At a surreal pizza summit in New York City, non-presidential candidates Sarah Palin and Donald Trump traded compliments and dished about the Republicans who are actually running for president.
“I’d love her to run,” gushed Trump. For her part, Palin said, “I told him don’t shy away from speaking out, keep stirring it up and getting people to think about what the solutions are to get the economy back on the right track.”
Trump giving advice to Palin? She might want to think twice. His past political judgment could be seen as cloudy, considering he’s given more money to Democrats than Republicans over the years. Some Trump beneficiaries later became poster children for scandals, ethics violations and other bad behavior.
There was Rep. Mark Foley, forced to resign after sexually explicit messages to male congressional pages were disclosed. And disgraced Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who Trump actually fired from his reality show,The Celebrity Apprentice on NBC. And Elliot Spitzer, the New York governor flattened in a prostitution scandal. And more.
Campaign finance records show Trump has given contributions to a host of politicians who have become tabloid fodder over scandals, ethics violations, personal behavior, and a whole range of other controversies, according to an analysis of state and federal campaign finance records dating back to 1995 by Medill News Service and iWatch News.
Trump’s taste for the dramatic doesn’t discriminate between parties. His donation list includes embattled Democrats and Republicans, many of whom were elected in areas where he has real estate interests.
Trump spokesman Michael Cohen said Trump had given to thousands of candidates over the years, and only a small percentage were marred by scandal. “You’re talking about individuals who, yes, they fell from grace, they used their political power for things that they should not have, and the law dealt with them accordingly,” Cohen said.
Is it wise for Palin to meet with a real estate mogul and reality star who publicly flirted with a presidential run himself, and who has habitually given money to politicians with a wide array of political philosophies and ethical track records? It may not matter, according to Kyle Kondik, a political analyst with the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
“It's hard to tell what either are up to, but perhaps Palin is looking for an endorsement,” Kondik said. “More than likely, they're both just looking for headlines. It doesn't appear that either are running for president, although Palin obviously hasn't taken herself out of the race as of yet.”
Kondik said Trump’s scandal-laden contribution list shouldn’t be read as a blow to his character, citing the large number of candidates to which Trump donates. Trump has made campaign donations to at least 11 Republicans and 20 Democrats in national elections, and at least 30 Republicans and 27 Democrats in state contests, according to state and federal records dating back as far as 15 years. Kondik said with money going to that many candidates, it’s hard to expect they’ll all turn out to be good investments.
“When you give a lot of money, you might just happen to give that money to some bad apples, especially when you live in the Big Apple, as Trump does," Kondik said.
From 1997 until 2006, Trump’s money helped fill the campaign war chest of disgraced Rep. Mark Foley, totaling at least $9,500. When the Republican congressman, a regular at Trump’s Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, was forced to resign under allegations that he sent sexually explicit messages to male, Trump had a lot to say.
“He’s not a member, and I can ban whoever I want,” Trump told the Palm Beach Post. “I see Mark at the club very often, but he is always someone else’s guest. I have a feeling he won’t be asked to come very often anymore.”
Records don’t show that Trump sought a refund for any of his donations to Foley, but his words reflected that Trump may have changed his mind.
“Personally, I don’t much like men who want to kiss young boys,” Trump said.
Trump also donated money to former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich — at least $7,000 in 2002 and 2007. While he was on Trump’s show, Blagojevich was preparing for a trial on 24 counts of corruption, including trying to sell President Barack Obama’s Senate seat after he was elected. Trump praised Blagojevich’s “tremendous courage and guts,” then later fired him. "I got the boot," Blagojevich said as he left Trump Tower, having failed to manage a project involving a Harry Potter movie to Trump’s satisfaction. Blagojevich admitted being unable to use a computer or send emails.
Trump also publicly tried to cash in on former New York Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s prostitution scandal, training his eye on the prostitute Spitzer had hired. Trump invited Ashley Dupre to star on a reality show, but she turned down the offer. Between 2002 and 2003, Trump gave Spitzer contributions totaling $21,000. But the donations were refunded to Trump in 2004, well before Spitzer was elected New York’s governor or resigned in disgrace.
Between 1990 and 2007, Trump gave more than $18,000 in donations to New York Rep. Charles Rangel’s campaigns. A few years after ethics questions about Rangel’s lavish Caribbean vacations put him in the headlines, the powerful House chairman asked the real estate mogul for $5 million to build a civic center. Trump had changed his mind about Rangel, and he made it clear by speaking publicly about the representative, and even agreeing to testify against him before the House Ethics Committee.
“You know what I said? I said no,” Trump said on Fox News. “It’s called good judgment. Somebody asked me why did I say no. I said because I have better places to spend my money.”
Rangel was censured on the allegations and pushed out of his House Ways and Means chairmanship.
Trump contributed $12,000 in 2007-2008 to California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, another shamed politician. The Republican was out of office only a few months before acknowledging he fathered a child with a household staffer about the same time his youngest son with Maria Shriver was born.
Trump has managed to stay quiet on a few of his scandalous beneficiaries. In 2003, Trump gave $4,000 to then Sen. Tom Daschle, D-S.D. Daschle was Obama’s initial pick to head the Department of Health and Human Services, but withdrew due to a budding tax scandal.
Trump’s donation list also includes $45,000 to Alan Hevesi, a former New York comptroller who is currently incarcerated for corruption involving the state pension system; $25,000 to Virginia gubernatorial candidate Terry McAuliffe, who was accused and acquitted of insider trading at the tech business, Global Crossing; and $12,500 to Joseph Bruno, former New York Senate Majority Leader, who was recently indicted on corruption charges including mail and wire fraud.
Trump’s spokesman said all of these politicians sought contributions from Trump. “These are people who have come to him asking for donations,” he said. “Mr. Trump wasn’t involved in Arnold’s infidelity, he wasn’t involved in Charlie Rangel’s failure to pay taxes.”
Sherry Bebitch Jeffe, senior fellow at the University of Southern California’s School of Policy, said Trump’s political tastes often matched his real estate interests.
“Any major developer is going to show up as a significant donor to politicians that develop their needs,” she said.
Jeffe said any attempt by Trump to publicly turn on his recipients is a more opaque matter.
“Too often that happens. I would like not to expect it from people in the political arena,” Jeffe said. But she added, “In some cases, it can illustrate real disdain for the actions of the guy. You have to ask Donald if it was real or positioning.”
As for the New York City summit Tuesday night between two TV reality stars, Jeffe said, “It’s two massive egos, both of whom are hungry for media, having a meeting. It helps her and it helps him get exposure in the media.”
Sylvia Hall is a reporter for Medill News Service, a graduate program of Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.