WASHINGTON -- Though it's unlikely his intent, real estate mogul Donald Trump is delighting campaign finance reform activists with his theatrical presidential bid.
In recent weeks, the Republican presidential candidate essentially admitted he used his personal wealth to bribe politicians, taunted opponents over past requests they made for his donations, and revealed he gave money to Hillary Clinton to ensure her attendance at his wedding.
"I will tell you that our system is broken," he said at the recent GOP debate. "I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. 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."
Even for a candidate without much polish, such an admission seems overly candid. For those who warn about the pernicious flow of money into politics, however, it's been wonderfully revealing, an actual told-ya-so moment.
"I think unlike many of the other things that Donald Trump has said, this certainly goes right to a basic truth about the political system," said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of the group Every Voice Center. "Essentially a private money system is built on quid pro quo politics. The interesting thing for me also is that while the other candidates have criticized him on other issues, none have criticized him on a pretty bold assertion about what is the root of privately financed campaigns."
Trump doesn't risk, at this juncture at least, being mistaken for a good governance apostle. There is no apparent white paper outlining what campaign finance reforms he'd like to see. And his campaign didn't return a request for those details. Moreover, for some reform advocates, his criticisms of the current system are muddled by his own ambitions. More than any candidate in the race, Trump personifies how wealth correlates with one's political influence.
"We object to both the existing campaign finance systems: The one Trump is attacking that allows billionaires to buy influence with presidential candidates, and also the one that billionaire Trump is using to try and buy the presidential election with his own money," said Fred Wertheimer, founder and president of the nonprofit Democracy 21. "His comments touch on one of the big problems but leave out another big problem that he is taking advantage of."
Still, for Wertheimer and other good government officials, it's been a bit of a guilty pleasure to watch Trump pull back the curtain on how money drives the political process. Nearly every candidate in the presidential race (on both sides of the aisle) has expressed discomfort with a culture that requires so much dialing for dollars and sees unlimited funds sent to groups loosely associated with campaigns. But, save for a few, they all partake in the system, soliciting big-money donations and essentially sanctioning allied super PACs for fear that if they didn't, the competition would be at an advantage.
Trump, by contrast, has declared himself impervious to big-moneyed interests by the mere act of already being one of them. He has pointedly declared that he donated to politicians of both parties because, “when you give, they do whatever the hell you want them to do.” And, recently, he mocked fellow Republican presidential candidates for flocking to a confab held by the industrialist Koch brothers -- who pledged to spend $900 million or so this election.
“I’m excited he is saying this," said Harvard Law professor Larry Lessig, who is launching a presidential campaign of his own to spotlight the need for campaign finance reform. "It is giving credibility to something people have been saying for a long time.”
Whether Trump remains a vocal critic of the campaign finance system could depend on how far his candidacy goes. Already, he has loaned himself $1.8 million, while raising just $92,000 from individual contributions and spending a robust $1.4 million prior to the end of June ($21,685 of that on fundraising consulting). For a person of prodigious wealth, this burn and loan rate may be sustainable. But Trump could very well decide he's done writing his own checks and begin looking for other, fellow billionaires to help pick up part of the tab. This would make him a hypocrite, perhaps, but not exactly a felon.
"Political fundraising and contributions is the soft underbelly of politics and ultimately governing if you’re elected," said Ken Gross, a campaign finance attorney at the firm Skadden Arps. "It is something that you just as well would not talk about. That having been said, it is not illegal."