Does corruption matter? Since the beginning of Donald Trump's presidency, there's been a tendency in the press and political strategist community to view corruption as basically a sideshow to the meat-and-potatoes politics of health care and jobs. Polling data shows that, at least when asked about it over the phone, Americans claim that health care is an important issue and whether or not Trump colluded with Russian intelligence to commit crimes during the 2016 campaign is not.
If the corruption issue involves anything other than Russian efforts to destroy our democracy, the sense that "lol nothing matters" is even more hardened. Reporters dutifully detail Trump's career of making money of grift and fraud, and the story falls out of the news cycle as quickly as the latest presidential tweet insulting a woman's looks. A lawsuit over whether Trump hotels are being used as a way to launder bribes to the president gets covered mainly as a curious legal question, not as a pressing moral concern. The fact that Mar-a-Lago, Trump's grandiose Palm Beach resort, is apparently being used to funnel campaign cash into the president's pockets — which would be illegal if he were receiving the funds directly — barely registers on the national radar.
So it has become a truism in American politics that while Trump's corruption is an entertaining sideshow, it's a secondary concern at best and a distraction at worst.
Democratic candidates have shaped their campaigns in response. The mandate across the party has been to talk up the issues — and corruption apparently does not count as an issue — and ignore Trump as much as possible. His name doesn't come up in debates. Only 8 percent of Democratic ads this campaign season even mention Trump, even though the expected "blue wave" this November is predicted mostly out of a belief that people who despise Trump are highly motivated to vote.
But now, with the alleged murder of Washington Post correspondent Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in Istanbul, it's time to seriously question this tendency to treat corruption as an abstraction that has no direct impact on people's lives. The horrific details of the apparent crime — in which a group of Saudi agents cornered Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Turkey and allegedly tortured him to death before dismembering his body — offer a visceral reminder that corruption has very real impacts on very real human lives.
The connection between Khashoggi's alleged murder and Trump's corruption is straightforward enough. Mohammed bin Salman, the Saudi crown prince suspected of ordering the murder, and his allies have funneled all sorts of money to Trump in all sorts of ways, but especially through his hotels. The prince was a major factor in the fact that Trump's New York hotel saw its revenues surge 13 percent in 2018. Due to widespread loathing of Trump in his own country, he's having more trouble than ever getting American customers, but the influx of money from Saudis is making up for it.
In a development that is no less disturbing for how predictable it is, Trump appears to be blatantly minimizing and covering up for the Saudi prince, who also happens to be friends with Trump's son-in-law, Jared Kushner.
"The Trump administration and the Saudi royal family are searching for a mutually agreeable explanation for the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi — one that will avoid implicating Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman," reported Shane Harris of the Washington Post on Wednesday.
Granted, the alleged killing of Khashoggi, who apparently offended the prince with his critical coverage of Saudi policy and other Middle East, does not touch on those bread-and-butter issues that voters always tell pollsters are most important. This apparent murder won't change anyone's insurance premiums or make it harder to find a good job, at least in any immediate way. But Khashoggi's smiling face, in the picture with his fiancée that is used in most news reports, paired with the gut-wrenching details of his alleged death, puts a human face on what it means to have a president who puts his financial interests over the wellbeing of the people he's sworn to protect. Despite Trump's insistence on framing Khashoggi as a foreigner, that absolutely includes a journalist who resided legally in the United States and worked for a major American newspaper.
One of government's main duties to the people is to protect us from crime, not cover it up in order to protect the financial interests of those who hold power. Trump's corruption can no longer be seen as him lining his pockets at no real expense to the people. This isn't just about Mar-a-Lago and a bit of roguish grift on the side. It's about murder.
To be clear, this isn't just about Donald Trump. The entire Republican Party has been sliding in this direction for awhile and Trump simply accelerated the process. And the impacts on the lives of real people here at home are not abstract either. The widespread corruption of Trump's Cabinet, such as former EPA head Scott Pruitt's sell-out deals with coal barons to undermine environmental regulations, will result in more Americans facing illness, financial problems and even early death. The way Republicans as a group have sold out environmental interests to the Koch brothers and other energy interests is exactly why America's progress in fighting climate change. The results for human beings, in this country and around the world, will be catastrophic.
In Florida, we see how a Trump-like figure — Republican Gov. Rick Scott, now running for U.S. Senate — is creating material harm to the residents of his state in a blatant effort to line his own pockets. As the New York Times reported on Wednesday, Scott has used his governorship to push for legislation that would drastically change the lives of Floridians while also making his already massive fortune even bigger.
In particular, Scott has pushed for widespread drug testing of welfare recipients and state employees, in the full knowledge that the 32 urgent-care clinics he founded would reap the financial benefits. He also pushed for a managed-care Medicaid system that would have the same effect, even though there were significant concerns it could limit access to health care.
The reality is that there is no firewall between the issue of corruption and bread-and-butter issues like health care and crime. That fact has gotten somewhat lost in the chaos of the Trump era, but it's time for the political press start reminding voters that these things are always intertwined. The alleged murder of Jamal Khashoggi and Donald Trump's shameless efforts to cover it up should be a sobering reminder that corruption can have tragic human costs.