Donald Trump’s Pam Bondi conundrum

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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks in the rain with Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, as they arrive at a campaign rally in Tampa, Fla., Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. 

Gerald Herbert, AP

Donald Trump gets what he wants from politicians because he gives them cash.

Depending on where we are in the presidential campaign, that is either a compliment or an attack. For the majority of Trump’s campaign it has been one of his key boasts. “When I need something from them, two years later, three years later,” he said during a debate of politicians he has donated to, “I call them, and they are there for me. Trump made this boast repeatedly. “I’ve got to give to them because when I want something I get it,” he said in Clear Lake, Iowa. “When I call, they kiss my ass. It’s true. They kiss my ass. It’s true.” Another time, he told the Wall Street Journal, “When you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.”

It has been hard to find an example to support this boast. When asked for one, Trump has made some vague comments about New York zoning laws, which is a very limited answer when you’ve been talking about dominating the entire political system of both parties. In keeping with the misshapen nature of this race, the example he cites most forcefully has to do with his opponent. “’Hillary Clinton,’ I said, ‘Be at my wedding,’ and she came to my wedding,” he said at the first GOP presidential debate in Cleveland. “She had no choice because I gave to a foundation.”

Trump's controversial donation 03:13


 
Now evidence is re-surfacing that sounds like a perfect example of what Trump has been claiming. In 2013, Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi’s office was considering joining a New York state probe of Trump University’s activities. According to the Associated Press, around that time, Bondi asked Trump for a donation to her campaign. His foundation gave $25,000 to a group supporting her campaign. Trump’s daughter also donated a small amount. Afterward, Florida did not join the New York investigation. (Bondi’s advisers said she did not know about the complaints against Trump University at the time she asked Donald Trump for the donation. Furthermore her office says that Bondi was not involved in the ultimate decision, and her office decided not to join in the suit because since New York’s lawsuit was filed on behalf of all consumers nationwide, “no further action need be taken.” Bondi told the Tampa Bay Times, “No one in my office ever opened an investigation of Trump University, nor was there a basis for doing so.”)
 
So is this an example of Trump’s prowess or not? On Monday, when asked about the matter, Trump would only say, “I never talked to her at all.” He said Bondi’s office dropped the case against Trump University because it lacked merit. (Trump’s foundation recently paid a $2,500 IRS fine for making the donation to Bondi and failing to disclose the contribution.)
 
This is the dilemma that was always inherent in Trump’s boast about controlling the political system. Trump was either wildly exaggerating his ability to control politicians, or he was telling the truth and he might have been breaking the law. This is the one claim he would not like to see fact-checked as true. 
 
Whatever the answer, Trump’s position on campaign donations may be a good example of his proposition that voters may support him no matter what he does or says.
 
Here’s why: If you believe that Trump controlled politicians, as he claims, then this case is a good example (There are also allegations a similar thing happened in Texas regarding Trump University). The pay to play scheme as suggested exactly matches the candidate’s boast. (Bondi doesn’t have to be guilty for Trump to have acted as he boasted; Trump can simply have thought he was making the donation to get the result. According to Trump, he did that was the kind of thing he did successfully all the time).

Christie pushes back on "pay to play" allegat... 01:45


 
If Trump was using his money as he has said in his broad description of his successful manipulation of politicians, then he did something which is possibly illegal. At the very least, it was crony capitalism, and he’s not telling the truth about it. At that point, voters would have to figure out whether a person who bends the rules before they get into office will do it once they’re there.
 
If Trump didn’t donate to get a better outcome, then he is making boasts that aren’t true about easily controlling politicians. He hasn’t claimed to be a garden-variety political donor. He has claimed a nearly unrivaled talent at manipulating the system. Making a boast that isn’t true is obviously one a far lesser offense than the former allegation, but it would be more proof that Trump makes extraordinary claims well beyond the facts. That was once the the kind of thing voters don’t like-- particularly voters burned by over-promising politicians.

Trump has used his manipulation of the political system to demean his opponents and as proof that as president he will have special skills in working the system from the other side. Whether he did or didn’t is a question of truthfulness. It’s also a question about a skill Trump says he has that he’ll bring to the presidency. It turns out he was either too good at manipulating politicians -- or he wasn’t as good as he says.

Research assistance provided by Tim Perry and Gabrielle Ake