Don’t we already know this? Both the AP and Washington Post have major stories out today about Donald Trump’s business practices and the use of foreign labor, both inside and outside the US. Both frame the stories as a contrast to Trump’s campaign attacks on trade and immigration, but both may be missing the point.
The Associated Press reports that Trump wants to scrap a guest-worker visa that his businesses have utilized to Trump’s advantage:
If elected president, Donald Trump has pledged to scrap a work visa program that brings 300,000 student workers each year to the U.S. Among the businesses that would be forced to stop hiring foreign labor: Trump’s own.
The visa, known as the J-1, purports to offer a “cultural exchange” and give American businesses access to guest workers’ “specialized skills,” according to the State Department. Trump says it’s a simply a conciliatory gesture aimed at corporate interests seeking cheap labor — and he’d replace it “with a resume bank for inner city youth provided to all corporate subscribers to the J-1 visa program.”
Yet Trump’s hotel in Chicago has been a regular user of J-1 visas, according to workers at the hotel and Irish students who worked there. The nexus of the hiring has been the hotel’s elite Terrace Restaurant, though other J-1 students have been placed at reception and at other hotel eating establishments.
He told people working with him to help find a company known for producing quality merchandise on a mass scale. In the end, Trump signed on with Phillips-Van Heusen, a manufacturer of affordable shirts produced in factories in 85 countries.
The 2004 deal — one of the first of many merchandise-licensing arrangements in which Trump attached his name to products made by foreign workers and sold in the United States — is relevant today as the billionaire businessman wages a populist presidential campaign in which he accuses companies of killing U.S. jobs by moving manufacturing overseas to take advantage of cheap labor and lax workplace regulations.
Documents and interviews reveal the personal role Trump played in negotiating the deal. Participants said they could not recall him expressing a preference that products be made in the United States.
“Finding the biggest company with the best practices is what was important to him,” said Jeff Danzer, who was vice president of the company hired by Trump to broker the deal. “Finding a company that made in America was never something that was specified.”
Well, we do know this, at least in broad terms. Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz have both attacked Trump for manufacturing his clothing in Mexico and China. Both have also attacked Trump for using foreign-worker visas to staff his Florida resort rather than hiring hundreds of Americans they say would have taken those jobs. Trump appeared to take a momentary hit in the next round of primaries and caucuses, but those may have been better explained by being closed contests. At any rate, there is no evidence that those attacks did lasting damage to Trump at that time.
That’s not to say it’s an illegitimate attack — it’s perfectly reasonable. Trump is running on his business acumen, and his business practices are fair game. But in one sense, this is like blaming an attorney for representing a client accused of heinous acts; that’s what attorneys do, and what they’re supposed to do. People have an expectation that businessmen will use the law and regulations to their best advantage, and as long as they do not break the law, will assume they are acting within legitimate self-interest (or shareholder interest). Trump has to operate in the system as it is, not as he wishes it was, in order to compete in markets that politicians have shaped. Neither report alleges any wrongdoing, only political hypocrisy.
Even that is questionable, however, and the Trump campaign has already offered the ready response to that criticism:
In an emailed statement to The Associated Press, Trump said that his approach to J-1 visas would be different as president than it had been as a businessman. During Thursday’s presidential debate, Trump said that his use of visa programs made him familiar with their details — and therefore the best to reform them. Describing a different category of visas to hire foreign highly skilled workers, Trump said: “It’s something that I frankly use and I shouldn’t be allowed to use it. We shouldn’t have it. Very, very bad for workers.”
That has been one basis for Trump’s appeal. He’s seen the game, knows how it’s rigged, and knows how to change it. Whether he actually will change it is another question, but he’s making globalization and the impact it has on American blue-collar workers a big campaign issue when few in the GOP has done so in the past. Rick Santorum was one of the few Republicans to realize the power of this issue, but being part of the political establishment probably didn’t give him enough credibility to carry the ball on it.
Greg Sargent notes the difference:
The most likely explanation — beyond the most obvious one, which is that information like this is simply not getting through to Republican voters — may be that, in a perverse way, revelations like these actually bolster his message, rather than undercutting it. Trump’s argument is that he has a unique grasp, via direct experience and participation, of all the ways in which our political and economic system is rigged to make it easier for people such as himself to fleece working Americans. This understanding of how the game really works positions him well to fix it. He has been in on the elites’ scam for decades, and now, having made a killing off of it, he’s here to put an end to it.
Trump has made this argument explicitly, again and again and again, in multiple different ways. At the most recent GOP debate, Trump effectively declared that he understood better than any other candidate that politicians are bought and paid for — because he has bought and paid for politicians himself! At the debate, Trump also rebuffed criticism of his reliance on immigrant labor here and foreign labor abroad by arguing that “because nobody knows the system better than me…I’m the one that knows how to change it.” Trump didn’t apologize for these things. Instead, he converted them into evidence that he understands how immigration and global trade rules are enabling people like himself to screw over workers, while his rivals don’t.
It helps that his rivals didn’t discuss it much before now, too. Trump brags that no one talked about immigration until he launched his campaign in 2015, which is totally inaccurate, but he has a much more solid claim on blue-collar economics. That’s what is driving his campaign, and what is also driving Bernie Sanders on the other side of the aisle. Stories like this won’t dent his momentum a single bit, because voters now think that it takes a thief to catch a thief, and politicians are useless in dealing with this issue.
One other point seems worth noting, too. If this is the best oppo research on Trump’s business practices that the media and competing campaigns can uncover, then Trump might not be as vulnerable in a general election as some assume — although that doesn’t make him electable either.