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The Tim Kaine gift controversy, explained

Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

Hillary Clinton's choice of Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine to be her running mate hasn't exactly set the world on fire, but overall it's been more well-received than not. Kaine is well-liked in the political world, has executive experience, and has become a leading foreign policy voice in the Senate.

Donald Trump has naturally tried to damage that reputation, attempting to dub the soon-to-be VP nominee "Corrupt Kaine" due to expensive gifts he accepted during his years in state politics:

There’s two parts to Trump’s attack here. First, there’s the statement that Kaine accepted expensive gifts during his governorship — which is true, though the specifics are exaggerated by Trump, and also perfectly legal according to Virginia law.

But second, there’s the charge that Kaine should have been indicted for those gifts like his successor, Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell — which is utterly baseless based on what we know.

The gifts Tim Kaine accepted

Douglas Graham/Roll Call/Getty

First as lieutenant governor and then as governor of Virginia between 2001 and 2009, Kaine disclosed accepting gifts that, in total, amounted to an estimated value of over $160,000.

These gifts were completely legal according to Virginia’s famously lax ethics laws, and they were all properly disclosed by Kaine (and reported on by media outlets) at the time.

However, during Clinton’s VP search last month, Politico’s Isaac Arnsdorf resurfaced the matter. Arnsdorf tallied up disclosure forms compiled by the Virginia Public Access Project, and argued that the gifts could be a possible vulnerability for Kaine if he was on the ticket.

Now, when you think of tens of thousands of dollars in gifts, you might envision expensive swag. For the most part, that isn't what we’re talking about here. Instead, about three-quarters of these "gifts" are payment for Kaine’s travel — airfare and accommodations — to various events.

Furthermore, over $100,000 of the $160,000 total were travel expenses paid for by the 2008 Obama presidential campaign ($45,000), Kaine’s own leadership committee ($20,000), the Democratic Party of Virginia ($11,000), and Virginia’s economic development agency ($32,000) — all relating to events that Kaine attended.

Still, there are some eyebrow-raising line items in the remainder:

  • Wealthy investor Jim Murray, a friend of Kaine’s, let Kaine and his family stay for a week at his vacation home on the private Caribbean island of Mustique in 2005. Kaine estimated that the stay was worth $18,000, and disclosed it. Murray recently told the Washington Post’s Rosalind Helderman, "I’ve got no business with the government of Virginia, and I’ve never gotten anything in return."
  • Stuart Siegel, another friend of Kaine’s who chairs a men’s clothing company, gave Kaine $5,500 worth of clothing in 2003 and 2005.
  • Teva Pharmaceuticals, an Israeli drug company, paid $12,000 for Kaine’s travel to the Democratic Governors Association meeting in 2006. Helderman writes that "the company received a $900,000 economic incentive to expand its Virginia operations" two years later.
  • Dominion, a Virginia power company with an obvious interest in state regulatory matters, paid $2,000 for Kaine’s travel to events in 2006 because, according to Arnsdorf, Kaine "missed the commercial flight he booked to attend a state legislator’s funeral."
  • Kaine also got some tickets to events — Washington Wizards tickets from a donor, and Dave Matthews concert tickets from the University of Virginia.

Again, there’s no allegation that Kaine did anything illegal here. Once he went over to the Senate in 2012, and had to abide by more stringent federal restrictions, all this seems to have stopped. Furthermore, Kaine has been extensively vetted by the Clinton campaign for possible scandal, and they appear to think there’s nothing too damaging in his background.

Still, the disclosures certainly open Kaine up to criticism for his willingness to accept these gifts from wealthy donors and companies. Indeed, after several scandals broke involving gifts and Virginia politicians, Kaine wrote in a 2013 op-ed that the state’s gift rules were "all but guaranteed to create problems," and that he felt "regret" that he didn’t suggest using the tough federal gift restrictions instead.

There are some big differences with Bob McDonnell’s situation

Alex Wong / Getty

The Trump campaign also brought up the fact that Kaine’s Republican successor as governor of Virginia, Bob McDonnell, was prosecuted and convicted for corruption related to gifts he received, and questioned why Kaine wasn’t.

Now, McDonnell’s prosecution was indeed controversial — many legal experts and politicians in both parties argued that his prosecution was a stretch and risked overly criminalizing ordinary politics. And his conviction ended up being unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court in June.

Plus, there are a few important differences between the two situations.

First of all, McDonnell and his wife Maureen did not disclose tens of thousands of dollars in gifts and loans they got from Star Scientific CEO Jonnie Williams, including a Rolex watch for McDonnell, an $18,000 shopping trip for Maureen, and the catering bill for their daughter’s wedding. By contrast, the gifts to Kaine that are being discussed were all properly disclosed.

Second, the Department of Justice investigation focused overwhelmingly on the extensive financial relationship between the McDonnell family and that one businessman, Williams. Prosecutors made a case that McDonnell deliberately tried to use his state power to help Williams’s company purely in return for those extensive gifts and loans from Williams — rather than, say, to help create jobs in the state.

Prosecutors came up with some evidence that that’s what happened — for instance, emails showed McDonnell contacting a staffer about a Star Scientific-related matter just minutes after discussing a loan with Williams. No similar evidence has emerged about Kaine. (It's also worth noting that President George W. Bush's appointees, not President Obama's, oversaw the Justice Department for all but one of the years at issue here.)

None of this, of course, exempts Kaine from criticism for what he did. Still, from what we know now, the comparison of what Kaine and McDonnell did is a pretty big stretch.

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