Our former President was unindicted yet again this week. Prosecutors in the New York AG’s office finally lost patience in their efforts to flip Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, hitting him with a relatively mundane collection of tax and accounting fraud charges. As he did in the case that sent Michael Cohen to prison, Trump makes an appearance in the Weisselberg case as “Unindicted Co-conspirator #1,” extending his record as America’s most unindicted President.
It’s been 18 months since the Supreme Court shredded the arguments for protecting Trump’s tax returns. Nevertheless, his financial records remain hidden from the public.
It’s been six months since Democrats won the White House and both houses of Congress. Yet the IRS Commissioner Trump appointed to protect his tax records is still collecting a government check. He is still refusing to comply with a largely forgotten Congressional order to surrender those records and no one is lifting a finger to address the matter. Biden isn’t going to remove him.
If Democrats actually wanted Trump’s tax returns they could have gotten them in January. The new President could have fired Trump’s IRS Commissioner, a man who deeply deserves firing, and replaced him with a competent professional. That competent professional could have complied with the standing Congressional subpoena the same day, circumventing an otherwise endless court process. That didn’t happen, and it isn’t going to happen, because the prospect of authentic public scrutiny of our leaders’ finances scares Democrats just as much as Republicans.
We’ve been over this ground before. Understanding Democrats’ reluctance to investigate financial corruption starts with understanding the pathways to wealth common among Congressfolk across parties and regions. Speaker Pelosi’s financial history provides a helpful example. From a 2019 piece:
Nancy Pelosi is not just wealthy, but fantastically wealthy. She’s never had a private sector job, but as recently as 2015 her disclosed net worth was well over $100m. Where did that money come from? When asked, the family makes mumbled statements about her husband Paul’s success in real estate, which is just another way of saying that Pelosi’s money comes from the same source as Donald Trump’s. In other words, we don’t know, and like the rest of your representatives she’s under no obligation to explain how she acquired it.
Pelosi’s fortune didn’t come from an inheritance on either side of the family. She and her husband both come from modest origins. Pelosi’s father was a local politico in Baltimore who failed to assemble much wealth, though not from lack of trying. His political career was derailed in 1954 by a fraud scheme. He stuck around for a while but couldn’t get back in the game.
Her husband Paul earned a political science degree at Georgetown. The two of them started out in San Francisco with little-to-nothing, where Nancy went to work for the Democratic Party, mostly as a volunteer. There’s never been any clear explanation of what Paul does beyond generalized talk of “real estate” or “investing.”
Pelosi inherited the safest Democratic seat in the country from her mentor in the 80’s after moving to the district to qualify. It’s only after she landed in Congress that the family started to accumulate real wealth. To understand how, first let’s look at the holes in the reporting scheme.
Here’s Pelosi’s financial disclosure form from 2016. This seems pretty helpful. All major transactions are recorded along with assets and liabilities, so what’s the problem?
Look closely at those disclosures, particularly the real estate transactions. Were these arms-length deals in a competitive marketplace? The names of these entities on both sides of the transaction – what are they? Who’s behind them? Did any of these transactions represent a real exchange of value? Maybe. But there’s a simpler explanation that makes a lot more sense.
Don’t take this to imply that the problem is bad people. It isn’t. We live in a system of “Wu Tang Politics” that mediates political power primarily through financial relationships. Bribes, in the traditional sense of money changing hands for votes, are the crudest and least common elements of this system. Influence, not cash, is the currency of this system, and it’s bought and sold through complex financial entanglements which are mostly legal.
We live in a system of Wu Tang Politics, in which Cash Rules Everything Around Me (C.R.E.A.M.). However, the popular narrative assumes that Democrats somehow stand at opposition to this system. That myth rises from a distortion of Democratic financial interests. Just because wealthy people get marginally less from the Democratic Party doesn’t mean the party’s politics aren’t cash-driven.
One of Chuck Schumer’s largest and most reliable donors is Goldman Sachs. Tens of thousands of dollars from the Trump family fueled Schumer’s early career. Cory Booker leaned heavily on the Kushner family for his rise to power. Booker even attended Jared and Ivanka’s wedding. The Trumps have donated well over half a million to Democratic campaigns over the years, a figure that fails to account for the more lucrative, undisclosed political currency of connections to cushy private positions and access to insider deals.
There are no good guys and bad guys, there is only a single, unified fabric composed of incentives and punishments. If Marco Rubio owed his job to Democratic donors and voters in California, he’d be backing a completely different agenda, and getting his credit card bills paid by a different collection of moneyed interests. Changing this arrangement requires more than selecting different representatives.
Keep placing “good” people into a corrupt system without tackling that corruption, and those good people will either conform to the demands of their environment and thrive, or they’ll be shuttled to the margins of power. If we really want to save democracy we need to see Donald Trump’s tax returns – alongside Nancy Pelosi’s. We need to see what’s on the hard drives and CDs seized from Jeffrey Epstein’s house. We need to know how much money Oleg Deripaska gave Mitch McConnell and others in return for being excused from sanctions.
Want to build a political system that cares about smart, effective public policy? Press your representatives to take the most radical positions on questions of public integrity. When they fail, replace them. Reject appeals to “pragmatism” that allow our current crop of rentiers to continue fattening themselves on us. Force your representatives to disclose their financial interests. Refuse to compromise on public ethics simply to protect partisan priorities.
It’s not guns, but money, that’s dismantling our democracy. Dragging Donald Trump’s finances into the daylight is a key step in restoring the power of ordinary people over their own political system. That’s why leaders from both parties are reluctant to let that happen.