In my last column, I discussed how Donald Trump is being erroneously accused of illegal campaign finance violations and pointed to examples of how Barack Obama is guilty of worse violations of campaign finance laws. Yet there were no calls for Obama’s impeachment, nor was there any media speculation about jail time. Well, apparently there’s a new twist in the game of “Let’s See What We Can Nail Trump For That’s Wasn’t A Crime When Obama Did It.” This week it was reported that “federal prosecutors in New York are investigating whether President Trump’s inaugural committee misused some of the record-breaking $107 million it raised and whether deep-pocketed donors were offered access to the incoming administration in exchange for cash.”
The nascent criminal probe, which was recently launched by the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan, is based in part on records seized during FBI raids at the office and homes of Trump’s former personal attorney and fixer Michael Cohen, people familiar with the matter told The Wall Street Journal.
Boy, that sounds serious, doesn’t it? Except, it really isn’t. Big donors expecting access in exchange for big donations is politics. It’s been going on long before Trump came to town… and guess what, liberals? Obama did it too. It’s not me just making stuff up, The Washington Post reported on this just before Obama’s second inauguration.
The voters have spoken, but even after a $2 billion presidential campaign, the quest for dollars in Washington continues. This weekend, the high rollers are paying for inauguration parties that are almost always busts, a ceremony that’s better seen on TV and access that’s not exactly priceless but pretty darn expensive.
For the thousands of high-end donors who pay for the whole thing, the inauguration is about exclusive access to the president and vice president, as well as what insiders call “placement.” (Jobs, they mean.) Goodness knows it’s not the big public balls that lure the visitors; by universal accord, those mega-parties are mostly letdowns — people you don’t know and don’t like, bars you’d need a crowbar to reach, bad food and not enough of it.
That’s right, these big donors weren’t paying big bucks to go to parties and other inaugural events. They paid for “access to the president and vice president,” in order to influence policy and to get themselves jobs or political appointments. According to the New York Daily News, Obama took a little heat for reversing his previous public stance to limit large and corporate donations for his first inauguration.
The shifts underscore Obama’s evolving stance on changing how business is conducted in Washington. He criticized pay-for-access privileges during his first campaign, and after coming into office he pledged to have the most transparent administration in history. The president once shunned lobbyists but later gave some waivers to work for his administration. Once a vocal opponent of super political action committees — which can spend as much money as they can raise to help candidates — Obama later embraced them when faced with the mountain of cash spent by allies of his Republican campaign challengers.
Prior to Obama’s second inauguration, so many donors were expecting something in exchange for writing their big checks that, for example, Obama came up with a set of rules for those seeking ambassadorships. They had to volunteer for more than one country and serve no more than two years so he could give the position to another donor. And, many of these donors-turned-ambassadors weren’t even qualified for their positions.
But don’t think for a second that this donation-for-access to the administration started with Obama’s second inauguration. His presidency was the embodiment of pay to play. According to a 2012 New York Times analysis, big donors to Obama’s campaign often got access to the White House. Some of them were first-time donors to Obama or the Democratic Party and their donations sometimes coincided with their visits. Obama donors also got huge tax perks for their donations, a disproportionate share of major government contracts, as well as czarships, leading advisory roles, and other appointments.
According to the New York Daily News article, “offering a pay-to-play scenario for political donors could constitute federal corruption.” That’s cute. Why did nobody ask this question in 2013? The bottom line is that this is business as usual in Washington. Even if we assume these allegations are true, the only thing Trump is guilty of here is conducting business as usual—because you simply can’t say that it is only corruption when it’s a Republican’s inauguration. The media didn’t even suggest that the “pay-for-access privileges” that were commonplace in the Obama administration were anything criminal. But, hey, guess what? If Trump is accused of doing the same thing, all of a sudden we’re talking about criminal investigations and federal corruption. Give me a break.
All this proves is that the Mueller investigation has to stop. It’s become a parody of itself… an investigation desperately seeking a crime to investigate.
Matt Margolis is the author of The Scandalous Presidency of Barack Obama and the bestselling The Worst President in History: The Legacy of Barack Obama. His new book, Trumping Obama: How President Trump Saved Us From Barack Obama’s Legacy, will be published in 2019. You can follow Matt on Twitter @MattMargolis