Mick Mulvaney’s confession highlights the corrosive influence of money in politics
• Apr 25, 2018
James Hohmann, The Washington Post
“We had a hierarchy in my office in Congress,” the head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau said Tuesday at the American Bankers Association conference in Washington. “If you’re a lobbyist who never gave us money, I didn’t talk to you. If you’re a lobbyist who gave us money, I might talk to you.”
Mulvaney, who represented South Carolina in the House from 2011 until President Trump appointed him as director of the Office of Management and Budget in 2017, told the 1,300 industry executives and lobbyists that they should push lawmakers hard to pursue their shared agenda.
He told the crowd that trying to sway legislators is one of the “fundamental underpinnings of our representative democracy.” For good measure, he insisted that he always made time for his constituents. “If you came from back home and sat in my lobby, I talked to you without exception, regardless of the financial contributions,” said Mulvaney, according to the New York Times.
To be clear, not all members of Congress operate this way. Many offices take pride in meeting with people no matter how much money they have given or might in the future. But Mulvaney’s comment appears emblematic of a mentality that pervades Trump’s orbit.
Multiple Republicans admitted last fall during the debate over tax cuts that they worried about losing campaign contributions if they didn’t vote for the legislation. “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), the first member of Congress to endorse Trump’s presidential campaign, told The Hill in November.
The president himself has repeatedly said that he views politics as transactional. “As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in 2015. “As a businessman, I need that.”
He was asked about that quote during a GOP primary debate. “You better believe it,” Trump replied. “I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me.”
Mulvaney’s comments are especially notable because he’s been viewed for several years, by supporters and critics alike, as one of Wall Street’s best friends in Washington. “He was tapped by President Trump in November to temporarily run the [CFPB], in part because of his promise to sharply curtail it,” Glenn Thrush notes in the Times. “Since then, he has frozen all new investigations and slowed down existing inquiries by requiring employees to produce detailed justifications. He also sharply restricted the bureau’s access to bank data … And he has scaled back efforts to go after payday lenders, auto lenders and other financial services companies accused of preying on the vulnerable. [Mulvaney received nearly $63,000 from payday lenders for his campaigns.] But he wants Congress to go further and has urged it to wrest funding of the independent watchdog from the Federal Reserve, a move that would give lawmakers — and those with access to them — more influence on the bureau’s actions.”
Mulvaney also announced during yesterday’s speech to the bankers he will likely end public access to a database used by consumers to file complaints against financial institutions. “The CFPB database has drawn 1.5 million consumer complaints on financial companies and products since its launch in 2011," the Wall Street Journal’s Yuka Hayashi reports. "It includes the names of the companies that receive complaints and detailed consumer experiences. Advocates say having the information available to the public makes the portal effective by putting pressure on companies to respond to consumers. Businesses say it spreads unverified negative information about them. … Mr. Mulvaney said the bureau would continue to maintain a toll-free number and a website to gather consumer complaints and forward them to companies, but the database would be hidden from public view.”
Democratic members of Congress are accusing Mulvaney of practicing pay-to-play politics. “This is supposed to be a government by the people, for the people. Not a government of the thieves and the money changers. Mick Mulvaney is a disgrace,” tweeted Sen. Bob Casey (D-Pa.), who sits on the Finance Committee.
“Mulvaney didn’t offer this as a sad concession to reality but an actual principle of governance he had personally abided,” notes New York magazine columnist Jonathan Chait. “People in government might have always given their donors more influence over their decisions, but they at least pretended that was not the case in public. The Trump administration is not even bothering to put up a façade. … The completely accurate sense that Trump and his party are out to get themselves and their friends rich is the administration’s gaping vulnerability.”
Many journalists are characterizing Mulvaney’s statement as scandalous:
“A remarkable admission that would very likely spark an immediate House ethics investigation [if he was still in Congress],” tweeted veteran congressional correspondent Paul Kane.
“I’ve never before seen a former member describe Congress so explicitly as an extortion racket,” said Politico editor Timothy Noah.
“This really is one of the hallmarks of the Trump era, but had mostly been just Trump doing it - saying the inside part out loud,” added the Times’s Maggie Haberman. “It’s spreading to appointees.”
“Mulvaney is my No. 1 draft pick for Guy Who Would Give The Detective Extra Information To Amuse Himself But It Ultimately Leads To His Downfall,” quipped HuffPost congressional reporter Matt Fuller.
Before he ran for president, Trump said publicly that you needed to give money to get access. His donations were tightly focused on advancing his own personal and business needs, according to a 2016 investigation by David Fahrenthold and Rosalind Helderman: “He raised money for Jeb Bush while lobbying Bush’s allies to soften the governor’s opposition to casino gambling. He started giving to Virginia state candidates after purchasing a golf course and, later, a winery in the state. And he backed two county commissioners in Palm Beach County, Fla., amid a dispute over airport noise at his Mar-a-Lago estate.”
The president claimed during one of the GOP debates that Bill and Hillary Clinton came to his wedding only because he had donated to their foundation, which the Clintons denied. “This is what's wrong,” interjected Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who was then a rival but is now a golfing buddy. "He buys and sells politicians of all stripes!”
In 2016, Trump paid the IRS a $2,500 penalty after The Washington Post revealed that the candidate’s charitable foundation had violated tax laws by giving a political contribution to a group connected to Florida's attorney general. “The improper donation, a $25,000 gift from the Donald J. Trump Foundation, was made in 2013,” Fahrenthold reported. “At the time, Attorney General Pam Bondi was considering whether to investigate fraud allegations against Trump University. She decided not to pursue the case.” Both Trump and Bondi denied wrongdoing, though each side’s account of what happened differed.
Trump often said back then that his ability to buy access proved that the system was “broken,” and he contended that he was so rich he could never be bought. “I don’t need your money, I never took any of your money, you have no control, bye bye,” he said he would tell lobbyists during an event in Iowa.
It was not long after this that Trump’s campaign began ramping up a traditional finance operation. Once elected, he began holding high-dollar fundraisers to raise money for his reelection campaign even earlier than his predecessors.
You can read the full article by James Hohmann here.