Early in his primary campaign, Donald Trump gave Americans a bracing account of how politics worked in their country. Asked to justify his past donations to Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party, Trump explained, “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. And that’s a broken system.”
What Americans needed, then, was a politician who was simply too rich to be bought — a man who could self-fund his campaign, and thus, owe nothing to anyone after Election Day save for ordinary voters. When Trump wasn’t calling for a Muslim ban, touting the size of his wall, or encouraging his supporters to beat protesters, this was the product he sold to the GOP base: the dream of a president that big money couldn’t touch.
Of course, like so many other Trump products, this dream was a sham. The mogul had always funded his big endeavors with other people’s money, and his political venture was no different. He had no genuine beef with the “broken system” of influence peddling — he merely wanted to transition to its “sell side.” So, his campaign accepted $25 million from casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. And when Sheldon called after Inauguration Day, Trump was there for him.
Specifically, the president agreed to make “increasing the global market-share of Sheldon Adelson’s gambling empire” a top-tier priority of American foreign policy toward Japan.
For years before Trump’s election, casino magnates had been eyeing that nation with unrequited lust: Thanks to its stringent anti-casino laws, Japan was one of the last untapped markets for exploiting gambling addicts on planet Earth. One month after Trump painted the Rust Belt red, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe pushed a bill legalizing casinos through the legislature. The new law allowed for the provision of just three casino licenses in the entire country — guaranteeing their recipients local monopolies.
Thus, in February 2017, Adelson flew to Washington, D.C., for a meeting with the new president, and the Japanese prime minister. And after Adelson pitched the Japanese leader on his business, Trump went in for the close. As ProPublica reports:
Adelson had a potent ally in his quest: the new president of the United States. Following the business breakfast, Abe had a meeting with Trump before boarding Air Force One for a weekend at Mar-a-Lago. The two heads of state dined with Patriots owner Bob Kraft and golfed at Trump National Jupiter Golf Club with the South African golfer Ernie Els. During a meeting at Mar-a-Lago that weekend, Trump raised Adelson’s casino bid to Abe, according to two people briefed on the meeting. The Japanese side was surprised.
“It was totally brought up out of the blue,” according to one of the people briefed on the exchange. “They were a little incredulous that he would be so brazen.” After Trump told Abe he should strongly consider Las Vegas Sands for a license, “Abe didn’t really respond, and said thank you for the information,” this person said.
Adelson still hasn’t secured one of Japan’s coveted casino licenses. But on a recent earnings call he told investors, “[W]e’re in the No. 1 pole position.”
ProPublica goes on to detail Adelson’s influence over other aspects of the Trump administration’s governance, including his transparent role in shaping its (extraordinarily hostile) policies toward the Palestinians. Less well known, though, is Adelson’s success in persuading the EPA to devote a portion of its limited funds to studying his billionaire friend’s mediocre water technology. The Israeli start-up Watergen, owned by Adelson pal Michael Mirilashvili, makes machines that can extract potable water from the air. In his first weeks as EPA director, Scott Pruitt met with Watergen’s executives at Adelson’s behest, and then promptly pushed for the agency to strike a deal with the company that would allow the U.S. to study its technology:
Pruitt, according to one email, asked that staffers explore “on an expedited time frame” whether a deal could be done “without the typical contracting requirements.” Other emails described the matter as “very time sensitive” and having “high Administrator interest.”
A veteran scientist at the agency warned that the “technology has been around for decades,” adding that the agency should not be “focusing on a single vendor, in this case Watergen.” Officials said that Watergen’s technology was not unique, noting there were as many as 70different suppliers on the market with products using the same concept. Notes from a meeting said the agency “does not currently have the expertise or staff to evaluate these technologies.” Agency lawyers “seemed scared” about the arrangement, according to an internal text exchange. The EPA didn’t respond to requests for comment.
The deal got done.
With any other president, these revelations would be a major news story. But this administration has been roughly as forthright about its own corruption as Donald Trump once was about that of American campaign finance. The notion that public servants shouldn’t use their offices to advance the private interests of their patrons is utterly alien to the contemporary GOP’s philosophy of government. If anything, today’s Republican Party operates on the opposite ethical principle: that it has a fiduciary duty to maximize returns to its largest shareholders.
Congressional Republicans all but endorsed this principle, publicly, during the fight over the Trump tax cuts last fall:
“My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’” Rep. Chris Collins (R-N.Y.), himself a millionaire, said on Tuesday.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) told reporters on Thursday that a failure to pass tax reform would fracture the Republican Party and lead to more far-right wing primary challengers. “The financial contributions will stop,” he added.
Within the White House, of course, the graft has typically been at once more petty and egregious. The president relentlessly uses his office to promote his private properties, while virtually every member of his Cabinet has been caught with their hands in Uncle Sam’s till, at one point or another. Meanwhile, at the regulatory agencies, administration officials literally tell industry lobbies that the government should exist for their benefit — and then those lobbies proudly advertise their conquest of our republic:
On Fox News and right-wing Facebook feeds, the GOP maintains a narrative in which Trump is a great enemy of D.C. corruption. But the party feels no need to reconcile the reality they craft for their base with the one that’s plainly visible to anyone with an interest in seeing it. Our government is not merely corrupt, but proudly so; corruption is its governing principle.
In this context, it’s hard to get too worked up at the thought that our president is prioritizing Sheldon Adelson’s profits over America’s broader interests in Japan. After all, Trump’s entire party is prioritizing the energy industry’s profits over the medium-term survival of human civilization.
And yet, as Trump himself recognized in 2016, there is real popular appetite for evicting the money-lenders from the temples of our democracy. The corruption that ProPublica documents might be “how the world works” now. But a better world is possible — or, at least, worth fighting for.