For many of us, reading accusations of pay-to-play activity in politics has become an all too familiar practice. In only the last few weeks, we have been inundated with stories that focus on donors using the Clinton Foundation for access to the State Department, the Donald Trump Foundation’s contribution to a political action committee supporting FL Attorney General Pam Bondi, and even federal prosecutors declining to retry former Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell for accepting gifts from a businessman in his state. It may be tempting to lump these issues together and think this is just business as usual and that all politicians are bought off. However, these examples are not created equal. To put it a different way using Hillary Clinton’s infamous terminology: “What difference at this point does it make?” Well, let me tell you.
The Trump and Clinton donations are very different. While Clinton super PAC surrogates at Correct the Record have worked overtime pushing talking points intended to distract attention from the Clinton Foundation scandals by creating a Trump contribution issue, in comparison the IRS reporting mistake by Trump Foundation staff appears to be so minor that it strains credibility to assert it as a scandal at all. The “issue” there is that in the context of Bondi raising close to $2 million for her Justice for All PACs, she apparently solicited and received a $25,000 contribution from Donald Trump. His accountant then cut a check from the wrong bank account, thinking the contribution was going to a similarly named charitable organization.
Writing the check from the wrong bank account caused the contribution to be reported to the IRS instead of the Florida Elections Commission. When the misdirected contribution came to light, Trump’s accounting team worked with the IRS on a $2,500 settlement. Trump’s accountant was certainly guilty of making a minor mistake, but it defies logic to assert that a $25,000 political contribution, in the context of millions of dollars raised, would influence Bondi, even if, as Trump’s opponents have asserted (without a shred of evidence), she was aware of complaints against Trump University. Trump’s statements during the Republican primary about how he personally used campaign contributions to further his interests create suspicion and make him unsympathetic here, but his intent doesn’t reflect reality. Clinton loyalists who disagree must then explain what Trump got for his far larger $100,000 contribution to the Clinton Foundation?
Legally and ethically, PAC and campaign contributions are different from personal gifts. Gov. McDonnell found that out when the US Department of Justice prosecuted him for gifts from a businessman who wanted the credibility that a relationship with the Virginia Governor and attending official events would convey. Although the US Supreme Court ultimately struck down the McDonnell conviction, it is hard to distinguish between what he was prosecuted for from the seemingly endless pay-to-play activities of the Clintons while Hillary was Secretary of State.
The foreign government contributions to the Clinton organizations and the official State Department meetings that followed have appropriately been condemned by numerous editorial pages across America. What has been overshadowed by the disingenuous noise about Florida contributions generated by Clinton surrogates is the recently reported $17.6 million paid to Bill Clinton for a so-called “honorary chancellor” role at a for-profit college company called Laureate International Universities. Imagine the surprise of State Department staff when they were personally told by Secretary Clinton in an e-mail to hold a seat for Laureate International’s founder Doug Becker at a prestigious private State Department dinner on higher-education policy. Likely they had never heard of Laureate International, but it turns out that when you pay the Secretary of State’s husband millions of dollars, that gets you the validation and high-level contacts that come from the Secretary inviting you to dinner.
A first-year law student studying the fact pattern of a little-known company making gifts or direct payment to the spouse of a government official and then that official inviting the corporate founder to an official event would assume they were reading the indictment filed against McDonnell. In fact they would be reading the story of the Clintons and Laureate International. After the Supreme Court’s ruling in the McDonnell case, paying-to-play with a family member might not be a crime, but it looks terrible and the press does a disservice when they allow Clinton surrogates to make false equivalency arguments between Trump’s reporting error and undisputed payments to the spouse of the US Secretary of State.
Charlie Spies has previously served as counsel to the RNC, Mitt Romney’s 08 campaign, and Jeb Bush’s super PAC “Right to Rise USA.” He currently leads Clark Hill’s national Political Law practice and is Member in Charge of the DC office.