Trump’s pay for play scandal intensifies

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The Republican nominee has denied any wrongdoing in his donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi.

The swirl of scandal around Donald Trump’s donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi is intensifying, with the Republican nominee and his aides vigorously pushing back against the idea that he bought the decision by Bondi to not pursue an investigation into his Trump University.

The controversy whipped back up last week when news emerged that Trump paid a $2,500 fine because his foundation improperly donated $25,000 to Bondi’s political election committee in 2013 (tax-exempt charitable groups are not allowed to make political contributions).

Following the donation in 2013, Bondi’s office declined to join a fledgling multi-state probe into Trump’s real estate seminar program. The links between the two continued, with Trump hosting a lavish fundraiser for Bondi at his Mar-a-Lago resort in March 2014, and Bondi endorsing Trump in March of this year.

While Trump and Bondi say there’s no fire underneath the smoke, the Manhattan businessman’s political wheelings and dealings are now drawing more scrutiny, especially because Trump’s campaign has been driving hard at the idea that Hillary Clinton engaged in pay for play through her Clinton Foundation and her tenure at the State Department.

Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway on Wednesday morning brushed aside questioning from George Stephanopoulos on ABC’s “Good Morning America,” remarking that Trump “has supported many, many Republican candidates” while suggesting that the two stories are not comparable in scale or consequence.

“But we do know Mrs. Clinton, Secretary Clinton used the State Department as a concierge for many foreign donors,” Conway said. “And I think there’s actually no comparison between man who gives consistently to Republican candidates in their re-election, George, and a woman who as secretary of state has had her official staff that we pay for bartering for position and bartering for state dinners and, you know, just making contributions that are inappropriate. The State Department is a very busy place. We should get human rights for those women and girls not disrespected and not worry about foreign governments coming in to influence.”

Image result for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

The Trump campaign is also facing a new crop of editorials, with the Miami Herald saying it’s “puzzling” why Trump’s controversy is not getting “equal billing” to that associated with the Clinton Foundation.

“Unlike the faux scandal over the Clinton institution, there were actual victims here — people who paid good money to Trump University and feel they were duped. Why is Pam Bondi not investigating that?” the Miami Herald editorial board wrote in an item titled, “Donald Trump’s gift to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi deserves a closer look.”

The New York Times also dug in, writing on its opinion page, “If Ms. Bondi promised to back off the Trump University suit in exchange for campaign money during that 2013 phone conversation, it could be a crime. As for Mr. Trump, the $2,500 I.R.S. fine is a tiny penalty, unless voters impose consequences of their own.”

The Orlando Sentinel’s Scott Maxwell, citing records obtained from a public-records request, wrote in an column Tuesday that the “wrong person is receiving the brunt of the scrutiny here.”

“Imagine you were robbed and the prosecutor gave the suspect a pass after taking $25,000 from him,” Maxwell wrote. “There would be universal outrage — and rightfully so. This is not the behavior of an ethical prosecutor.”

Bondi’s 2010 opponent, former federal prosecutor and state Sen. Dan Gelber, said on his blog that the Trump money “taints” the Florida attorney general, who is at least guilty of a crime of optics.

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“In fairness to Bondi, it is not at all clear whether she knew the details of the investigation when the check was solicited, or whether it influenced her Office’s decision,” Gelber wrote. “But it doesn’t have to. Bondi should have rejected the money, or returned it immediately upon learning that Trump was seeking an action – or in this case an inaction – from her Office.”

Bill Clinton ramped up his own attacks, taking a shot at Trump on Wednesday at a rally in Orlando as he told the crowd that Trump “attacked my foundation. He uses his foundation’s money to pay off your attorney general.”

And even as Trump and Bondi deny any wrongdoing, Trump’s own prior words are also coming back to haunt him.

The billionaire has repeatedly talked about freely donating to both Republican and Democratic politicians, saying they were smart business moves.

“As a businessman and a very substantial donor to very important people, when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do,” Trump told the Wall Street Journal in July 2015.

At the first Republican debate last August, Trump ripped into his primary rivals for taking contributions from him in the past.

“I will tell you that our system is broken. I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give.” Trump said at the time. “And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”

Trump laid out a similar rationale for deciding to run for president during his nomination acceptance speech in July, declaring, “I have joined the political arena so that the powerful can no longer beat up on people who cannot defend themselves.”

He added, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.”

Image result for Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi

But on Monday, Trump said there was nothing untoward.

“No. I never spoke to her,” Trump told reporters on his campaign plane, according to a CBS transcript. Trump added that Bondi is a “fine person beyond reproach. I never even spoke to her about it at all … Never spoken to her about it. Never.”

While it wasn’t clear what the “it” was that he was referring to, a spokesman for Bondi told The Associated Press in June that the attorney general asked for the $25,000 donation during a phone call in 2013, and Bondi herself has called the timing of the donation a coincidence.

“I don’t think this was a lengthy, memorable call,” Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks told AP about the conversation. “Mr. Trump talks to a hundred people in any given day. So, I don’t know if I will be able to provide that information. That’s not exactly a realistic or reasonable request.”

The Trump campaign has sought to shift the focus back onto Clinton, particularly after the release last Friday of documents pertaining to the FBI probe into her handling of classified materials, including notes from her July interview with investigators.

Clinton should “come clean” and disclose every single one of the emails related to her time as secretary of state Republican vice presidential nominee Mike Pence declared Wednesday.

Pence, speaking to “Fox & Friends” from Indianapolis, talked up Donald Trump’s speech the previous night in North Carolina in which he emphasized the ties between the Clinton Foundation and the State Department under Clinton from 2009 to 2013.

The Associated Press reported last month that at least 85 of the 154 people from private interests who had phone conversations scheduled or met with Clinton also donated to the foundation or pledged commitments to its international programs.

Pointing to that report, Pence remarked, “This pay-to-play politics has begun to come to light for the American people, but it’s time for Hillary Clinton to come clean and make all of those emails available.”

Pence has called on Clinton to “come clean” in the past with respect to the State Department and the Clinton Foundation, though the latest recommendation comes after the former secretary of state herself told reporters Tuesday that Trump ought to “come clean” about his tax returns. (Pence reiterated that he would soon release his own returns, with Trump doing the same after the audit has concluded.)

Asked whether Trump’s national and state poll numbers have increased because of the latest reports, Pence emphasized that it is the campaign’s message rather than Clinton’s troubles, driving voters to their corner.

Clinton herself made reference to the allegations of pay for play surrounding Bondi and Trump University on Tuesday as she stopped for a campaign event in Tampa, Florida.

“Of course, as we know, there was a phone conversation between them. They contradict each other. The American people deserve to know what was said, because clearly the attorney general did not proceed with the investigation,” Clinton told reporters aboard her plane.

Bondi hit back at Clinton later in the day on Fox Business Network.

“I will not be collateral damage in a presidential campaign, nor will I be a woman bullied by Hillary Clinton,” the Florida attorney general declared. “Hillary Clinton will not bully me.”

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Bondi affirmed that she had asked Trump for a contribution, but added “that’s not what this is about,” remarking that Clinton erred in her description of the circumstances surrounding the $25,000.

“Of course I asked Donald Trump for a contribution, that’s not what this is about,” Bondi said. “[Clinton] said he was under investigation by my office, at the time, and I knew about it. None of which is true.”

Clinton, in fact, said that Bondi “was being asked by her constituents to investigate Trump University.”

Trump’s former campaign manager and current ally Corey Lewandowski also came to the nominee’s defense when CNN anchor Chris Cuomo brought up a New York Times article, saying, “There’s a list of things that actually happened where he was caught and had to pay fines.”

“How does that make you a change agent? We get what the problem is. We get that it’s corrupt. But if you exploit the corruption, how are you the change agent?” Cuomo asked.

Lewandowski, now a CNN contributor, offered up one of Trump’s oldest explanations.

“He’s said this many times. He was the fair-haired boy, right? He was the person who knew the system better than anybody, and he’s the only person who can change it, because he doesn’t need the personal wealth,” Lewandowski said. “What he didn’t do, is he didn’t make $100 million from his service in the federal government, step out of the government and get paid tens of millions of dollars for speeches. He made his money in the private sector, and he used the rules in the private sector to benefit his company. That’s what business executives do.”

Marc Caputo contributed reporting.

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