alzheimer cures. Ben Carson's presidential campaign was structured more like a direct mail scam than a legitimate campaign.

Just as with his belligerent authoritarianism, embrace of conspiracy theories and racism, Trump's grifter tendencies cannot be understood as a departure from regular Republican politics. Instead, this is just another case of Trump taking something that already existed in conservative circles and turning the volume up dramatically. Republicans have long had a broad acceptance for con artists and frauds using conservative rhetoric and channels to defraud people out of their hard-earned money. Trump University was just doing the same thing, but bilking people out of even more cash than the usual right wing grifts would take. Which is why it's not going to be so easy for Republican politicians to escape the stain of being associated with Trump and his fraudulent ways.


Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. Her new book, "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself," is out now. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte

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