Follow the Money: Presidential Election Edition

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As Lester Freamon himself put it, “You start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f**k it’s gonna take you.” (Image Source: HBO)

Concerning television dramas to come out in the last 20 years or so, there is always room for debate with respect to which series is #1. If we measure purely by IMDb rating, the tie at the top goes to Band of Brothers and Planet Earth. If we go by pure popularity, and consider the breadth of a program’s fan base as well as the scope of the content itself, Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead might also be in the mix. Meanwhile, if we focus on character-driven dramas and the darkness within each of us as represented by its leading figures, Breaking Bad and The Sopranos might top many people’s lists. For my part, though, the show that received due critical acclaim in its initial run and backed it up most consistently with tightly constructed character-driven stories, while still giving due weight to the big-picture issues that color the world in which the various individuals integral to the plot find themselves, is The Wire. Like a number of fans, I did not really appreciate David Simon’s highly-regarded ode to the city of Baltimore until after the fact, but retrospectively, the series continues to resonate with me and illuminate the kinds of conflicts we still see within communities and on a larger scale today.

In Season One of The Wire, the primary focus is on the intersection between the Baltimore police and the drug dealers of the city’s streets. In investigating Avon Barksdale’s outfit, members of a task force known as the Major Crimes Unit begin to find that pursuing one of Baltimore’s most powerful gangs is more dangerous and bigger than they might have otherwise anticipated. Not only do bodies quickly pile up in the course of the Barksdale crew’s affairs, but so too do apparent connections, through allocations of cash and real estate, to prominent businessmen and politicians. Lester Freamon, a forgotten man within the Baltimore PD ranks for running afoul of a higher-up once upon a time, through his instincts and investigative savvy, begins to make himself into a valued member of the Major Crimes Unit. As he explains the connection between crime, money and power, “You follow drugs, you get drug addicts and drug dealers. But you start to follow the money, and you don’t know where the f**k it’s gonna take you.”

Follow the money. It’s the very refrain heard in All the President’s Men, the 1976 film based on the nonfiction work of the same name. The book, written by Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, chronicles their investigation of the Watergate scandal all the way through the revelation of the existence of the Nixon tapes. The phrase “follow the money” does not actually appear in Bernstein and Woodward’s book, and appears to be a device of the screenplay penned by William Goldman. It comes in a clandestine meeting in a parking garage between Bob Woodward (Robert Redford) and his confidential government source, known only as “Deep Throat” (Hal Holbrook). The latter only offers so much help to Woodward, speaking guardedly and cryptically in his comments, but urges him to follow the money, saying this about what potentially could be found down the proverbial rabbit hole: “Forget the myths the media’s created about the White House. The truth is: these are not very bright guys, and things got out of hand.”

Follow the money. The more one repeats it, the more it sounds like a rallying cry of sorts. The events of The Wire may be fictional, but as a show rooted in realism, we can appreciate the plausibility of the widespread illegality for the subjects of the investigation and of the plot’s development—black or white, rich or poor, those without a badge and those wearing one. The film version of All the President’s Men, though fictionalized, evokes an actual real-world scandal in Watergate. Accordingly, there would appear to be every bit of value to applying this mantra to current events, especially those that involve money and political influence.

Speaking of guys who aren’t very bright, Donald Trump’s business and personal finances have consistently become a point of scrutiny for his critics. Which makes sense, you know, because, besides banning Muslims from entering the United States and building walls to keep out Mexicans who aren’t overrunning our country the way he and his ilk would depict it, this is pretty much his favorite topic of conversation—his considerable wealth and business acumen. Scores of people taking a good, hard look at Trump’s boasts about his net worth have cast aspersions on the veracity of his statements, which is only fair because 1) Donald is running for President of the United States, and thus should be vetted before possibly taking the reins of the top office in the country, and 2) the man lies like a rug. For one, Donald Trump’s claims of philanthropy, notably those concerning his purported donations to organizations supporting American veterans, by many accounts are all talk and no action, with concerns that the Trump Foundation is little more than a slush fund which masquerades as a meritorious charity. Even more than this, however, Trump has been accused of dramatically overstating his personal wealth as an extension of his brand. What certainly does not help the self-professed sole author of The Art of the Deal in his assertions is that his own assessments of his net worth over the years have proven amorphous and variable.

Much of the confusion surrounding what, if anything, Donald Trump has donated to veterans’ charities, how exactly his income factors into his net worth, whether or not he has business ties to Russian interests, whether or not he actually pays taxes owing to loopholes and other breaks, and other pertinent questions involving his finances, could be spelled out or at least made clearer if the man were to release his tax returns. It’s not as if this is an odd request either, as most GOP nominees since the 1970s have honored this tradition. Trump, however, has flatly refused to acquiesce on this point, and even semi-famously quipped that his tax rate is “none of your business.” The absence of the information from those returns has lent itself to rampant speculation as to why the Republican Party nominee has ducked and dodged the repeated calls to show his tax records. Some think it’s because his effective tax rate is zero, a reality which would fly in the face of the image he is trying to cultivate as the voice of the little guy, or a “blue-collar billionaire,” as some have stupidly tried to call him. Some believe it’s because of those alleged business ties to Russia, which also conflicts with the depiction of Trump as the All-American strongman. “The Donald,” for his part, has also tried to claim that, since he is being audited by the Internal Revenue Service, he can’t oblige with the request for his tax returns. According to the IRS, though, this is complete bullshit, with everyone’s favorite CEO and genius investor Warren Buffett chiming in with the information that he, too, is being audited by the IRS, joking that he’d be perfectly willing to share his returns with Donald Trump.

Why do I believe Trump won’t release his tax returns? I think, worse than anything else from his perspective, it would convey to the rest of Planet Earth that he doesn’t have as much money as he says he does. The essence of Donald Trump is style over substance, the projection of success to any and all who will listen. For anyone to even suggest that he is not everything he claims to be, the situation is liable to end up with a lawsuit against that detractor, as well as censure and ridicule on Twitter from thin-skinned man-baby Trump himself. When Donald Trump was roasted by Comedy Central, pretty much everything was fair game—his business failures, his casinos (also business failures), his hair, his multiple marriages, his privilege, his relationships with models, his (ahem) uncomfortable relationship with his daughter, Ivanka—but anything which alluded to the man not being as rich as he tells the world he is was off-limits. That was the cardinal sin.

For Trump, his presidential run is one big vanity play, as well as an exercise in how easily millions of Americans can be conned into believing he is anything but a blowhard, idiot, racist and fraud. In relation to those supporters who are either unaware of Donald Trump’s business-oriented misdeeds, or actively choose to suppress this knowledge because they enjoy some of his ideas and/or how he’s “not a politician” (though by now, I think he’s had enough practice to be considered one), it is an obvious irony that he labors on calling his political rival “Crooked Hillary.” On the flim-flam operation that is Trump University alone, the Republican Party nominee merits a serious investigation for having his name on an enterprise that appears to have bilked hard-w0rking people putting their faith in his professed business know-how out of serious amounts of money. According to a May article in The New York Times by Michael Barbaro and Steve Eder, citing the testimony of former Trump University managers, the school is “an unscrupulous business that relied on high-pressure sales tactics, employed unqualified instructors, made deceptive claims and exploited vulnerable students willing to pay tens of thousands for Mr. Trump’s insights.” Indeed, though Trump’s name is front and center in this dubious institution, he apparently has had little to do with how it is run, though this certainly does not exonerate him. Lawsuits have been numerous against Trump University, LLC from those who have been victimized by its false promises, including in the state of California, prompting the abhorrent situation of Trump insinuating that Judge Gonzalo Curiel couldn’t be trusted to be impartial in his handling of any case involving him because he is of Mexican descent.

Donald Trump’s history as an executive of questionable integrity and knowledge, however, runs far beyond his farcical “university.” Kurt Eichenwald, in a piece for Newsweek, provides a comprehensive guide on Trump’s ruinous track record in his business dealings. I recommend reading the piece in its entirety to get the full effect, because his failures are just about too numerous to list here. Among his “achievements”: alienating Native American Indians and losing management agreements to rival casino owners; massive personal losses owing to failed real estate partnerships and interest owed to lenders, necessitating financial rescue from Daddy; running casinos in direct competition with one another, effectually cannibalizing a number of them and forcing declarations of bankruptcy; authorizing the failed endeavor of Trump Shuttle; defaulting on all sorts of loans; putting his name on the ill-fated projects Trump Mortgage, GoTrump.com, Trump Vodka, and Trump Steaks; and licensing deals on disastrous Trump properties that have prompted accusations of fraud. In all, Donald Trump owes his fortune and his stature to a combination of his father’s financial support—the likes of which few Americans could ever hope to be able to rely upon—proverbial smoke and mirrors of the Trump myth which have duped countless investors and voters, and when all else fails, litigating the opposition into silent submission.


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If you go to Trump University, you will probably lose a lot of money and gain very little. You might read a book, though, which is likely more than its namesake can say. (Photo Credit: Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s missteps, characterized by unflappable arrogance, incendiary racist rhetoric, and utter incompetence, should be enough to disqualify him from running a Taco Bell, let alone the country. However, owing to his rich father’s patronage, the provisions of bankruptcy law, an army of lawyers as a safeguard in numerous legal disputes, and America’s obsession with celebrity—alongside, let’s be honest, an almost-historically-weak Republican primary field—Trump finds himself in the championship round, if you will, of the 2016 presidential race. Hillary Clinton, meanwhile, who faced a robust challenge for the Democratic Party nomination from Bernie Sanders, and who has a decided advantage in political experience, the more developed party platform, and—yes, the campaign donation infrastructure—should be poised to obliterate her major-party competitor. Indeed, Clinton currently leads in most polls, despite what Michael Cohen, executive VP of the Trump Foundation and special counsel to “the Donald” might question.

And yet, it is Hillary’s own complicated history with donations and other monies which inspire doubt from a majority of Americans, such that any lead in pre-election surveys Clinton might possess, in spite of Donald Trump’s recent spate of blunders—the likes of which have Michael Moore and others convinced Trump is intentionally throwing the election—feels tenuous, at best. Hillary Clinton and Tim Kaine both recently released their latest tax returns, which would appear to put them leaps and bounds ahead of Donald “The Artless Dodger” Trump. Especially since it shows, at least on the surface, the Clintons as payers of more than their fair share of taxes—recompensing Uncle Sam at an effective rate upwards of 40%. According to their returns, they also give nearly 10% of their adjusted gross income back to charity. Clinton and Kaine—the model of financial transparency!

Whoa—let’s slow it down a bit first. For critics of Hillary’s, especially those who were fervent supporters of Bernie Sanders’ during the primary season, the notion that Bill and Hill made most of their money last year through fees for delivering speeches recalls the controversy over the latter’s speeches to Goldman Sachs that netted HRC several hundreds of thousands of dollars a pop. The Clinton campaign defended their candidate’s acceptance of large sums for her appearances, averring that a) Goldman Sachs and other companies were the ones to offer her that much, so you can’t blame her on that end, and b) that a quid pro quo on matters of policy can’t be assumed from this sort of arrangement. To a certain extent, I agree; in the absence of any proverbial smoking gun, you can’t prove Clinton would necessarily go easy on Wall Street, big banks, and other power players. All the same, despite repeated requests from Sanders himself, Hillary Clinton has patently refused to release the transcripts of her speeches, making it all the more curious what is so g-d good that Goldman et al. would throw all that dough her way. To put it another way, if she has nothing to hide within the contents of those addresses, there’s no reason she should keep them such a guarded secret. After all, she is a paragon of transparency, right?

It’s more than just the speeches, though. The sources of funding for Hillary’s campaign contributions and charitable donations has raised the suspicion of agencies and individuals, regardless of political affiliation. In particular, the workings of the Clinton Foundation and the Hillary Victory Fund have raised concerns about whether or not ethical, moral and even legal considerations were violated by HRC and her surrogates. Clinton’s most die-hard advocates have criticized the attempts of Republican lawmakers and other politicians over the years to knock her and her husband down a peg, and to be sure, any merit to be found in criticism of her handling of matters of foreign policy such as the Benghazi debacle (as far as I’m concerned, Hillary should have been more aware of the deteriorating situation in Libya, or at least its possibility, after the deposition of Muammar Gaddafi) has tended to get lost in her questioning at the hands of Congress, who have made what could be construed as a legitimate inquiry feel more like an unabashed witch hunt.

With respect to potential wrongdoing related to the Clinton Foundation, on the other hand, it is not a partisan team bent on political assassination, but rather the Internal Revenue Service—that same friendly agency supposedly in the midst of auditing Donald Trump—who is leading the investigation. According to State Department E-mails obtained by Judicial Watch as a result of a lawsuit filed by the latter under the Freedom of Information Act, top Clinton Foundation donors were given special consideration, potentially even in the form of government positions, for their contributions, suggesting a “pay-to-play” rewards system was in effect during Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, and at the very least, that Clinton Foundation business and State Department time was intertwined, despite any inherent conflicts of interest. What’s more, key Foundation donors are regarded, shall we say, highly skeptically on an international wavelength, chief among them Gilbert Chagoury, who was convicted in 2000 in Switzerland for money laundering in Nigeria. Essentially, then, it is not outrageous to think the Clinton Foundation, originally conceived by Bill, has become a haven for cronyism and loose ethics/morals. Perhaps this is why, according to the Clinton campaign, the Clinton Foundation will stop accepting corporate and foreign donations—that is, if she wins. To me, though, this sounds like the addict or career criminal saying he or she will quit after one last score or hurrah. Right, Hillary. We’ll believe it when we see it.

And then there’s the Hillary Victory Fund. The fundraising vehicle, which is supposed to be a joint committee comprised by the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee and 32 state party committees that share in the proceeds from donations apparently doesn’t share them all well—at least not in a way that keeps the money in the state committees’ coffers. Per Kenneth Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf, writing for Politico, as of May 2016, less than 1% of the $61 million generated by the Fund has remained with state fundraising efforts, with roughly 88% of what has been transferred to the states being funneled right on to the DNC. This means the bulk of the money has gone to—surprise!—the Clinton campaign and the Democratic National Committee, which, as we know from the DNC leaks, is basically just another way of saying the Clinton campaign and the Clinton campaign. From the article:

The victory fund has transferred $15.4 million to Clinton’s campaign and $5.7 million to the DNC, which will work closely with Clinton’s campaign if and when she becomes the party’s nominee. And most of the $23.3 million spent directly by the victory fund has gone toward expenses that appear to have directly benefited Clinton’s campaign, including $2.8 million for “salary and overhead” and $8.6 million for web advertising that mostly looks indistinguishable from Clinton campaign ads and that has helped Clinton build a network of small donors who will be critical in a general election expected to cost each side well in excess of $1 billion.

The arrangement has sparked concerns among campaign finance watchdogs and allies of Clinton’s Democratic rival Bernie Sanders. They see it as a circumvention of campaign contribution limits by a national party apparatus intent on doing whatever it takes to help Clinton defeat Sanders during the party’s primary, and then win the White House.

But it is perhaps more notable that the arrangement has prompted concerns among some participating state party officials and their allies. They grumble privately that Clinton is merely using them to subsidize her own operation, while her allies overstate her support for their parties and knock Sanders for not doing enough to help the party.

Though Hillary certainly has since clinched the Democratic Party nomination and now has the full backing of Bernie Sanders in an effort to defeat Donald Trump, once more, in a wry sort of way, we can appreciate the irony; much as Trump calling Clinton “crooked” is a pot-kettle situation, the Clinton campaign attacking Sanders for not being a “true” Democrat and for not doing his part to help Democrats seems more than a bit disingenuous. As with the promise to stop taking foreign and corporate donations if she wins, Hillary Clinton speaking to the need to overturn the ruling of Citizens United v. FEC—when she has been involved in some of the most embarrassingly excessive fundraising events in recent memory—smacks of duplicity. Do as I say, not as I do. Don’t worry—things will magically change once I am Madam President. That Giorgio Armani jacket was totally necessary.

See, here’s the thing. For all of Hillary Clinton’s promises about what she will do if given the keys to the White House, the warning signs are such to give progressives pause. Much ridicule was heaped on the Sanders delegates and other dissenters who made their presence felt at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in July, with the others trying to celebrate Hillary’s coronation more or less treating them as babies and sore losers (recall Sarah Silverman’s “you’re being ridiculous” line), but if this report from the Convention by Nicholas Confessore and Amy Chozick is true to reality, the fears of those objectors may be justified. As Nick and Amy set the scene:

After a wrenching yearlong nominating battle with searing debates over the influence of Wall Street and the ability of ordinary citizens to be heard over the din of dollars changing hands, the party’s moneyed elite returned to the fore this week, undeterred and mostly unabashed.

While protesters marched in the streets and blocked traffic, Democratic donors congregated in a few reserved hotels and shuttled between private receptions with A-list elected officials. If the talk onstage at the Wells Fargo Center was about reducing inequality and breaking down barriers, Center City Philadelphia evoked the world as it still often is: a stratified society with privilege and access determined by wealth.

For someone like Robert Reich who “felt the Bern” but now supports Hillary Clinton, like Bernie, because he believes Donald Trump can’t win the election, this makes him worry that HRC really doesn’t “get it.” What seems to elude Clinton and numerous political analysts about this frustration of the American people with establishment politics and the need to reclaim our democracy from moneyed interests is that this demand for “revolution” and freedom from a rigged system that perpetuates and widens the gap between the super-wealthy and the rest of the country is apt to be more than just a flash in the pan if trends toward increasing inequality continue. Lest Hillary’s winning the nomination be regarded as some sort of mandate of the general public, as Pew Research finds, only 29% of eligible voters participated in either the Democratic or Republican primaries. While it’s possible Clinton could’ve upended Bernie Sanders by an even larger margin with higher turnout, with aspects of the primary process conspiring to act against independents and working people, it’s hard to know who or what truly is indicative of the voting populace.


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A meeting in a dark parking garage with Deep Throat. Which is a scene from All The President’s Men, and quite possibly, one or more extramarital encounters Bill Clinton had while as President. (Image Credit: Warner Bros.)

As someone who supported Bernie Sanders until his campaign was officially kaput, and who supports him now in his quest to help America “take back” democracy, I fully acknowledge that my judgment and opinions are grounded in a certain way of thinking. This notwithstanding, knowing what we know about Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, that so many people are willing to cast these considerations aside and readily endorse/vote for one of them boggles my mind. With all due respect, I don’t understand either why so many people would readily watch The Real Housewives of [INSERT LOCATION], or would wait in line for hours just to get an iPhone or Shake Shack, just to give you some perspective on my lack thereof.

Still, let’s review. Trump is more or less a celebrity con man who has been directly responsible for scores of business failures, and whose Trump University and countless licensing deals have swindled folks out of their life’s savings. On top of the notion he is a bigot, climate change denier, racist, sexist, xenophobe, and all-around asshole. Clinton, meanwhile, has accepted huge sums of money from corporations and wealthy investors both inside and outside the United States, likely violating election laws and ethics in the process. Not to mention she is/has been the subject of investigations by both the FBI and the IRS, as well as a Special Committee related to Benghazi, such that New Hampshire governor Maggie Hassan, professed Hillary supporter, could not state that her candidate of choice is honest—even when asked directly three times. According to a recent Economist/YouGov poll, only 28% of voters think Hillary Clinton is “honest and trustworthy,” a mere percentage point—less than the survey’s margin of error—higher than Donald Trump’s rating. Meanwhile, on the subject of favorability, per the most recent Gallup polling data, Hillary manages only a 38% Favorable rating—with 57% of respondents rating her Unfavorable—and Trump, worse, at a clip of 32%, with 62% giving him a thumbs-down. (Compare, for example, with Bernie Sanders’ 53%/37% Favorable/Unfavorable split, or even John Kasich’s 37%/28% approval/disapproval level). Shouldn’t we like our candidates more than we dislike them? Or, at the very least, shouldn’t we be able to trust either of them?

Not long ago, I discussed the leaked DNC E-mails, which show collusion among the DNC ranks to work against the Bernie Sanders campaign despite officials’ stated neutrality, with my brother, someone who I consider to be a reasonably intelligent man. I, of course, fumed about the whole situation, and like Bernie, though not surprised, was disappointed by what the leak revealed. My brother, meanwhile, who is pro-Hillary, insinuated that if Debbie Wasserman Schultz and her flunkies believed undermining Sanders and elevating Hillary Clinton was the best way to defeat Donald Trump, maybe they should have done so. And this, this is where I have my gravest concerns regarding the electoral process in the United States today. In our winner-takes-all format, victory at any and all cost seems to be order of the day, with any collateral damage in misappropriating donations or inciting hatred to be swept under the rug for the sake of earning the W. But the process, the journey leading to the destination, matters—or it should, at any rate. Candidates for public office, especially those running for President of the United States, should have to adhere to ethical, legal and moral guidelines. They should have to earn our vote, rather than assuming we’ll “fall in line” and choose either the Democrat or Republican on the ballot. Without this much, for all our bombast about this being the greatest nation in the world and the home of modern democracy, we’re really no better than the lot of “lesser” nations we look down upon.

Follow the money. If you do, you’ll find those politicians who have fallen in love with it will do anything to keep it and make more of it—with little or no regard for the American people and doing the right thing in the process.

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