Jeb And Trumpy Debated The Efficacy Of Political Bribery-- Though Not The Morality Or Criminality
Although I loved the Rand Paul/Trumpy junior high exchange and Rand Paul's line that "there will always be a Bush or a Clinton for you if you want to go back to Iraq," probably the most memorable bits from CNN's long, mostly boring debate Wednesday night were when Jeb defended the honor of his brother's failed presidency by making the absurd statement that "he kept us safe," forgetting, apparently, the worst disaster to have happened on American soil in over a century; Carly Fiorina's endless cascade of deceitful bromides; and climate-change denier Marco Rubio's opening joke about California's drought.
But far more significant was a debate moment almost no one mentioned afterwards. Florida journalist Marc Caputo, writing for Politico, dug a little deeper into the exchange between Trumpy and Jeb on the attempt by Trump to bribe Florida politicians to legalize casino gambling. We all know how Trump is always bragging how he pays off corrupt politicians so they will do his bidding. That's what he does. And that's what they do. Jeb decided to go after him on it this time. (Watch the sad, sad video up top.) But Caputo was there-- and he remembers:
"The one guy that had some special interests that I know of that tried to get me to change my views on something-- that was generous and gave me money-- was Donald Trump," Bush said. "He wanted casino gambling in Florida."Congressman Alan Grayson, currently running for the Senate seat Rubio is abandoning, watched the exchange between Trump and Bush aghast and said, "That's what an oligarchy looks like... Welcome to the New America.
That’s when Trump cut him off-- and failed to tell the truth.
“I didn't,” Trump said.
But for more than 21 years, Trump did. He and his company have repeatedly been on record trying to get casino deals in one form or another in Florida.
From hiring lobbyists to taking a former business partner to court, Trump’s interest in getting a piece of Florida’s gaming industry has been documented in news articles from Tallahassee to Miami. Trump’s involvement in expanding Florida gaming-- an effort that regularly fails in the state Capitol due to the influence of conservative lawmakers-- is well-known among state capital reporters, politicians and lobbyists alike.
“Donald Trump has tried almost every year to have a casino, even before Jeb was governor,” said Danny Adkins, president of Mardi Gras Casino in Hallandale Beach. “It’s not even a secret.”
The gaming industry is so cutthroat in Florida that lobbyists from different companies have almost come to blows protecting their turf and trying to get an edge in Tallahassee. But when Trump said during the debate that he didn’t want gambling, Adkins said the old foes started texting each other in disbelief.
“Trust me: everyone is an agreement about this,” Adkins told Politico Wednesday night, laughing. “And we don’t really agree on anything else.”
Trump didn’t just stop with his one false denial. He doubled down. Immediately after Trump said “I didn’t” want casinos in Florida, Bush corrected him: “Yes you did.”
Trump: “Totally false.”
Bush: “You wanted it and you didn't get it because I was opposed to…”
Trump, cutting him off: “I would have gotten it… I promise I would have gotten it.”
As early as 1994, just before Florida voters rejected expanded gambling, Trump told the Miami Herald: “As somebody who lives in Palm Beach, I'd prefer not to see casinos in Florida. But as someone in the gaming business, I'm going to be the first one to open up if Floridians vote for them.”
A decade later, Florida approved Las Vegas-style casinos in a limited way. Today, Florida has 15 of them. None is owned by Trump. But he tried after he bought the Doral Golf Resort & Spa near Miami and joined the failed fight to have lawmakers approve new, large “destination-resort” casinos.
“If Miami doesn't do casinos, that would be a terrible mistake,” Trump told the Miami Herald in 2013. "Taxes would be able to be reduced substantially and Miami is the only place that Las Vegas is really concerned about-- in the United States.”
But Trump didn’t get what he wanted. And his comments about not wanting casino gambling put his lobbyist, Brian Ballard, in an awkward spot. Ballard is a Bush backer. And he was in the debate audience on Wednesday night.
“It was uncomfortable. No doubt,” Ballard told Politico.
Trump’s biggest shot at getting at getting a casino deal was in 1998, when Bush was mounting his first successful campaign for governor and the developer was in talks with the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which wanted Las Vegas-style casinos.
But they weren’t legal at the time, and then-Democratic Gov. Lawton Chiles was opposed to expanding gambling. Meanwhile, Bush’s close ally, incoming Florida House Speaker John Thrasher, was courting Trump and met with the developer and twice discussed his arrangement with the Seminoles, according to news reports at the time. And on May 7, 1998, Trump Hotels & Casino Resorts cut its largest check to the Republican Party of Florida: $50,000.
Bush’s opponent, Lt. Gov. Buddy MacKay, charged that Bush and the GOP were selling the state out to gaming interests. "A guy whose only interest in Florida is casinos-- there's got to be a motivation," MacKay’s campaign manager, Robin Rorapaugh, said at the time.
Bush denied anything to do with the money-- in contrast with his statement Wednesday night when he said Trump “gave me money.” However, Bush has remained consistently anti-gambling. And by late fall of that year, it was clear he was going to win. And he made clear that he wasn’t going to approve a gambling deal.
Around this time, Trump appeared to pull out of his deal with the Seminoles. Trump’s on-again-off-again consultant, Roger Stone, told Politico on Wednesday night that Trump technically withdrew from his deal with the Seminoles before Bush became governor. But Trump’s withdrawal corresponded with Bush’s likely victory and his intransigence over gambling expansion.
After Bush became governor, in 1999, news reports showed that Trump was again interested in a deal with the Seminoles. And the Seminoles kept pushing for more gambling. But Bush and the GOP Legislature wouldn’t approve.
Trump later sued a former business partner, claiming he swindled him by striking a separate arrangement to build the Seminole Hard Rock & Casino near Fort Lauderdale.
On Wednesday, Trump denied it all, saying for emphasis that “I promise if I wanted it, I would have gotten it.”
Bush: “No way. Believe me.”
Trump had another chance to get it right a few moments later when Bush pressed the issue. “He asked Florida to have casino gambling, we said no,” Bush said.
Bush: “We said no. And that's the simple fact. The simple fact is…”
Trump: “Don't make things up. Jeb, don't make things up. Come on.”
But the record clearly shows that, when it comes to Trump’s position on gambling, the casino developer was the one onstage who was dealing from the bottom of the deck.
I also contacted Annette Taddeo to get her take on the Trump-Bush dust-up, since she has the best memory of anyone I know for what goes down politically in Miami-Dade. She's running for the FL-26 seat currently held by corporate darling Carlos Curbelo.
Taddeo's campaign manager, Shaun Daniels, pointed out that Curbelo had a similar gambling agenda to Trump. "Carlos Curbelo has been intimately involved in the same casino-related big-money influence for which Jeb Bush denounced Donald Trump. Curbelo was part of a vast network of lobbyists working for the gambling conglomerate, Genting."
And special interests helped Curbelo win his seat. In 2014, more than $2 million was spent by Super PACS and other shadowy organizations on behalf of Carlos Curbelo to win by a razor-thin margin. In fact, in FL-26 the candidates were the minority spenders in that race, and sadly probably will be again.
Annette Taddeo recognizes the influence peddling and pointed out she's been on the front lines, saying:
When the interests are big enough, there is no partisan bias to big money influence. At the local level especially, a single big company can try to buy both sides. I’ve fought what I consider tax-payer funded corporate welfare at the local level and while we had some success, the everyday citizens that form a grassroots uprising simply cannot put that much effort into fighting every special-interest project. That’s why I support campaign finance reform.Taddeo also reiterated her resolve to combat special-interest money at the federal level:
I hope people realize that while both sides may take Super PAC money to compete, only one Party is out front calling for an end to Citizens United and actively trying to remove the influence of big-money. The other side is actively courting billionaires to fund their candidate-specific Super PACS. The Republicans’ new billionaire-primary, where they scramble to win favor with the Koch Brothers and others, is appalling. We should not accept this system as the new normal. We should fight it, and that is what I will do in Congress.