PD Editorial: When big donors come calling

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When candidates and their benefactors talk about the intersection between money and politics, it’s usually to deny any quids and quos between campaign cash and official acts.

There are, of course, some exceptions.

Donald Trump is nothing if he isn’t exceptional, and he’s had plenty to say about his campaign contributions and his expectations as a donor. (He gave $1.8 million to various candidates in both major parties between 1989 and 2015, according to public records.)

“As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in July 2015.

The following month, during a nationally televised debate, he said: “I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them, and they are there for me.” He went on to say that Hillary Clinton, a recipient of a Trump donation, attended his wedding at his insistence. “She didn’t have a choice because I gave,” he said.

Again discussing campaign contributions, this time at a rally in Iowa early this year, Trump declared: “When I call, they kiss my ass, OK?”

This week, however, the Republican presidential nominee insisted that there was nothing improper about a $25,000 donation to Florida’s attorney general in 2013 as she was deciding whether to join a multi-state lawsuit targeting the now defunct Trump University.

Attorney General Pam Bondi solicited Trump for a donation, which was received four days after a report in the Orlando Sentinel said office was looking into the lawsuit, according to the Associated Press. Some time after receiving the donation, Bondi's office decided not to pursue the case.

There’s no evidence of bribery, but it certainly looks bad.

So does a $1,000 donation to California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who also was weighing whether to join a New York state lawsuit against Trump University. (Harris, who hasn’t announced a decision regarding the lawsuit, donated Trump’s money to charity.)

The Bondi donation hit the news this week when the Washington Post reported that the $25,000 came from Trump’s charitable foundation. Nonprofit organizations are barred by federal law from making campaign donations. Moreover, the gift wasn’t correctly reported by the Donald J. Trump Foundation. According to its tax return, the money went to a Kansas-based charity with a name similar to that of Bondi’s political committee.

Was someone trying to hide something? A spokesman for Trump dismissed the entire episode as an “honest mistake.”

The foundation did, however, pay a $2,500 fine for violating the prohibition against campaign contributions.

Curiously, the Bondi contribution and the IRS fine haven’t attracted a lot of media attention, certainly not in comparison to the scrutiny received — and justifiably so — by Clinton and donors to her family’s foundation.

There’s far too much “pay to play” in politics. With the presidential debates beginning on Sept. 26, we think Trump should be pressed for a clearer explanation of what he expected for his donations — and what his donors can expect from him.

Editor's Note: This editorial was updated Sept. 12 to correct details about the sequence of the Trump Foundation's donation and the Florida attorney general's office deciding not to join a multi-state lawsuit against Trump University.

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