In the big-picture conversation around the 2016 presidential election, the major negative narratives about Donald Trump have tended to focus on his racism, his temperament, or his tendency to tell lies.
Yet there’s another important Trump trait that’s gotten some attention but really needs to get much more — he’s corrupt, and in a consistent way.
Whenever Trump has been in positions of power or authority, he has demonstrated a pattern of trying to enrich himself by abusing the trust others have placed in him — whether it’s creditors, contractors, charitable givers, Trump University students, regulators, or campaign donors.
Over the past several months — and, indeed, the past few decades — reporters have unearthed many alarming stories that show this. They’ve reported on Trump’s many shady business practices. His shady charity. His shady fake university scam. His shady campaign spending. His many shady associates. And, last but by no means least, there is Trump’s refusal to release tax returns or other financial information that would shed further light on his business practices, associates, and philanthropic undertakings.
Now, sometimes Trump’s abuses of trust entail breaking the law, and sometimes they’re within the bounds of the law. And sometimes the legality of Trump’s actions isn’t yet clear — as in the case of Trump University, which will face a fraud trial shortly after the election, and with some of the controversies around the Trump Foundation.
But the common thread is that Trump screws people over to benefit himself. And despite the plethora of excellent reporting on this topic, many voters seem to be unaware of his troubling history here, and may view him primarily as a successful businessman who says some offensive things. A recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, for instance, found that Trump had a 10-point advantage over Clinton on “being honest and straightforward.”
Indeed, he is betting his campaign on his hopes that he can frame himself as an independent outsider free of special interest influence, to contrast with Hillary Clinton, whom he has dubbed “crooked.”
But Trump’s record makes it crystal clear that he’s more interested in rapaciously extracting what money he can and doing what he wants, with little regard to laws, rules, or people who aren’t Donald Trump. Furthermore, he’s repeatedly proven willing to violate norms about what sort of behavior is acceptable and ethical.
And most importantly of all, if elected president, Trump would wield incredible power. Yet if you look at what he’s done with power in the past, suddenly this theme in his biography — his corruption — becomes among the most troubling of his many troubling qualities. There are many, many reasons to be concerned about a Trump administration’s ethics and potential to abuse power. Here are just a few.
Trump has a history of shady business practices
First off, the way Trump has run his businesses for the past few decades should raise grave doubts about how he’d run the federal government — he’s allegedly been willing to break rules, break promises, and discriminate against nonwhite people.
There are the hundreds of accusations that Trump refused to pay contractors and workers what they were owed, which the Wall Street Journal and USA Today compiled this year. “The actions in total paint a portrait of Trump’s sprawling organization frequently failing to pay small businesses and individuals, then sometimes tying them up in court and other negotiations for years,” USA Today’s Steve Reilly wrote. “In some cases, the Trump teams financially overpower and outlast much smaller opponents, draining their resources.” (Trump told Reilly that if he ever didn’t pay, it must have been because he was unhappy with the work.)
And recently, Republican consultant Brian James Walsh further corroborated these accusations with his own personal story:
True story - my Dad's company was stiffed by Trump on a six figure telecom job in the 1980's. Trump told them it would cost more to sue him.— Brian Walsh (@brianjameswalsh) September 27, 2016
Next, there’s the housing discrimination case against him from the 1970s. The Department of Justice alleged that Trump and his father discriminated against black applicants for apartments in Trump-owned buildings. One superintendent said he had been instructed to write “C” (for “colored”) on every application from a prospective black tenant, and others described similar racial “codes,” as the Daily Beast’s Gideon Resnick has written.
The government argued that black applicants would repeatedly be told there were no vacancies in Trump-owned buildings, but white applicants would then inquire and get offers. The Trumps denied the claims and fought back in court, but eventually settled — “with no admission of guilt,” Trump pointed out during Monday’s debate, which is not exactly saying he was innocent.
Then there was Trump’s illegal financial maneuver back in 1986. That year, he tried to take over two rival casino companies by buying up their stock. But the law required him to disclose his large purchases to the Federal Trade Commission in advance, and he failed to do so. The matter ended up in court, and he was eventually forced to pay a $750,000 penalty as a result.
And there’s the matter of Trump’s alleged contacts with the mob. Now, to be fair to the GOP nominee, the Mafia’s influence was pervasive in the New York City construction industry at the time. Still, when reputed mobster Robert LiButti was a high-dollar gambler at the Trump Plaza in Atlantic City, the Trump Plaza worked very hard indeed to keep him happy, as Michael Isikoff of Yahoo News reported:
- When LiButti demanded that women or black card dealers not be allowed on his games, the Trump Plaza kept them away from him — and it was later fined $200,000 for violating state nondiscrimination laws.
- The Trump Plaza also gave LiButti nine luxury cars as gifts, all of which he quickly exchanged for a total of $1.65 million in cash. But cash gifts from casinos to high rollers were then illegal in the state, so the Trump Plaza was slapped with another fine — this one for $450,000.
- LiButti was wiretapped bragging that he was “very close with” Trump and that he rode in Trump’s helicopter.
And Trump’s reputed mob contacts didn’t stop there. “I’ve covered Donald Trump off and on for 27 years, and in that time I’ve encountered multiple threads linking Trump to organized crime,” reporter David Cay Johnston wrote in Politico Magazine in May. “No other candidate for the White House this year has anything close to Trump’s record of repeated social and business dealings with mobsters, swindlers, and other crooks.”
Trump has used other people’s donations to his charity to benefit himself
Donald Trump has a charitable family foundation to which, in recent years, he has given hardly any money, instead raising the vast majority of its funds from others. That’s rather dishonest of him, since he constantly claims that the foundation’s donations are from his own pocketbook. But the more serious problem is that he’s then used several hundred thousand dollars of that foundation money in deeply questionable ways that may well have run afoul of laws against “self-dealing” with charity money.
For instance, in September, the Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold — the reporter who’s absolutely owned the Trump Foundation beat — reported that Trump used $258,000 of the foundation’s money to settle legal problems involving his for-profit businesses.
- First, in 2007, Trump’s Mar-a-Lago club was fined $120,000 by the town of Palm Beach, Florida, because the height of its flagpole violated town rules. An eventual settlement entailed the town waiving the fines and Trump committing to donate $100,000 to a veterans charity. But Trump used his foundation, not any of his businesses, to make the donation.
- Second, in 2010, a guy named Martin Greenberg sued Trump’s golf course, claiming he was cheated out of a promised million-dollar prize for getting a hole in one during a charity tournament. The golf course agreed to settlement in which it would donate to Greenberg’s charitable foundation — but the $158,000 sent over was instead from the Trump Foundation, not any of Trump’s businesses.
Again, what Trump seems to have done here is used other people’s charity donations to get his own businesses off the hook for lawsuits. Which seems ... pretty corrupt. (The Trump campaign sent out a statement that attacked Fahrenthold but did not dispute any facts in his story.)
And eventually, Farenthold found another bombshell. Businessman Richard Ebers bought almost $1.9 million worth of goods and services from Trump or his businesses, but he was told to pay Trump’s tax-exempt foundation instead, according to Fahrenthold’s sources. But according to the law, Trump should have paid taxes on that money as income — and his campaign refuses to say whether he did so.
And those are just the latest Trump Foundation controversies. Fahrenthold has also reported on an illegal $25,000 donation the foundation made to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s political group around the time she was weighing whether to investigate Trump University, for which the foundation was hit with an IRS penalty. (The Trump campaign claims this was a mistake.) There was also that time Trump spent $12,000 of the foundation’s money to buy a football helmet autographed by Tim Tebow, plus a jersey, at a charity auction. And much more.
Law professor Adam Chodorow writes in Slate writes that all this, together, seems to indicate Trump is using his tax-exempt charity as a “personal piggy bank.” He continues that the foundation should likely “lose its tax-exempt status’ and “Trump arguably should report the money it spent on his behalf as income,” adding: “If I worked at the Internal Revenue Service, I would refer Trump to the Justice Department for a criminal investigation.” Another law professor, Philip Hackney, makes a similar argument at The Surly Subgroup blog.
Trump University is facing a fraud trial
Repeatedly during the campaign, Trump has admitted that he has been “greedy” in business — but he’s argued that as president, he would channel that trait to benefit the American people. “I want to grab all that money. I’m going to be greedy for the United States,” he’s said.
It’s a dubious claim, made even more dubious by his behavior in the matter of Trump University. This was the GOP nominee’s seminar business that purported to be able to teach its students secrets of real estate investing. Former students sued Trump, claiming they were bilked out of their money, and he’s set to face a trial for fraud in the matter shortly after the election. The New York attorney general’s office has also sued, claiming Trump University made deceptive claims.
"[The instructors] were unqualified people posing as Donald Trump's 'right-hand men,'" Jason Nicholas, a former employee, said in one deposition. "They were teaching methods that were unethical, and they had had little to no experience flipping properties or doing real estate deals. It was a façade, a total lie."
The business model was, apparently, to try to hook the gullible with a free seminar and pressure them into signing up for more and more expensive installments that promised to teach students how to invest in real estate.
But these “classes” were, apparently, worthless. "To my knowledge, not a single consumer who paid for a Trump University seminar program went on to successfully invest in real estate based upon the techniques that were taught," former employee Ronald Schnackenberg said in another deposition. Read Libby Nelson for more.
Trump won’t release his tax returns, which is unprecedented for a recent presidential candidate
Every major party nominee in the past three decades has released his or her tax returns. But Donald Trump is still refusing to do so, and is giving a nonsensical justification for it.
Trump says he won’t release his returns because he’s currently under an IRS audit. But as the IRS has confirmed, being audited doesn’t mean he has to keep his returns secret. Furthermore, Trump has many previous years of tax returns that are no longer being audited that he could release — but he refuses to.
So there has naturally been a lot of speculation on what Trump is trying to hide here. Do the returns show he’s not as rich as he says he is? That he’s given far less to charity than he claims? That he’d rarely even paid taxes? That he has a lot of money offshore?
“How much tax is Trump paying or sheltering domestically vs. in foreign jurisdictions? That needs to be known to ascertain which nations Trump has financial ties to and where he may be susceptible to pressure,” Richard Painter and Norm Eisen write at the Washington Post. Until Trump releases his returns, we won’t know.
Trump has spent millions of dollars of campaign funds on Trump businesses
As of August, the Trump campaign had allotted 7 percent of its total spending so far — more than $8.2 million — to companies owned by Trump or his children, according to an analysis by Politico’s Ken Vogel. Payments went to various Trump venues, an aviation company Trump owns, Trump Tower for office space, his corporate staff, and various other vendors.
Now, it’s not as if Trump should have donated his company’s stuff for free — indeed, that would have been a prohibited corporate contribution. And the Trump campaign tends to respond by emphasizing that Trump put $54 million of his own money into the campaign. Still, he has deliberately chosen to spend his campaign money (which includes millions raised from other people) on companies he or his children own rather than on independent vendors.
Meanwhile, taxpayers are chipping in too — the US Secret Service has paid $1.6 million to travel on a plane operated by one of Trump’s companies, according to another report by Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf. Again, Secret Service reimbursement to a campaign for travel is common. But as the authors write, since Trump owns the aviation company, “the government is effectively paying him.”
And about that Trump Tower rent — shortly after the Trump campaign shifted from a largely self-funded model to one more reliant on donors, Trump nearly quintupled the rent that Trump Tower was charging the campaign for office space, according to the Huffington Post’s S.V. Dáte. This came at a time when the campaign didn’t expand its staff size, though Trump’s team later told CNN that they were paying for two new floors “in anticipation of more staff.”
Donald Trump has surrounded himself with shady people during this campaign
Throughout the campaign, Trump has claimed not only that he would be an excellent president but that he’d be excellent at hiring. “I’m going to surround myself only with the best and most serious people,” he said last year.
Instead, he has surrounded himself with people who’ve not only demonstrated a history of unethical behavior but also abused their past power, often to try to intimidate critics or opponents.
Trump appointed New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie to head his transition, giving him a key role in recommending candidates for hundreds if not thousands of federal jobs. Yet two of Christie’s job appointees in New Jersey are currently facing trial for their involvement in the Bridgegate scandal — prosecutors say they conspired to cause a serious traffic jam in Fort Lee, New Jersey, to punish the town’s mayor for refusing to endorse Christie’s reelection campaign. Another aide, David Wildstein, has already pled guilty in the matter.
Furthermore, prosecutors also asserted in court in September — and Wildstein testified — that Christie knew about both his aides’ actions and their motivations while the scheme was being carried out. (Christie has long denied this.) Wildstein tesitfied that he bragged to Christie about what he was doing when he saw him at an event, and that Christie laughed and responded with jokes.
Craziest of all, Donald Trump himself has long said that Christie “totally knew about” his aides’ actions in Bridgegate. Yet this suspicion that Christie was fine with his aides’ abuse of power in a petty revenge plot seems to have been no obstacle for Trump in his determination that Christie is the best-qualified person to help him staff the federal government.
Another current Trump adviser is Roger Ailes, who was pushed out of his job as CEO of Fox News just in July over allegations that he sexually harassed multiple women, which, if true, is clearly an abuse of power. (Ailes denied the allegations, but some of his harassing comments were caught on tape, according to New York magazine’s Gabriel Sherman, and Fox settled with accuser Gretchen Carlson for the hefty sum of $20 million.)
Furthermore, while at Fox News, Ailes also used company money to try to orchestrate smear campaigns against journalists from other outlets who were reporting on him. Yet according to BuzzFeed News’s McKay Coppins, Ailes is “playing a much larger backstage role in handling Trump than most people realize.”
And then there is Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, who by some accounts has effectively been running the Trump campaign for a few months. Kushner is a real estate heir who took over his father’s company after his father was sent to prison for tax evasion, making illegal campaign contributions, and witness tampering. When Kushner’s holdings ran into some financial trouble in the wake of the economic crisis, he asked fellow mogul Richard Mack for a write-down on a loan Mack had extended him — but Mack refused.
Not long afterward, Kushner apparently wanted revenge on Mack, and he sought to get it by using the newspaper he owned — the New York Observer. Kushner had heard a rumor about Mack, and he wanted his reporters to publish a story about it. “There's a guy named Richard Mack, and we've got to get this guy,” Kushner told one reporter, according to Esquire’s Vicky Ward. Reporters were put on the case and failed to corroborate the rumor, but Kushner kept pushing to move the story forward anyway, as the Observer’s then-editor, Elizabeth Spiers, recounts. It never saw the light of day, but it’s deeply concerning about how Kushner operates.
What’s most troubling of all, though, is that Trump is surely aware of everything I’ve mentioned in this section but doesn’t seem to mind. He puts a man whose appointees are facing trial in charge of government appointments. He invites an alleged serial sexual harasser who tries to intimidate critical journalists to be a key adviser. This should set off alarm bells.
Trump’s corruption is a threat to our norms of governance
“Americans pride themselves on our politicians' respect for the rule of law, on the checks and balances that protect us from the powerful,” Ezra Klein wrote earlier this year. “But as often as not, our real protection is found not in laws but in norms.”
And that’s the deeper problem underlying all this — that Trump has repeatedly shown he has little respect for norms of ethical or acceptable behavior.
There’s been much discussion about how Trump has repeatedly violated political norms of acceptable behavior — with his proposed Muslim ban, his constant vicious attacks on critics, his attempts to discredit a judge because he happens to be Mexican-American, and countless other actions.
But his decades-long track record in the business sector and the nonprofit world, and his management of his current campaign, suggests he’s willing to violate ethical norms too. He treats rules or laws as inconveniences. He ignores conflicts of interest. He takes what he wants, regardless of who gets hurt. And all this is when he is simply a wealthy businessman.
Yet if Trump wins in November, he becomes the most powerful person in the world, with a nuclear arsenal, the US military, and thousands of government appointees who can carry out his wishes at his disposal.
No one can say for sure what will happen then. But we can’t say we weren’t warned.