Under normal circumstances, the barrage of ethics attacks that Donald Trump leveled at Hillary Clinton this week might have given the former Secretary of State pause.
In what he had billed as a major speech Wednesday, Trump called Clinton a “world-class liar,” accused her of running the State Department “like her own personal hedge fund,” and assailed her for making millions off speeches to Wall Street banks, lobbyists, CEOs, and foreign governments. Liberally citing Peter Schweitzer’s controversial book Clinton Cash, Trump ticked off companies that he said had won special favors from the State Department because of massive payments to Bill Clinton and the Clinton Foundation.
But Trump’s is anything but a normal presidential campaign, and Clinton essentially shrugged off his attacks, saying in a speech on Wednesday: "Donald Trump uses poor people around the world to produce his line of suits and ties." Brad Woodhouse, president of the pro-Clinton super PAC Correct the Record, put out a statement dismissing Trump’s “outlandish and debunked conspiracy theories,” and calling it “laughable” that Trump “is now trying to remake himself as a crusader against corruption.”
Indeed, the history of purported scandals that has dogged the Clintons for more than two decades may do little to help Republicans now that Trump is their presumptive nominee. Not only are Trump’s unfavorable ratings even higher than Clinton’s—Gallup puts his at 64 percent and hers at 54 percent—but his own ethics scandals are piling up at a rapid rate. From the class action lawsuit by students who allege Trump University defrauded them, to questions about Trump’s charitable giving, to the news that his own companies have made up to $11 million off his presidential campaign, Trump’s ethics controversies are giving Clinton fodder of her own.
Both Clinton and Trump carry ethical and legal baggage, of course. Trump has called on Clinton to return $10 to $25 million that the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has reportedly donated to the Clinton Foundation since 1999. Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren, of Massachusetts, has said that at least $100 million in loans that Trump has received from the German-based Deutsche Bank present a clear conflict of interest should he become president. Both candidates are under investigation—Clinton over her use of a private email server while at the State Department, Trump over his university’s allegedly fraudulent dealings.
But the Clinton controversies that Republicans might once have regarded as treasure trove for opposition researchers is starting to look less politically damaging, in light of Trump’s mounting problems. It’s Trump whose public record is now starting to look like a gold mine for Democrats. Trump’s own charity, the Trump Foundation, has involved itself in Trump’s campaign events in a way that should invite scrutiny from both the Federal Election Commission and the Internal Revenue Service, campaign-finance watchdogs say.
Trump’s claims that he had given $6 million to veteran’s groups backfired on him when news organizations couldn’t trace the money, and he belatedly announced a $5.6 million donation several months later.
The Trump Foundation also faces allegations that it improperly routed $25,000 to the campaign of Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, whose office then decided not to pursue action against Trump University. Trump faces pressure to release his tax returns, which at best will be complicated, and at worst contain a bombshell. And the millions that his campaign has directed to his own businesses, including rent at Trump Towers, private jets belonging to his company TAG Air, and a full $420,000 to his private Florida club Mar-a-Lago, create the appearance of self-dealing.
FEC rules bar candidates from tapping campaign money for their personal use, but a candidate’s private business may act as a campaign vendor as long it charges fair market value. But Trump’s extensive use of a long list of personal businesses goes way beyond the norm, says election lawyer Brett Kappel, and strays into risky territory. If a candidate’s company charges less than fair market rate, it could be considered an illegal corporate contribution, he noted. And if the charge exceeds the market rate, the windfall may constitute personal use.
“It’s a big disincentive for contributors,” says Kappel of Trump’s reliance on his own vendors. “And he’s walking a fine line here. I’ve never seen any campaign, at any level, spend this much money to businesses owned by the candidate.”
The unseemly impression Trump’s activities create among donors, in fact, may be the most immediate fallout from his ethics difficulties. Trump’s emergence as the party’s standard bearer has been hurting the GOP bottom line for months. FEC disclosures released this week that show Trump has just $1.3 million cash on hand, compared with Hillary Clinton’s $42.5 million, underscore just how skittish donors remain—and do little to inspire confidence in his campaign, which has suffered from a weak field operation, staff turnover, and repeated missteps.
In selecting Trump, Republicans may have picked the one candidate whose ethical and reputational headaches could actually top Clinton’s. Trump, moreover, suffers a much bigger credibility problem within his own party. Only 11 percent of Democrats have an unfavorable view of Clinton, according to a recent Monmouth University poll, while twice as many Republicans—22 percent—view Trump unfavorably. Clinton’s ethics troubles are nothing new; they have been well known to voters for years. Trump’s paper trail, by contrast, seems to turn up a fresh controversy every day.
This story has been updated.