It was the other Bill Clinton scandal — the half-forgotten one that didn’t involve sex.
To jump-start his 1996 re-election campaign with an early advertising blitz, Clinton straddled the ethical boundaries by offering access to the White House in exchange for six-digit checks. In Clinton’s defense, there were no proven quid pro quos — just an atmosphere of sleaziness.
The president courted potential high rollers with White House coffees and offered favored donors sleepovers in the Lincoln Bedroom. Guests at these White House coffees donated a total of $28 million to the Democratic National Committee using a (since outlawed) loophole in campaign finance laws called “soft money.”
Shady figures roamed through the Clinton White House, almost at will.
Former Little Rock restaurateur Charlie Trie, who later pleaded guilty to campaign violations, made 22 visits to the White House while channeling more than $600,000 in suspect donations to the DNC.
Even more omnipresent was Johnny Chung who showed up in Hillary Clinton’s East Wing office with a check to the DNC for $50,000. Even though a national security council staffer had warned that Chung was a “hustler,” he was still admitted to the White House compound 50 times and gave $366,000 to the DNC. The money was later returned, as Chung also pleaded guilty to breaking campaign finance laws.
These Clinton fund-raising scandals prompted Bob Dole to end his 1996 presidential campaign by bellowing, “Where’s the outrage?”
Watch: Lessons from 44 Years of Special Investigations
Good question …
That’s a question we all should be asking right now.
During the first 14 months of the Trump era, liberals have been fixated on the Mueller investigation while the news media gyrates from tweet to tweet in a dance of distraction.
Every week brings a new episode of scandal-tainment like a porn star credibly claiming she had a fling with Donald Trump four months after his wife Melania gave birth to their son Barron.
But, in truth, the defining characteristic of the Trump administration may be a pattern of corruption on a level unseen in American life since the Gilded Age. Compared to Trump, Bill Clinton was a paragon of ethics and Lyndon Johnson was a mild-mannered owner of a Texas TV station.
In the old days, when a John F. Kennedy or Nelson Rockefeller ran for president, they were assumed to be the embodiment of honesty because, as the saying went, “They are too rich to steal.”
Co-mingling Trump’s private business dealings with his presidency (events at the Trump International Hotel in Washington and at Mar-a-Lago) seems to be the price necessary to convince a man of his innate greatness to serve. And it is, of course, pure coincidence that White House aide Ivanka Trump heads a rare U.S. business that has won lucrative fashion trademarks in China.
As for presidential son-in-law Jared Kushner — the most powerful man in America who can’t obtain a high-level security clearance — the pile of questionable moves is almost as high as the debt burden on his family’s tottering real estate empire. If there is an ethical line constraining Kushner, it appears to be written in invisible ink.
Room at the trough
With the president and his family setting the tone, everyone else in Trumpworld is eager to get a piece of the action.
Much like Johnny Chung two decades ago, Trump fundraiser Elliott Broidy has bragged about his access to the president in an effort to win foreign contracts for his defense contracting firm, Circinus. As Kenneth Vogel and David Kirkpatrick of The New York Times wrote in a recent investigative article, “A new class of insider has emerged, able to lobby the president directly on behalf of clients or business partners.”
Wait, we almost forgot Scott Pruitt, the head of what has become, in effect, the Environmental Pollution Agency.
Beyond the penny-ante scandals like the $105,000 in taxpayer funds for Pruitt’s first-class flights, the EPA administrator has come up with a novel solution to the high cost of the Washington rental market. As an economy move, Pruitt is paying just $50 a night for a condominium that, by chance, is owned by the wife of a lobbyist for a major energy company.
And, in one of those odd quirks of regulatory policy, the same energy company that is connected to Pruitt’s generous landlord won approval last year from the EPA for a controversial oil pipeline.
At least, the Clinton fundraising scandals prompted a set of high-profile 1997 Senate hearings by the Government Affairs Committee chaired by Republican Fred Thompson. Although most committee Democrats vigorously defended Clinton, their minority report admitted, “The DNC also deserves criticism for the manner it used access to political figures as a fundraising tool.”
But these days, a Republican Congress has shown scant interest in the get-it-while-you-can avarice of the Trump family, the president’s fundraisers and appointees. If ethical behavior does not matter in the White House and executive agencies, why should members of Congress forego chances to get rich while in office?
A decade ago, Randy “Duke” Cunningham, a onetime key figure on the House Appropriations Committee, was sent to federal prison after accepting $2.4 million in bribes. It was a disgraceful end to a career that began as a swaggering ace pilot in the Vietnam War.
Honesty in government is a major way that America differs from corrupt regimes in Latin America and Asia. But if no one cares about Trump era boodling, then we are heading to a Congress in which a Duke Cunningham would be a role model rather than a pariah.
Roll Call columnist Walter Shapiro is a veteran of Politics Daily, USA Today, Time, Newsweek and The Washington Post. Follow him on Twitter @MrWalterShapiro.