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Analysis

Trump Is Using Pardons To Rig The System For His Pals

The man who as a candidate railed against our “rigged system” is, as president, only too happy to do a little rigging himself.

June 1, 2018

Cross-posted from Huff­Post.

On Thursday, Pres­id­ent Donald Trump announced via Twit­ter (of course) that he would grant a “full pardon” to conser­vat­ive comment­ator Dinesh D’Souza. D’Souza was sentenced to five years of proba­tion for will­fully viol­at­ing federal campaign finance law in 2014 and was, in the pres­id­ent’s view, “very badly treated by our govern­ment.”

Yet again, the man who as a candid­ate railed against our “rigged system” is, as pres­id­ent, only too happy to do a little rigging himself. The result ― one set of rules for favored insiders, and another for every­one else ― is exactly what many conser­vat­ive crit­ics of campaign finance law claim to hate about our system.

D’Souza made a name for himself in the 1980s as a right-wing provocateur and enfant terrible ― a Gen-X precursor to Milo Yian­no­poulos who has more recently devoted himself to blam­ing “the cultural left” for 9/11 and level­ing espe­cially spite­ful attacks at Barack Obama.

In 2014 he was indicted for making “straw contri­bu­tions” to a Repub­lican U.S. Senate candid­ate in New York. A straw contri­bu­tion is where a donor who has reached his own contri­bu­tion cap, or who does not want to be named, directs others to contrib­ute to a candid­ate with the prom­ise to reim­burse them. It is one of the most commonly prosec­uted campaign finance viol­a­tions in our coun­try. And as with all campaign viol­a­tions, a crim­inal convic­tion requires that the viol­a­tion be “know­ing and will­ful.”

That stand­ard was easily met here. In fact, D’Souza admit­ted in open court that he knew what he was doing was illegal. His main defense was a version of “every­body does it,” which was his basis for arguing that he had been select­ively prosec­uted by the Obama admin­is­tra­tion to serve a polit­ical vendetta.

There is, to put it simply, no evid­ence to support this claim. D’Souza has never provided a shred of proof that any Obama admin­is­tra­tion offi­cial improp­erly interfered in his case. In fact, the U.S. Attor­ney who brought the case, Preet Bhar­ara, was renowned for going after prom­in­ent Demo­cratic office­hold­ers and donors.

It’s true, as D’Souza and his defend­ers like to point out, that most campaign finance viol­a­tions don’t result in crim­inal charges. Lately, they have fixated on the enter­tainer and Trump nemesis Rosie O’Don­nell, who has admit­ted to inad­vert­ently making excess­ive contri­bu­tions to Demo­crats. O’Don­nell says she thought she could rely on candid­ates to refund the excess­ive amounts (as indeed they must). That was sloppy and argu­ably irre­spons­ible. Still, her beha­vior was a far cry from D’Souz­a’s conscious scheme to evade the law ― which he tried to cover up by, among other things, lying to the candid­ate who received his illegal funds.

In short, as the presid­ing judge at D’Souz­a’s senten­cing put it, “the defend­ant’s claim of select­ive prosec­u­tion, legally speak­ing, is ’all hat, no cattle.’”

At the end of the day, of course, it is hard to argue that D’Souz­a’s illegal contri­bu­tions made much of a differ­ence; his candid­ate lost in a land­slide. As a matter of fact, most straw donor cases involve sums of money that are minis­cule compared to what mega-donors are allowed to give to super PACs work­ing hand-in-glove with candid­ates. Blame for that rests squarely with the Supreme Court, Congress and the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion.

But the pres­id­ent’s decision to excuse blatant lawless­ness certainly does­n’t help. It is almost surreal to remem­ber that he railed against our “broken system” of big money polit­ics when he was running. Many took Trump’s insist­ence that the “system is rigged” to refer to well-heeled elites in both parties bend­ing the law to manip­u­late the polit­ical process to their advant­age. And now he is signal­ing to his support­ers that if they break the law, he will gladly help them to evade the consequences. Coupled with his admin­is­tra­tion’s will­ing­ness to do the bidding of Repub­lican mega-donors on everything from health care to foreign policy, it is hard to see how this is anyone’s idea of what it means to “drain the swamp.”

Whatever else you think of their posi­tions, conser­vat­ive crit­ics of post-Water­gate campaign finance regu­la­tions are right that too often the system favors insiders who know how to work the levers of power while coming down hard on the bit play­ers. The pres­id­ent’s move to pardon D’Souza is a perfect illus­tra­tion of that dynamic. The rule of law means we all follow the same rules and suffer consequences for break­ing them – regard­less of our connec­tions or polit­ical party. Even those sympath­etic to D’Souza, and the pres­id­ent should keep that in mind.

(Image: Flickr.com/GageSkid­more)