You Failed, Chumps

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We’ve had a number of looks recently at how The New York Times appears to be revisiting its ‘whitewater’ glory days with its increasingly parodic coverage of the “Clinton Foundation” – I’m adding scare quotes to match the dramatic effect, even though of course the Clinton Foundation is a named legal entity. Beyond the ‘clouds’ and ‘shadows’ TPM Reader AR flagged to our attention, as Paul Glastris explains here, the latest installment from the Times explains how Bill Clinton’s request for diplomatic passports for aides accompanying him on a mission to secure the release of two US journalists held captive in North Korea constitutes the latest damning revelations about the corrupt ties between the Foundation and the Clinton State Department.

The Times uniquely, though only as a leading example for the rest of the national press, has a decades’ long history of being lead around by rightwing opposition researchers into dead ends which amount to journalistic comedy – especially when it comes to the Clintons. But here, while all this is happening we have a real live specimen example of direct political and prosecutorial corruption, misuse of a 501c3 nonprofit and various efforts to conceal this corruption and the underlying corruption of Trump’s ‘Trump University’ real estate seminar scam. It’s all there – lightly reported here and there – but largely ignored.

The core information here isn’t new and it’s definitely not based on my reporting. Much of it stems form the on-going and seemingly indefatigable work of Washington Post reporter David A. Fahrenthold who’s been chronicling Trump’s long list of non-existent or promised but non-existent charitable contributions. In this case, it goes to a $25,000 contribution Trump made to the reelection campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2013. The neglected story has only popped up again now because Trump was penalized by the IRS for a relatively technical part of the corrupt act.

This first problem was elementary and obvious, probably stemming from Trump’s almost pathological cheapness. He made the campaign contribution from his Foundation. This part is straightforward. You can’t do that.

But then, as Fahrenthold details, Trump or however was handling the paperwork went to great lengths to conceal the improper contribution. In this case, the efforts to conceal the contributions from the relevant federal authorities is a much bigger deal than the underlying offense since the initial contribution could conceivably have been made by someone in Trump’s organization who didn’t realize that funds couldn’t be commingled in this way. The first step could have been based in ignorance or haste; the second clearly stems from bad faith and possibly criminal intent.

But all of these pale in comparison to the essence of the transaction itself. Trump made this substantial contribution to Bondi at just the moment when her office was evaluating whether to bring legal action against Trump’s ‘Trump University’ real estate seminar scam. Indeed, Bondi admits she reached out to Trump to solicit the contribution just as the decision was on her desk. She eventually declined to take legal action against Trump, overruling the recommendations of career investigators.

A mounting legal case was also underway in Texas, by career investigators under then-Attorney General and now Governor Greg Abbott. Abbott overruled the investigators recommendation for legal action. Shortly thereafter Abbott got $35,000 from Trump. In this case Trump at least mad the contribution without the commingling of nonprofit funds that go them in trouble in Florida.

The one place where Trump’s money or influence didn’t make the cut was in New York State under Attorney General Eric Schneiderman. The New York State case is one of several public and private lawsuits trying to recoup damages for victims of Trump’s seminar scam.

At the risk of stating the obvious, these facts are textbook examples of the sort of political and prosecutorial corruption journalists are supposed to uncover. Trump used money to buy protection from the consequences of his bad acts from friendly politicians. He then tried to cover up his payment of protection money. And on top of all that he made the either bizarre or incompetent mistake of paying the protection money out of his Foundation – the money from which mostly comes from other people beside Trump.

So here you have straight-up bad acts, political corruption to enable prosecutorial corruption to escape the consequences of fraud perpetrated on vulnerable consumers. And yet the page space gets dedicated to Clinton Foundation stories which raise ‘questions’ that could ‘create appearances’ and all other journalistic workarounds reporters use when they haven’t found what they were looking for. The North Korea rescue mission Glastris pinpoints in the Times latest salvo just gets the whole enterprise to the point of self-parody.

Now why this disjuncture?

I think there are basically three reasons, some more understandable than others but none of them good. The first is that the Times had a decades long institutional issue with the Clintons. There’s no other way to put. It goes beyond single reporters and even individual executives editors. Why this is the case I’ll leave to biographers and psychologists. But that it is the case is obvious from reading a quarter century of their reporting on the topic.

The other two reasons are different. Many reporters and editors simply take it as a given that Trump’s a crook. So stories about Trump’s corruption amount to what journalists call dog bites man stories – not really news because it’s the norm and wholly expected. The second related point is that many reporters and editors at a basic level don’t take Trump seriously as a real candidate. Journalists only probed so far into Ben Carson’s various multi-level marketing scams and churning through millions of dollars of small donor contributions to enrich consultants because Ben Carson was clearly never going to be president.

At some level, this is all true: Trump isn’t a real or a serious candidate by numerous measures. Except one measure that is the only meaningful one: he is the Republican nominee for President and even though polls suggest it’s unlikely he’ll be elected President there’s a very real chance he’ll become the US head of state and commander-in-chief of the US armed forces next January. So by the single test that really matters, Trump is as real as a candidate can be.

I should be clear here that while the Times is possibly the worst offender because of the scale of the failure and the influence the Times exerts far beyond its own pages, it’s far from alone. They’re just the tip of the spear of the generalized failure to apply even a small fraction of the scrutiny to Trump that they have to the Clintons or to make an honest evaluation of the fact that the story they were sold by various right wing groups – critical ones funded by none other than Breitbart’s Steve Bannon (now Trump’s campaign manager) – simply didn’t pan out.

In the simplest sense, they were just suckered and used and got played. It’s a failure of great proportions, not at all unlike back when they were played by similar forces in the ‘whitewater’ era. As Trump might say, Sad!

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