Commentary Politics

Trump’s Corruption: The Single Most Important—and Neglected—Campaign Issue of 2018

Jeff Hauser

If Democrats need to incite a counter-attack on their “extremism” in defense of the idea that the president of the United States ought not to accept bribes from China, so be it.

From cable news to social media, from the NFL to Kanye West’s Twitter feed—people spend an enormous amount of time discussing President Donald Trump. Oddly, the only people not spending much time discussing Trump—his corruption, his malfeasance, his lack of fitness for office—are the ones who have the most invested in publicizing Trump’s blatant corruption: the Democrats. As evidenced by recent national security news, Trump’s corruption poses a clear and present danger to your wallet, your economic future, and the health and well-being of the planet. And yet somehow, the Democrats are failing to connect the dots.

The Associated Press named “the president’s feud with the NFL” as “the runaway winner for the top sports story of 2017 in balloting by AP members and editors.”

Trump-baiting material from Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel has elevated those shows, while ratings are falling for Jimmy Fallon, who is less comfortable doing political humor.

Bottom line? If you want to grab attention in 2018, you need to discuss Trump.

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You would think this lesson would be particularly clear to Democrats, to whose fortunes the corruption at the heart of Trump’s presidency seems rather more central than to those of, say, Jimmy Kimmel. Especially since by discussing Trump’s corruption and lack of patriotism, Democrats can participate in the country’s principal conversation while also drawing attention to the most urgent issues we now face.

Yet U.S. House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi recently said “I don’t even advocate for people talking about Donald Trump. It’s about a more positive agenda—better jobs, better pay, better future.”

Deval Patrick, the former governor of Massachusetts and a potential 2020 presidential candidate, sounded a similar note in the New York Times, saying “we need to focus less on what’s wrong with Trump and the Republicans and more on what’s right with us.”

These are not cherry-picked examples—legions of establishment Democrats think that the key to success for Democrats is to ignore the bull who seems likely to have cheated his way into the Oval Office and is now smashing all the proverbial china.

The failure of Democrats to tie Trump to the critical issues of our day means whatever conversations they are having are like that tree falling in a forest with no one around to hear. On Tuesday, May 15, for example, a genuinely impressive and diverse group of leading Democrats were assembled for the Center for American Progress’ 2018 Ideas Conference to “explore and unveil new ideas that can make America a place for every single one of us to thrive.”

Did you even know this happened?

Our obsession over Trump is unhealthy both as individuals and as a society. Many critical issues that do not relate directly to Trump suffer a wholly undeserved decline in attention. It is important that civil society do its best to address those issues as well as deal with Trump.

But for leaders of the Democratic Party currently trying to wrap their mind around the fact that there is limited audience for their preferred message, there is a reasonably simple hack. Democrats should connect the monopoly on our brain Donald Trump has with the issues of economic fairness and patriotism that Democrats want to talk about by showing how Trump’s personal villainy relates directly to those issues.

In short, Trump is a pretend mega-rich billionaire who is desperately cashing in on the presidency in order to become as rich as he has always claimed to be. Trump’s corruption is a direct threat to all of us.

Trump’s corruption is not in the crossing of some lines that overly strict lawyers and moralists care about, but rather the wholesale selling out of ordinary Americans to the highest bidder.

Is Trump benefitting from a tax bill that threatens Medicare, increases health care premiums, and leaves 13 million families without health coverage to pay for tax breaks for Trump and people like him? Yes!

Is Trump hiding his personal tax returns while hiring alums of Goldman Sachs to write a tax bill giving his Trump’s family, donors, and business partners a staggering tax cut? Yes!

Did Trump make an end run around the U.S. Senate and install David Kautter, a tax avoidance expert, to run the IRS while it is determining whether the hedge fund of Trump’s ton donor owes more than $7 billion to the U.S. Treasury? Yes!

Sadly, similar stories of Trumpian corruption can be told about everything from giveaways to Big Oil to Big Pharma and from deregulating Wall Street to seeking to end net neutrality.

And yet Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer contrasts the idea of just running against Trump with Democrats’ need “to put together a strong, cohesive, economic group of proposals aimed at the middle class and those struggling to get there,” as if running against Trump the Corrupt was in anyway divorced from the economic struggles of the middle class.

Trump’s corruption is a throughline for how and for whom he runs domestic policy. And it’s also a threat to national security.

After running a campaign aimed in no small part at concerns about the rise of China, we learn that, as HuffPost reported on Monday, “72 hours after the Chinese government agreed to put a half-billion dollars into an Indonesian project that will personally enrich Donald Trump, the president ordered a bailout for a Chinese-government-owned cellphone maker,” ZTE.

Put aside important questions about whether elements of popular concern about China’s rise are legitimate.

As Josh Marshall has noted, not only did Trump indicate a desire to save ZTE, a “sanctions-busting Chinese telecommunications company,” right before China “agreed to loan $500 million to a major Trump-backed development in Indonesia,” it appears as if the Trump family involvement in the development is especially tight.

At the same time that Trump is violating the United States’ nuclear deal with Iran and reinstating sanctions on companies doing business with Iran, he is undermining efforts to hold a Chinese company accountable for past violations of … sanctions on Iran. 

Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) has suggested, as the Washington Post reported, that in addition to sanctions violations, the U.S. intelligence community views ZTE’s “technology as a national security risk.”

This ought to be a bipartisan Code Red moment!

The U.S. Constitution explicitly bans any officeholder from accepting “emoluments” (i.e, gifts) from any “foreign state,” such as China, unless Congress explicitly okays the gift before it happens.

But one needn’t look “merely” to the Constitution. Former U.S. Attorney Joyce Alene has observed that “this deal has all the hallmarks of a quid pro quo,” while the former head of the federal Office of Government Ethics, Walter Shaub, reminds us that “the bribery law (18 U.S.C. § 201) is still one of the few ethics laws that applies to the president, and ordering a cabinet agency to take action is one of the few things that would still qualify as an ‘official act’ after the Supreme Court gutted the law.”

So Trump seems to have been bribed by China and violated the Constitution he swore to uphold—and Democrats have thus far offered some tweets and a handful of press releases.

What else should they be doing? A lot.

At a basic minimum, Democrats should take every opportunity in front of a microphone to scream that the president seems to have been bought by China.

Democrats are not doing so.

Democrats could also withhold consent on the Senate floor. Adam Jentleson, former staffer for retired Sen. Harry Reid (D-NV) has noted that Senate Democrats “have a powerful tool at their disposal, if they choose to use it”—“the simple but fitting act of withholding consent. An organized effort to do so on the Senate floor can bring the body to its knees and block or severely slow down the agenda of a president who does not represent the majority of Americans.”

Democrats have not used this leverage to elevate public awareness of a possible bribe of Trump by China.

Instead, we see leading Democrats like the vice chairman on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, Mark Warner (D-VA), announce support for Trump’s pick to run the CIA (Gina Haspel, whom John McCain and others are opposing for having overseen torture) the day after the ZTE news broke.

When senior Democrats are supporting the president’s already compromised national security picks the day after a national security story breaks, the message is clear—the story is no big deal.

I believe Democrats could go even further than delaying the Senate—they could engage in acts of civil disobedience in violation of Senate or House rules in order to focus public attention.

They may get accused of being rash, uncivil, or premature in their analysis. They may get attacked by Trump or Fox News, especially if they seek to provoke Trump personally by suggesting he must be broke if he resorted to accepting bribes from a foreign government.

But that’s okay! If Democrats need to incite a counter-attack on their “extremism” in defense of the idea that the president of the United States ought not to accept bribes from China, so be it.

If Democrats used some of their power, this story could rise above the cacophony of Trumpist outrages. Democrats could call into question Trump’s patriotism and that of all of his enablers in Congress and across the Republican Party.

Or else there is always the popular Plan B: Democrats could cite some academics arguing that their cause is helpless and then complain about how hard it is to oppose the least popular president ever.

How’s that working for them?

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