It used to be that I was concerned that the media was paying too much attention to Donald Trump’s tweets; now I’m concerned that they’re not paying enough. This week a random tweet from the president sunk a congressional bill destined for passage, all to please a friend and lobbyist whose clients would have been harmed by the legislation. That’s the staggeringly normal state of our modern kleptocracy, and the Democratic House can do something about it, by rethinking what it means to investigate corruption.
The tweet came unprompted and out of nowhere. “Republicans shouldn’t vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!”
Republicans shouldn’t vote for H.R. 312, a special interest casino Bill, backed by Elizabeth (Pocahontas) Warren. It is unfair and doesn’t treat Native Americans equally!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) May 8, 2019
We know Trump never misses an opportunity to do racism, but I doubt that he spends a lot of time scanning the congressional legislative schedule. So there had to be a backstory here, that he would cite a House bill that had been brought up under suspension of the rules, which is where inoffensive, uncontroversial legislation goes to get rubber-stamped with limited debate.
H.R. 312 would have given tribal sovereignty to the Mashpee Wampanoag tribe in Massachusetts over 321 acres of land. Why they didn’t have this already is a long and winding story ably covered by Splinter’s Nick Martin, a writer with Native American heritage. The short version is that the Mashpee were not part of federal recognition initiatives in the 1930s, then they won it, then lost it in a 2009 Supreme Court case, and the bill would override that court ruling.
Not far under the surface is that the Mashpee wants to use much of this land for a casino project in Taunton, Massachusetts, called First Light. It would be a fairly garish-looking, 900-room casino backed by a Malaysian sovereign wealth fund, and local residents aren’t happy about it coming into their neighborhood. The dispute over whether the Interior Department can designate tribal land takes this out of the realm of a local land use case.
This also wasn’t, I assume, Trump’s reason for intervening. No, he was asked to do so by Matthew Schlapp, the chair of the American Conservative Union, the folks who put on CPAC. Schlapp is the husband of White House strategic communications director Mercedes Schlapp and a longtime Trump ally. He’s also a lobbyist—hey, we all have to make a living—and among his clients is Twin River Management Group, a company that manages two casinos just over the Massachusetts state line in Rhode Island. The casinos are about 26 miles from Taunton, and Twin River obviously sees the prospect of a Mashpee-run casino as a threat to their market share.
Unnamed sources told The Washington Post that Schlapp approached Trump to weigh in on the legislation, highlighting Warren’s involvement even though she had nothing to do with this particular bill—she co-sponsored similar legislation in 2018. Schlapp had been foregrounding Warren in his messaging against the bill. Trump “was happy to attack the project once he learned it was a key priority for Warren,” according to the Post, and agreed to send the tweet.
Once he did, Republican opposition, which had been building among some conservatives, spiked. Because bills brought up under suspension need a two-thirds vote to pass, Democrats postponed consideration. “We needed significant Republican support to get these bills approved today, and apparently the president tweeting a racial slur was compelling enough to give them cold feet,” said Representative Raul Grijalva afterward. Democrats can and probably will bring up H.R. 312 under regular rules and pass it with a Democratic majority later on.
But the corrupt backstory is what’s important here. Trump’s lobbyist and business cronies can call him up and get perks whenever they want, as evidenced by this episode. That’s debilitating to the country and should be understood in the light of day. It’s an appropriate area for oversight.
Of course, Democrats have been rather phlegmatic when it comes to oversight, and where they have dropped subpoenas, they’ve run into a brick wall in the White House, as Trump has vowed to fight all of them. But oversight of the executive branch doesn’t have to run directly through the executive branch.
In this case, you have Matt Schlapp. And you have his client Twin River Management. Investigative staff could seek testimony and documents from them, to understand how they used personal contacts with the president to protect a casino from competition. Individuals who might have knowledge of internal deliberations with the lobby organization and the casino group could be approached. Other clients of Schlapp’s could be asked whether access to the president played a role in their conversations. There’s a pretty rich vein of territory to probe here.
It resembles one of the first major corruption scandals of the Trump era: deregulatory “czar” and billionaire investor Carl Icahn blatantly using his position to try to change some federal biofuels regulations in ways favorable to a refinery he owned. Outcry from Senate Democrats, led by Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown, got Icahn to resign as a Trump advisor and even triggered a federal law enforcement investigation.
Icahn appears to have gotten the last laugh: A new rule from the Environmental Protection Agency is “tainted” by Icahn’s previous involvement, according to Public Citizen’s Tyson Slocum, because “the proposed changes resemble aspects of Icahn’s own reform proposal.” And that’s another area ripe for investigation. Democrats could seek Icahn’s records or testimony from employees in Icahn’s organization, or at the refinery company. They could use the example as an entry into broader scrutiny of how financiers exercise political power, or how Wall Street distorts business objectives. A similar launch from the Schlapp lobbying case into how K Street works would also be welcomed.
The point is that oversight does not stop with asking Trump nicely for a few documents. The impact of the Trump kleptocracy is wide-ranging across American business and its allies in Washington. All of that could be addressed. Democrats haven’t been in power for a decade, and outside of former Oversight Committee Chair Henry Waxman, there was little appetite even then for strong investigations. It’s a skill that requires diligence and effort. Trump’s obstruction is certainly galling, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road.