Donald Trump made the destructive role of money in politics central to his argument to the American people. He ridiculed his opponents as “puppets” of donors. He said that only he could serve the American people, because he (allegedly) financed his own campaign and did not depend on donors and lobbyists. Did many people vote for him because of this message? I don’t propose to say, but this idea deserves a closer look than it’s gotten. Throughout the campaign, Trump hit the theme of money in politics again and again. Pretty consistently, the media underreported this part of his message.
Trump’s remarks in the second presidential debate, and the media’s non-reaction to his message about campaign cash, support my claims.
Trump mentioned money in politics a few minutes past the halfway mark in the debate. Trump did it to change the subject from his tax returns, but it reinforced his apt observation that Clinton failed to answer a voter’s question about her sincerity. A hacked Clinton campaign email dated January 25, 2016, released two days earlier by Wiki Leaks, quoted one of her highly paid speeches, in which Clinton complained that in politics it was necessary to maintain distinct public and private positions on issues.
The voter, as quoted by the moderator Martha Raddatz, asked “is it OK for politicians to be two-faced?”
Clinton dodged the question by praising Lincoln’s tactical agility in achieving passage of the 13th Amendment. Then she changed the subject to Russia’s meddling in the American presidential campaign by giving hacked emails to Wiki Leaks, charged that the Russian government did so in order to help Trump win the election, and finished by saying we would understand Trump’s own motivations – and his possible ties to Russia – if he would release his income tax returns.
Trump got some laughs by mocking Clinton for blaming her “lie” on Abraham Lincoln, and concluded by saying: “…I pay hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes. Many of her friends took bigger deductions. Warren Buffett took a massive deduction. Soros, who’s a friend of hers, took a massive deduction. Many of the people that are giving her all this money that she can do many more commercials than me gave her — took massive deductions.”
Trump matched Clinton’s evasion with his own, but he did put his finger on a central issue: cash buys influence in American politics because politicians need lots of money to campaign for office, for example by paying for television advertisements. Trump hammered away at this point several more times, yet Clinton never responded to this argument, nor did any of the major print media comment on it.
Anderson Cooper pivoted from Trump’s comment on Clinton’s donors by inviting an audience member to ask a question about taxes: “what specific tax provisions will you change to ensure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes?”
Trump responded by charging that Clinton’s donors had bought her support for a tax code that suited them:
Well, one thing I’d do is get rid of carried interest. One of the greatest provisions for people like me, to be honest with you, I give up a lot when I run, because I knock out the tax code. And she could have done this years ago, by the way. She’s a United States — she was a United States senator. She complains that Donald Trump took advantage of the tax code. Well, why didn’t she change it? Why didn’t you change it when you were a senator? The reason you didn’t is that all your friends take the same advantage that I do. And I do. You have provisions in the tax code that, frankly, we could change. But you wouldn’t change it, because all of these people gave you the money so you can take negative ads on Donald Trump.
Trump is the worst kind of hypocrite. He had long since forfeited a valid claim to have self-financed his campaign, just as his “tax plan” centered on massive tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations. He didn’t propose any reforms of campaign finance. Since his election he has shown how insincere he was about money in politics – big donors in his cabinet and huge conflicts with his business interests. But hypocritical or not, Trump did call the fatal flaw in our democracy by name.
Cooper asked Trump whether he had used a business loss of $916 million as a write off to avoid paying income tax. “Of course I do,” Trump replied. “Of course I do. And so do all of her donors, or most of her donors. I know many of her donors. Her donors took massive tax write-offs.” After Cooper rephrased his question, Trump continued in this vein:
A lot of my — excuse me, Anderson — a lot of my write- off was depreciation and other things that Hillary as a senator allowed. And she’ll always allow it, because the people that give her all this money, they want it. That’s why.
See, I understand the tax code better than anybody that’s ever run for president. Hillary Clinton — and it’s extremely complex — Hillary Clinton has friends that want all of these provisions, including they want the carried interest provision, which is very important to Wall Street people. But they really want the carried interest provision, which I believe Hillary’s leaving. Very interesting why she’s leaving carried interest.
But I will tell you that, number one, I pay tremendous numbers of taxes. I absolutely used it. And so did Warren Buffett and so did George Soros and so did many of the other people that Hillary is getting money from. Now, I won’t mention their names, because they’re rich, but they’re not famous. So we won’t make them famous.
Money in politics came up again in the final minutes of the debate. An audience member asked what would guide the candidates’ choice of Supreme Court justices. Clinton made her only comment for the evening about money in politics: the Court should overturn Citizens United and the justices should understand that big donors did not deserve an outsized influence in politics.
Now, Hillary mentioned something about contributions just so you understand. So I will have in my race more than $100 million put in — of my money, meaning I’m not taking all of this big money from all of these different corporations like she’s doing. What I ask is this.
So I’m putting in more than — by the time it’s finished, I’ll have more than $100 million invested. Pretty much self-funding money. We’re raising money for the Republican Party, and we’re doing tremendously on the small donations, $61 average or so.
I ask Hillary, why doesn’t — she made $250 million by being in office. She used the power of her office to make a lot of money. Why isn’t she funding, not for $100 million, but why don’t you put $10 million or $20 million or $25 million or $30 million into your own campaign?
It’s $30 million less for special interests that will tell you exactly what to do and it would really, I think, be a nice sign to the American public. Why aren’t you putting some money in? You have a lot of it. You’ve made a lot of it because of the fact that you’ve been in office. Made a lot of it while you were secretary of state, actually. So why aren’t you putting money into your own campaign? I’m just curious.
Trump made money in politics one of his most important arguments in the debate, and only once did Clinton respond to it. And the mainstream print media hardly mentioned it at all – not the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, or The Atlantic, while the Washington Post highlighted only two short quotes on this topic, commenting them dismissively, in its annotated version of the debate’s full transcript. But did the voters notice, and did this message from Trump motivate many to choose him over Clinton? It’s a possibility worth considering.