There is an automatic, almost helpless quality to President Trump’s crimes, which threatens to exhaust the resources of even the most dogged congressional Democrats, and rob the public of a more thorough audit of American corruption in the Trump era.
Trump is a venal crook. In his two years as president he has never withstood the temptation to grift or self-deal, even in the course of his public duties, and that tendency hasn’t abated at all since his party lost control of Congress in November.
For instance: Amid a pile up of stories about how Trump’s decision to shut down the government has left national parks across the country slathered in feces and litter, Trump’s National Park Service nevertheless found the funds necessary to keep the historic clock tower at the Old Post Office pavilion in Washington, DC, clean and open for tourists. The building itself, which the U.S. government owns, hasn’t functioned as a post office for many decades, but in 2016 it opened for business as the Trump International Hotel, and an abandoned clock tower, which remains a tourist attraction, would have likely cost Trump money.
The General Services Administration, which is effectively Trump’s DC landlord, insists that the clock tower is exempt from Trump’s shutdown for purely coincidental reasons, but the controversy is now an obvious focal point for the House Committee on Natural Resources, which oversees the Park Service, and the House Oversight Committee, which has broad jurisdiction over the conduct of the government.
This first full week of Democratic control of the House of Representatives should provide new clues about how Democrats plan to deploy their investigative resources. As they put those plans in motion, they should consider the opportunity cost of running every Trump grift to ground with the full ceremonial power of the oversight process. We should obviously get to the bottom of the clock tower scandal and the myriad other instances in which Trump has mingled public and private business, but not in a scavenger hunt-like way that pulls resources and public attention away from Trump’s more consequential corruption of the country. In the realm of ethics, as in the realm of public relations, and now the national parks under his stewardship, Trump has a tendency to flood the environment with shit, in a manner that obscures a bigger picture. A few hundred thousand dollars in golf cart rentals here, a money-making tourist attraction there, add up to a broad and gross pattern of petty theft, but suddenly we’ve lost sight of the greater crime, which is the conscription of the American corporate sector into his program of racist authoritarianism and plunder.
Corporate leaders struck a delicate public balance with Trump, after he became president, reflecting awareness that he won high office as one of the most reviled public figures in the world, on a platform of anti-immigrant and Islamophobic panic, and that associating with him might cost them customers. They’ve been long forgotten, but shortly after he took office, Trump convened two advisory panels—the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative and the Strategic and Policy Forum—composed largely of corporate leaders, who were nominally assigned to provide Trump guidance on how to foster economic growth. Their participation was framed in terms of the public good, rather than their private interests, but in truth, these were quid pro quo affairs in which leaders with business before Trump’s administration curried favor with the president, as he sought to quell their concerns that associating with him would be bad for their bottom lines.
Many of the participants faced intense pressure not to join the boards in the first place, and a few even dropped out under duress as Trump implemented his Muslim ban, and pulled the U.S. out of the Paris climate change agreement. But it wasn’t until Trump praised the Nazis marching in Charlottesville, VA that a mass exodus began, compelling Trump to disband both panels.
If that was the beginning and end of corporate America’s flirtation with Trumpism, it would be a fairly banal story about business leaders trying to navigate turbulent and unfamiliar waters, before retreating to safe harbor. In reality the whole thing was a charade obscuring an unseemly and ongoing alliance. All along, Trump has sought to lever his corporate-friendly fiscal and regulatory agenda, and his deafening public megaphone, into patronage relationships with corporate leaders, and has lashed out intemperately (even retributively) at those who haven’t adequately bent to his will.
Another forgotten episode involves Trump’s Medicare and Medicaid administrator, Seema Verma, who convened a meeting of top insurance company officials and regulators, and threatened to withhold billions of dollars in public funds intended to offset out-of-pocket costs for low-income beneficiaries, unless the insurers agreed to support the repeal of the Affordable Care Act.
The repeal legislation famously failed, but this episode, which deserves close congressional scrutiny, revealed the real contours of the Trump-corporate relationship much more closely than the kabuki advisory panels did.
After Trump signed the Republican corporate tax cut bill into law, dozens of enormous corporations, including some represented on the disbanded advisory panels, participated in a grotesque public relations spectacle, in which they issued statements attributing long-planned holiday bonuses to the tax cuts, allowing Trump and Republican leaders to claim credit for the bonuses while providing the companies themselves some free advertising.
Because the tax cuts have accrued overwhelmingly to the richest people in America—because they arguably placed downward pressure on wages, and created offshoring incentives for large employers—they became a huge political drag on Republicans in last year’s elections. But the political failure of the tax cuts shouldn’t lull Democrats into complacency about the fact that Trump and these corporate leaders worked hand in glove to help Trump parlay the tax cuts into electoral dividends for him and his fellow Republicans.
Trump is an enticing target for Democratic investigators, but as a historically unpopular president, his misconduct is already widely known to his opposition, and as head of the executive branch, he has unique powers to thwart or draw out investigations of his personal conduct. The corporate executives who entered patronage relationships with Trump have no such powers. To the contrary, they have unique incentives to be reasonably, if not eagerly, responsive to requests from Congress and congressional subpoenas. I’d like to know why these companies, which shape American life, and depend on American consumer loyalty, chose to provide Trump and Republicans such valuable political p.r., and whether there’s more to the quid pro quo than the tax cut law itself, which was already on the books when those fawning statements of gratitude went out.
That information should be easy to obtain. Democrats are embroiled in a big internal debate over their party’s agenda, its reliance on corporate money, and the connection between the two. There will be voices in the party that discourage this kind of oversight, for fear of scaring off donors, or harming powerful perceived allies, but House Democrats should ignore those voices. We all deserve clear insight into the corporate-donor class’s motivations, its bottom-line commitments, and what values (diversity, tolerance, the environment) it deems disposable in exchange for tax and regulatory leniency. Democrats have a perfect opportunity to push the messy truth out to the public. Their natural fixation on Trump shouldn’t transform into an excuse to blind themselves to the ugly nature of the broader political economy—and how seamlessly it absorbed Trump when the cameras weren’t rolling.