Much of my thinking these days goes back to the early months of 2006 when lobbyist Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to charges of fraud and bribery. Abramoff had been a largely obscure political player and palm greaser, but his grandiose villainy and tight connections to powerful lawmakers turned him into the mascot of Washington graft.
His guilty pleas set in motion what eventually became the “culture of corruption” narrative that Democrats used to withering effect in the midterm elections, sweeping the GOP out of power in both houses of Congress.
I think about that because Abramoff, for all his infamy and the political destruction he caused, was still just a lobbyist. He didn’t make the rules and didn’t have any official authority. His capacity to be corrupt depended largely on the complicity of people in power and his ability to game the rules that were in place. I think about that, and then I think about the vastly greater corruption potential President-elect Donald Trump represents, and I shudder.
In his big interview with The New York Times, Trump made it clear that he understands that serving as president while continuing to be involved with the Trump Organization will create the potential for numerous conflicts of interest. He also made clear that he doesn’t much care. “Now, according to the law, see I figured there’s something where you put something in this massive trust and there’s also — nothing is written,” he said. “In other words, in theory, I can be president of the United States and run my business 100 percent.”
Trump also told the Times he “would like to do something” to minimize conflicts “because I don’t care about my business.” That is perhaps the most flagrantly false thing Trump has said in public, and it was belied by the fact that, in the same interview, he acknowledged discussing business matters (wind farms in the United Kingdom that he’s long been warring against) during a meeting with British officials. If there’s one thing in this world outside of his family that Donald Trump cares about, it’s his business, and there is no reason to believe he’ll give up his interest in it.
At the same time that’s he’s keeping an eye on the Trump Organization’s bottom line, he’ll be setting economic policy for the country, pushing for his preferred tax policy and managing our relationships with countries in which he has business interests. While Abramoff enriched himself by breaking rules that were already in place, Trump is uniquely empowered to change the rules for his own benefit and direct the machinery of government in ways that help his business. That opens up an endless minefield of ethical problems, which in turn has the potential to cause a massive political conflagration.
That’s part of the reason why I pleaded with Democrats to give up their conciliatory posturing toward Trump and get busy portraying him as a fraud. Republicans in Congress are ready and eager to partner with Trump to pass their agenda, and they aren’t especially keen on providing any sort of meaningful oversight so long as Trump can sign into law tax cuts and an Obamacare repeal. It's in their interest to make sure that Trump does not sustain too much political damage, even as he opens up his administration to heretofore unseen levels of public corruption.
And there’s every reason to think Trump will cross the line from conflicted to corrupt. Trump’s first two weeks as president-elect have been punctuated by an eight-figure settlement in a fraud lawsuit and an acknowledgement that he broke nonprofit laws against self-dealing. We know who Donald Trump is. Only a fool would grant him the presumption of good faith or assume that the presidency will somehow make an honest man of him. As Brian Beutler wrote for the New Republic, everything Trump does flows from the assumption that he will not be held to account for his actions. Just imagine how untouchable he feels now that he’s set to assume the most powerful elected office in the country.
The smart play is to stay as far away as possible from this incipient avalanche of corruption and scandal. The Republicans have signed on for it because Trump can advance their agenda, and they have an interest in ignoring Trump’s conflicts because their overriding concern is maintaining power. Democrats should remember how much political trouble one crooked lobbyist caused the GOP a decade ago and let Republicans take sole ownership of a president who represents corruption on a much bigger scale.