Crime, Boy, I Don't Know

Pundits say no one cares about the crimes at the GOP convention, they are wrong.

On Thursday night, Donald Trump is going to stand on the South Lawn of the “People’s House” to deliver a speech to the Republican National Convention. This is not just unusual or non-traditional or norm-breaking or any the other euphemisms too many in the media are using as they twist themselves into “both sides” pretzels.

Let’s be clear, Donald Trump’s speech is illegal. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s speech to the convention from Jerusalem on a taxpayer funded trip was illegal. Melania Trump’s Rose Garden was illegal. Trump issuing pardons and holding a Naturalization ceremony exclusively for the convention is an illegal misuse of taxpayer resources.

As Dan Jacobsen, one of the lawyers in the Obama White House whose job it was to ensure we abided by the law, told Politico:

The Hatch Act makes it illegal for a federal official to, among other things, ‘use his official authority or influence for the purpose of … affecting the result of an election.’ 5 USC 7323(a)(1). Note the phrase ‘for the purpose of.’

In a normal world with a healthy political culture and well functioning media, the President and his political party breaking the law on national television would be the biggest story in the land. Alas, we don’t live in a normal world.

While there has been some very good reporting on the illegality afoot, the bulk of the press coverage has been incredibly dismissive of Democratic concerns about Presidential crimes. Reporters and pundits were either too wowed by the optics of the crimes or too cynical about the American public to care too much about the crimes they were broadcasting live to millions of Americans.

As Politico Playbook explained with trademark cynicism:

Do you think a single person outside the Beltway gives a hoot about the president politicking from the White House or using the federal government to his political advantage? Do you think any persuadable voter even notices?

Politico has it backwards. People INSIDE the Beltway apparently don’t give a hoot about crimes and abuses of taxpayer money. People OUTSIDE the Beltway can and will care, but only if Democrats make the case.

The Pundits are Wrong,Voters Care about Corruption

It is true that most voters think all politicians are somewhat corrupt. They presume their elected officials will use their offices for political and in some cases, financial gain. But the idea that voters don’t care about corruption is not supported by recent history or the data.

Concerns about public corruption have been at the center of nearly every election in recent memory. In 2006, Democrats took the House running against the Republican “Culture of Corruption.” In 2008, Barack Obama ran on a change message about reducing the role of lobbyists and special interests in Washington. His reform agenda was an important point of contrast against Hillary Clinton and John McCain. Many of the same political observers dismissing Trump’s blatant violations of the Hatch Act as unimportant to voters, thought that Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server was the most important story in the history of politics. The bulk of Donald Trump’s messaging in that election was about corruption. At every rally, his supporters chanted “Lock her up” at imagined political crimes and Trump promised to “drain the swamp.”

Polling shows that voters don’t just care about corruption. They care about it a lot. A poll conducted by Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner in the aftermath of the 2018 election found:

Three-quarters of voters said ending the culture of corruption in Washington was “very important” when deciding how to vote this fall, making it the most important issue for voters. Among independents, the gap in importance of these issues is even larger as ending the culture of corruption tops the next highest issues by 6-8 points.

According to a May, 2020 Harris poll, registered voters said a “corrupt political establishment” was a bigger concern than healthcare, gun violence, or terrorism.

Caring about political corruption and caring about violations of a relatively esoteric provision of campaign finance law are not the same thing. But these blatant illegal acts present an opportunity to raise a broader critique that we shouldn’t let pass by.

How to Make Sure Trump’s Crimes Don’t Pay

In the middle of a deadly pandemic and a devastating economic recession, political corruption can seem somewhat removed from the most pressing concerns of the American people. But ignoring Presidential crimes that are happening out in the open for everyone to see is not a winning strategy. It connotes weakness and certainly doesn’t do anything to amp up enthusiasm among base voters. There are several ways to make the corruption argument against Trump work:

  1. It’s a pattern of behavior: An argument against Trump that focused primarily on violating the Hatch Act would not be successful. Trump breaking the law by using the White House for his convention is not an isolated incident. It is part of a pattern of behavior that includes multiple Cabinet Secretaries resigning in disgrace, his unprecedented refusal to divest from his businesses, directing taxpayer dollars to his hotels and golf clubs and his family profiting off of their government jobs. This critique supports the “Trump First, America Last” message that is being driven by the Biden campaign and their Democratic allies. Trump puts his own political prospects ahead of what’s best for the country. Using the corruption angle will help drive home this message particularly with Independent voters

  2. Make it about taxpayer dollars: Focusing on the misuse of taxpayer dollars is the best way to make the issue of Trump’s corruption personal for voters. Corruption in the abstract is easy to ignore. A politician taking one’s hard earned money and spending it on themselves makes voters angry. In a poll of Wisconsin conducted by Change Research for Crooked Media last year, 49 percent of swing voters were less likely to support Trump after hearing a message about Trump funneling millions of tax dollars into his pocket via his hotels and golf clubs. Ultimately, the use of the White House and government employees for the Republican convention is a massive misuse of taxpayer dollars. This isn’t just a technical violation of law. Every one of us is paying for the Republican Convention. Just like we all paid for Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s photo op in Israel. That is going to piss off a lot of voters especially when paired with a message about Trump’s tax breaks for his rich friends and campaign donors.

  3. Make All of the Republicans Pay: Some of the swampy behavior of the last three years has been very Trump specific. The rest of the Republicans enabled the behavior, helped cover up the crimes, and obstructed the investigations, but they were not active participants in the scheme. This is the Republican National Convention. It is put on by the Republican Party and every single Republican up and down the ballot should be held accountable. Cory Gardner, Susan Collins, Thom Thillis and the rest of them will pay a political price — but only if we make the case.

  4. Have a Plan: Given the historic (and warranted) skepticism of politicians, generic statements about being against corruption will be immediately dismissed by the voters. Having a specific anti-corruption agenda with real teeth makes the argument infinitely more credible. Democrats had an ethics bill in 2006. Obama had a reform agenda in 2008 and if Democrats want to make a strong case about political corruption, they need an anti-corruption plan . Elizabeth Warren unveiled a great plan as part of her Presidential campaign. There were really good elements in the reform package passed by the Democratic House in early 2019. One place to start is with legislation to strengthen penalties for Hatch Act violations. Ironically enough, one of the previous sponsors of a proposal to strengthen the Hatch Act was current White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows — who now considers it to be an advisory opinion at most.

Corruption is not going to be the number one issue in this election, but it can be a powerful way to reinforce the very real concerns that voters have about Trump. In 2016, Trump was seen as the Washington outsider looking to drain the swamp. Anything and everything that erodes his status as a change agent brings us a little closer to victory in November. Don’t let some D.C. reporters tell you otherwise.