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Lessons From the Donald in Campaign Finance

Trump has been candid about why he gives to politicians.

August 17, 2015

Donald Trump is my spirit animal, sent to guide me through the murky world of campaign finance. The Donald drops truth bombs willy-nilly.

Earlier this month, during the Republican presidential contender debate, Trump laid it out. He gives money because he wants favors. When he contributes, it’s a business transaction plain and simple.

But that’s not the way the Supreme Court wants to see the world. For years now, it has engaged in magical thinking trying to understand the role of money in politics. In McCutcheon v. FEC, the Court treated us to this: “When an individual contributes money to a candidate, he exercises both of those rights: The contribution ‘serves as a general expression of support for the candidate and his views’ and ‘serves to affiliate a person with a candidate.’”

But the Donald knows better.

“I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this. Before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give,” my spirit animal barked out during the debate.

The Donald is a businessman who expects a return on his investment: “And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”

He doesn’t give money for kooky reasons like “free expression.”

The Supreme Court conceded, campaign contributions may entangle donors and politicians in  “ingratiation and access.” But that’s “`not corruption’….[It] embod[ies] a central feature of democracy—that constituents support candidates who share their beliefs and interests, and candidates who are elected can be expected to be responsive to those concerns.”

The Roberts Court, amazingly, transforms one of the most troubling aspects of campaign contributions into a pillar of democracy.

Not so fast, my spirit animal notes.

In the last 26 years, Trump has given about $1.5 million to federal and state political candidates (or parties or committees). He’s given close to half a million since 2012, in 65 individual transactions. His money has travelled far and wide, to candidates in Arizona (Senator John McCain), South Carolina (Senator Lindsey Graham), California (Attorney General Kamala Harris) and Alabama (Senator Jeff Sessions) among others.

Trump’s history of political giving is not all that different from many other donors. If you look at the habits of the top 200 individual political donors (Trump ranked 184 in 2014), you will find that they almost always send their money far beyond their home state. Indeed, in the 2014 federal elections, on average 60% of campaign contributions came from donors based outside of the candidate’s district.

So Trump and his fellow top 200 donors are not citizens trying to use donations to strengthen the representative-to-constituent feedback loop, regardless what the Supreme Court wants to think. So much for the Court’s notion that contributions are just a way of making elected officials responsive to their “constituents.”

No, their goals are very clear and very transactional.

Here’s the Donald later during the debate:

BRET BAIER: You said recently, quote, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

TRUMP: You’d better believe it.               

Pressed to give an example of a quid pro quo he had obtained, Trump wisely chose not to confess to bribery and simply bragged that he got Hilary Clinton to attend his third wedding. You might think, that’s not so bad. After all, if his version of a quid pro quo is getting Clinton to attend a party, then let’s face it, that’s not corruption. It’s just appalling bad taste in what social events she choses to attend.

That anecdote does fit in somewhat with the Supreme Court’s conception of corruption. As far as the Supreme Court is concerned, corruption only occurs when there is a direct quid pro quo: cash on the barrel in exchange for a direct political favor.

But the Donald reveals a deeper truth. While donors and politicians tread carefully try to avoid direct cash for favors transactions, they all know the world of campaign contributions is always simmering with quid pro quo. Donors give because they want something. Everyone knows they want something. And everyone knows those wants are going to have to be addressed some way or another. That consciousness permeates our political system.

Earlier in the debate, Kentucky Senator Rand Paul (R-KY) called it clearly: "This is what’s wrong. He [Trump] buys and sells politicians of all stripes.”

(Photo: Flickr/GageSkidmore)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.

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