If there's one thing we've learned in the era of Donald Trump it's that a system of political norms doesn't mitigate the behavior of a lunatic with power. In fact, at least one positive outgrowth of Trump's unrelenting intemperance is the likelihood of passing laws in a post-Trump era specifically designed to rein in the many abuses he’s foisted upon the American people in the name of public service.
But this week offered yet another stark reminder that it's not just Trump who is using his position of power to enrich himself at the expense of other Americans—it's a formula for corruption that applies to damn near everyone with whom he surrounds himself. Take Trump's earliest Congressional backer for instance, New York Rep. Chris Collins, who stood on the White House lawn at a picnic in 2017 casually apprising his son of his advance knowledge that the stock of a pharmaceutical company they were both heavily invested in was about tank. Collins, who if convicted now faces the prospect of being sentenced to up to 150 years in prison, had that information because he sits on the board of the Australian-based Innate Immunotherapeutics and was privy to the failure of one of the company's clinical trials before it was made public.
News of Collins' indictment and the epic grifting of several other Trump associates gave Democrats an opening this week to re-up the "culture of corruption" theme that yielded big dividends for them in 2006 following revelations of GOP Rep. Mark Foley's sex scandal involving underage pages. In fact, Nancy Pelosi promised to "drain the swamp" that year as Democrats campaigned, pledging to introduce a series of reform bills within the first 100 hours of becoming Speaker of the House.
That's exactly what Democrats need now—specifics. And not just specifics, but sticky specifics. The problem for Democrats isn't a lack of examples to seize on, but rather that Trump has provided such an embarrassment of corruption riches it’s almost impossible for everyday Americans to focus on any one of them. Democrats have already outlined the areas they plan to overhaul: increasing access to voting, tightening ethics rules for lawmakers and administration officials, and enacting campaign finance laws to fight the outsized role of big money in politics. They're all worthy and well-intentioned goals but the initiative still seems to need an organizing principle that makes it resonate with voters.
The good news is, Trump and his band of thieves have provided the perfect way to lodge several of these reforms in voters' minds by proposing legislation aimed specifically at curtailing the abuses of some of Trump's closest allies. In fact, one Democrat who has been leading the charge on the anti-corruption front, Maryland Rep. John Sarbanes, has already introduced a bill that serves as the perfect example of such a strategy.
In response to revelations about Trump's one-time lawyer/fixer Michael Cohen charging obscene consulting fees to various entities seeking access to the administration, Sarbanes joined with Democratic Sen. Michael Bennett of Colorado to introduce a bill overhauling lobbying rules. In part, the legislation would require people selling themselves as "strategic advisers" like Cohen did to register as lobbyists, which is not currently required by law.
This gave me an idea: Why not introduce a handful of reforms all centered around Trump's corrupt coterie, almost like baseball cards but with the offender's picture, a title for their offense and a brief description of the abuse the law would seek to eradicate.
Rep. Collins and former Trump Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price offer another great example. Although Collins didn't necessarily exploit his office but rather his position on Innate's board, there's a great argument to be made about why Congressional lawmakers shouldn't be allowed to sit on the boards of publicly traded companies and why they also shouldn't be allowed to trade stocks either (see Tom Price).
I'm not going to run through every "corruption card," so to speak, but let's just say there's plenty of material for Democrats to mine depending on the laws they aim to write. And Democrats don't have to claim Trump associates are criminals in order to use the behavior they’ve engaged in to demonstrate the system isn’t working nor should it be allowed to work this way. Talking about corruption generically also has the advantage of telegraphing the Russia probe without specifically naming it, which Democrats appear loath to do. Good news then, there’s plenty of corruption to go around:
- On trial: Paul Manafort
- Pleaded guilty: Rick Gates, Michael Flynn, and George Papadopoulos
- Indicted: Rep. Chris Collins
- Officially under investigation: Michael Cohen
- Reportedly under scrutiny: Roger Stone, Don Jr., Jared Kushner, and Carter Page
- Reportedly corrupt: Wilbur Ross, Ryan Zinke
- Resigned due to corruption: Scott Pruitt, Tom Price
And that's the short list! Not to mention the swirl of laws that could target Trump himself, perhaps starting with the requirement that all presidential candidates disclose their tax returns.
Anyway, the corruption cards could be sticky, I think. They match real life people with real world corruption to offer real legislative solutions. Plus, they would automatically reinforce how extraordinarily corrupt Trump's closest allies are. Every time a Democrat touted a law, they could discuss, for instance, how Trump fixer Michael Cohen profited from his proximity to power and how that leads to bad public policy or how HHS Sec. Tom Price may have bilked money from other investors by leveraging his position to make informed stock trades. The examples are ripe for the picking and the polling suggests it's a home run.
An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll in June found that voters were more likely to support a Congressional candidate who pledges to put a check on Trump by a whopping 25-point margin, 48-23 percent. In addition, a July poll from the progressive Center for American Progress showed that voters in 48 GOP-held swing districts are predisposed to believing Republicans are more corrupt than Democrats.
54 percent of voters in these “light red” districts believe the Republican Party is “more corrupt” than the Democratic one, while 46 percent say the opposite. Among independent voters, 60 percent said the GOP was more corrupt.
And that sentiment appears to be translating into shifting partisan preferences: In past midterms, Republicans won these districts by an average of 14 percentage points; this new poll gives Democrats a 4-point generic ballot advantage.
Just imagine how resonant the anti-corruption message could be if Democrats outlined a series of reforms they planned to pass immediately should they win the majority. It's kind of a no-brainer in some ways and would provide House Democrats, if they flip the chamber, with the perfect path forward heading into the next legislative session. Even if Republicans retain control of the Senate, House Democrats could say, “This is the agenda we ran on and this is the agenda we're passing” and then dare Senate Republicans to vote down their voter-endorsed anti-corruption package. Or, what if it miraculously cleared both chambers and actually reached Trump's desk? Isn't that a pretty picture.