Mr. Trump Goes To Washington

Captain Renault: ‘I’m shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here!’
[a croupier hands Renault a pile of money]
Croupier: ‘Your winnings, sir.’

The dark comedy of the Trump campaign got more absurd this week as he railed against Hillary Clinton for her supposed sins in regard to the Clinton Foundation.

Rich and powerful persons, foreign and domestic, contributed to the foundation which actually aims to do good works in poor corners of the world. Some of their ilk also paid absurd speaking fees to listen to Bill or Hillary for an hour.

The Trump notion is that this is evidence of corrupt influence peddling, pay-for-play shenanigans, quids pro quo, you-scratch-my back, I’ll-scratch-yours-schemes. ‘Twas ever thus, as my grandmother liked to say.

The problem for critics of the unseemly appearance is that no actual evidence has so far emerged of favors, other than greater access to an ex-president and sitting Secretary of State than the average voter could ever get. And the only reasonable reaction to that, no matter how infuriating the notion, is “What”’s new?”

Every big donor or industrialist with a plant or payroll or app genius with a bulging bank account can get his local Congressman or Senator on the phone while the poor constituent or the hourly-wage stiff can send an email and get a form letter a month letter in response.

Trump has campaigned on denouncing a rigged system and has boasted that he knows first hand, having given plenty of dough in exchange for answered calls and favorable rulings on zoning or hiring practices. But nothing as seamy as the average day on a New York building site has emerged from the Clinton Foundation emails.

So far she has been shown to have met with a lot of Foundation donors. But everyone in Washington who has power is besieged by hordes of people with their hands out, many who have given money hoping it will pay dividends.

Maybe a vast stew of corruption will yet emerge, maybe Julian Assange and Vladimir Putin are saving the damning evidence for a Hillary-scuttling October surprise, but so far donors to a do-gooder foundation haven’t been shown to have received in return alterations of foreign policy, approval of crooked deals with foreign countries, or even a paltry ambassadorship.

Before accusing Clinton of instances of graft and corruption more vile than those that accompany the average granting of an easement for a Trump property, perhaps he should have watched Alexandra Pelosi’s bemusing documentary about money and influence in Washington, “Meet the Donors: Does Money Talk?”

Pelosi interviewed billionaire money manipulators, heirs, and business tycoons about their political giving. Some have ideological reasons rather than purely transactional ones for giving. They are pushing a liberal or conservative or libertarian agenda not directly connected to their personal interests. Some have pet causes, like the survival of the state of Israel or climate change or medical research.

Most amusingly, many seem to be political groupies collecting politicians the way they once collected baseballs cards, businesses or dance partners at the debutante ball. They pony up to buy tables at fundraisers in order to be in the same room with the president or would-be president, to get a private word, a handshake or an autographed picture to hang on their trophy wall. Some even admit this proximity impresses lesser moguls that they do business with.

This attests a bitter truth. Even billionaires know that their power is limited, while some nickel-and-dime guy from nowhere, if he sits in the Oval Office, has got power the mogul can only dream of — including globe-circling fleets, nuclear arms, and levers of power that can make Wall Street tremble. These political groupies are akin to the kind of gaga fans that athletes scorn as jock sniffers. They are the political equivalent of the mid-life crisis sufferers who pay tens of thousands to attend Fantasy Baseball or Rock and Roll Camps for a chance to hang with the stars of yesteryear.

Of course, lots of powerful business guys and billionaires want to pay less taxes or eliminate pesky regulations, but they don’t usually try to achieve those ends crudely — face-to-face with money changing hands. That went out with Teapot Dome. They have no interest in trading the country club for the federal lockup. Instead, they have phalanxes of lawyers and lobbyists and fake interest groups and PACs to front for them. These stand-ins do the arm twisting, make the wishes of their masters known and dispense campaign donations on their behalf, like calling cards or party favors.

Trump is right. The game is rigged in favor of those with money and power and minions on K Street. Maybe in New York his interactions with City Hall and New York’s mob families were accompanied by suitcases full of cash. But in Washington, the wheeling and dealing is a bit more subtle.

Sure a donation to foundation fighting against AIDS or malaria can get you name recognition and curry favor, but rather than a smoking gun the only trace usually left is a request to meet the Secretary or Member or President that is handled by a flunky at three removes from the principle, producing no evidence of wrong-going. It’s called positive deniability.

Trump may wish he had horrors to display to his angry followers, but in Washington the corrupt tango is as intricate and stylized as a Kabuki play and all but undetectable. It’s not like the obviously rigged gambling in “Casablanca.” It’s like the baffling hall of mirrors in a noir thriller. “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

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