Trump Is The Most Crooked President in American History. That Should Matter.

One of Donald Trump’s greatest political talents–if you can call it that–is the ability to kick up such a whirlwind of chaos that it becomes easy to lose sight of simple moral baselines. Actions and stories that would functionally end other presidencies are forgotten within days as the bright bouncy orange ball moves to the next outrage and shatters the next norm. Opponents are left wondering whether to five the next five-alarm fire, or try to focus on rebuilding the crumbling foundations of governance from the last fire.

That is in part what has happened over Trump’s personal financial behavior. For years, Americans of decency have eagerly awaited the disclosure of Donald Trump’s personal and organizational tax records, knowing that they were likely to reveal massive corruption, potentially leading to a crisis of government, impeachment, resignation or any other consequence of note. But Trump’s chaos tornado, particularly in the context of a historic pandemic, has essentially nullified the consequences of what should be earth-shattering revelations.

When the New York Times released the main story on Trump’s tax-dodging and enormous personal debts, it basically had no impact on public polling and lasted about one to two days in the national news cycle. This is in part because Trump has so debased expectations for his own behavior and public service that everyone knows he’s a crook–even his own supporters–but either they don’t care or they were already opposing him, anyway. But it’s also because who has time to worry about whether the president is a tax cheat when he is actively spreading a deadly virus at the highest levels of government, sabotaging the Postal Service and refusing to accept the results of a free and fair election? This in spite of the fact that we absolutely must care about these things. After all, the president is $421 million in debt. Whoever owns his debt, including potential foreign adversaries, could essentially be running national policy! Even if we believe we cannot afford to pay attention to it given the rest of the hurricane winds, we still must manage to maintain our focus.

More recently, the New York Times landed even more details of Trump’s historic crookedness. On Friday October 9th we learned that Trump likely committed $21 million of concurrent tax fraud and campaign finance fraud by funneling money through a shell corporation, then giving it his 2016 presidential campaign while taking it as a tax write-off. If true, those are felonies for which other mortals could do years of jail time. And there was a quid pro quo in exchange that should, if they were halfway honest about their supposed principles, infuriate conservatives: Trump’s casino magnate friends who helped pony up the money are now getting approval for a Los Angeles-to-Las Vegas train that Republicans refused to greenlight for Obama. This is a matter of enormous personal and public corruption.

Then on Saturday October 10th we learned the details of something even more damning that good government advocates have long suspected: Trump is actively selling access to special interests in exchange for personal gain. This goes well beyond the usual legalized bribery of American government in which lobbyists help supply campaign cash in exchange for special access to legislators’ ears. This is direct cash gifts to Trump businesses and Trump’s personal bottom line, in direct exchange for policy favors:

But Mr. Trump did not merely fail to end Washington’s insider culture of lobbying and favor-seeking. He reinvented it, turning his own hotels and resorts into the Beltway’s new back rooms, where public and private business mix and special interests reign…

Federal tax-return data for Mr. Trump and his business empire, which was disclosed by The New York Times last month, showed that even as he leveraged his image as a successful businessman to win the presidency, large swaths of his real estate holdings were under financial stress, racking up losses over the preceding decades.

Federal tax-return data for Mr. Trump and his business empire, which was disclosed by The New York Times last month, showed that even as he leveraged his image as a successful businessman to win the presidency, large swaths of his real estate holdings were under financial stress, racking up losses over the preceding decades.

But once Mr. Trump was in the White House, his family business discovered a lucrative new revenue stream: people who wanted something from the president. An investigation by The Times found over 200 companies, special-interest groups and foreign governments that patronized Mr. Trump’s properties while reaping benefits from him and his administration. Nearly a quarter of those patrons have not been previously reported.

This is public corruption on a scale unseen in American history, even in the 19th century Gilded Age. Leave aside his destructive public policy, his personal odiousness, his lurches toward authoritarianism, his encouragement of the worst elements in society and his abrogation of norms and decency.

Donald Trump is also hands down the most corrupt president in American history. That should mean something. It should be a big part of our national discourse as we approach Election Day. It should be a major focus on the remaining presidential debate, and the questions that are asked of both presidential candidates, as well as candidates for Senate and Congress who, if the president is re-elected, may once again be called as prosecutors and juries in future impeachment trials.

If it ceases to matter whether the president is historically corrupt, there isn’t much of a country left to save. Even in the midst of chaos, we must demand more of ourselves, of our government, and of the media that covers it.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.