Compared to the apocalyptic post-election scenarios being contemplated right now, including by anxious members of the U.S. military, this one from CBS seems downright charming. What if, instead of resisting a peaceful transfer of power following defeat, Trump simply starts selling off favors to the highest bidder in preparation for his return to private life? A “going out of business” sale, as it were. He’s a purely transactional human being, and as his pal Rod Blagojevich could tell him, executive power is a valuable thing.
Pay off $25 million of his debt, say, and you too might receive some lucrative federal contract or be absolved of whatever federal crime you may have committed. And if such naked corruption were to create post-presidential criminal liability for Trump himself, he could always grant himself a pardon on Inauguration Day. Imagine the fun Justice Barrett will have trying to tease out from the Constitution whether that pardon is legal or not.
The real money is with foreign oligarchs, though, which means the most interesting and unusual developments between November and January might come in the realm of foreign policy. Trump long ago admitted to having a conflict of interest with Turkey because of his business dealings there but that didn’t stop him from having very friendly relations with Erdogan. (Ask the Kurds how friendly.) If he’d tolerate a foreign-policy conflict of interest on his way into office, why wouldn’t he tolerate a much bigger one on his way out?
If you’re wondering if this is all hysterical speculation, read this story today about him enthusiastically and repeatedly lobbying his team in 2016 to make Ivanka Trump his running mate. He doesn’t care how dubious something appears if it benefits him and his. If he’s not above nepotism on the presidential ticket, he’s not above selling off official power to dig himself out of debt once he no longer has anything to lose by doing so.
.@PaulaReidCBS reports — sources close to the White House are concerned that if President Trump is not reelected, there could be a "grift mill" between the election and inauguration, with Trump using his clemency and pardon powers in exchange for favors https://t.co/S8hf8tiJJg pic.twitter.com/M3mCYy97m1
— CBS News (@CBSNews) September 28, 2020
It’d be fascinating to watch him wheel-deal as a lame duck and to watch MAGA fans try to resolve the cognitive dissonance between “draining the swamp” and Trump selling off pardons or whatever.
The inspiration for the CBS segment is of course the publication yesterday by the Times of information from 15 years’ worth of Trump tax returns. The good news for Trump from that report, as Ed noted earlier, is that there’s no Russia angle, which really might have done some damage in the final weeks of the campaign. The bad news is that he’s indebted to the gills, which means he wouldn’t be allowed within a thousand miles of a security clearance if Americans hadn’t handed him one at the ballot box. (And which makes CBS’s post-election “grift mill” scenario at least facially plausible.) The story also leaves voters to decide whether Trump’s years of losses are due to him being a freakishly bad businessman on the one hand or on the other hand to him being so aggressive in his tax-avoidance strategies that he paid much less in some years than many of his poorest blue-collar fans did. Granted, the rich are constantly exploiting legal loopholes to reduce their tax liability, but (a) most of them still end up paying a lot and (b) most of them didn’t get elected president complaining about how unfair the system is to “the forgotten man.”
The totally predictable irony is that the candidate who boasted that he was so rich that he "couldn't be bought" was, in fact, so deeply in debt and in such a precarious financial position that pretty much anyone could buy him. pic.twitter.com/a1AMbYPh7N
— Michael Linden (@MichaelSLinden) September 28, 2020
Tim Miller collected some choice Trump quotes from 2016 boasting that he didn’t mind paying more in taxes as someone who’s rich and that he fully expected to be soaked by his own populist tax plan. “They never cared about ensuring that the forgotten man got a bigger slice of the pie,” writes Miller of Trump and his team. “They never considered running up their own tab to give a hand up to the working stiff. Trump and Bannon just wanted to be the ones on the inside running the scam. Making sure they got theirs.” To top it all off, his biggest domestic achievement as president was a Paul-Ryan-style tax cut that disproportionately benefited the upper class, not the lower. Maybe eventually we’ll find out eventually how much Trump personally benefited from that law.
The Times piece also flagged some questionable transactions. Whether there’s potential legal liability here or not is above my pay grade, but this suggests that he was making gifts to his kids and then treating the payments as a tax write-off:
Mr. Trump reduced his taxable income by treating a family member as a consultant, and then deducting the fee as a cost of doing business.
The “consultants” are not identified in the tax records. But evidence of this arrangement was gleaned by comparing the confidential tax records to the financial disclosures Ivanka Trump filed when she joined the White House staff in 2017. Ms. Trump reported receiving payments from a consulting company she co-owned, totaling $747,622, that exactly matched consulting fees claimed as tax deductions by the Trump Organization for hotel projects in Vancouver and Hawaii.
Ms. Trump had been an executive officer of the Trump companies that received profits from and paid the consulting fees for both projects — meaning she appears to have been treated as a consultant on the same hotel deals that she helped manage as part of her job at her father’s business.
Even if there’s no “grift mill” during the lame-duck, I wonder if he might pardon himself just as a sort of general get-out-of-jail-free card for matters exactly like this.
I don’t think the tax-return story will mean much at the polls, although it’s certainly not helpful among working-class voters who may be irritated with him for other reasons. No one’s going to vote for him because he gamed the tax system to leave himself with a $750 annual bill. Tens of millions of people will vote for him in spite of that, reasoning that if they were rich they’d happily game the system too while blubbering about “the forgotten man,” but there may be some who weren’t motivated to turn out for him to begin with and will end up feeling less motivated today. Team Biden’s already coming at him over it:
— Grace Panetta (@grace_panetta) September 28, 2020
The tax-return news ends up in the bulging “probably doesn’t hurt, definitely doesn’t help” folder at a moment when he really, really needs some helpful developments. Maybe tomorrow’s debate will bring him one.
I’ll leave you with this, which is amazing even within the well-established genre of old Trump tweets coming back to haunt him. “Only.”