Donald Trump says he hates what lobbyists and super PACs are doing to our political system. According to him, his most attractive quality as a candidate—besides, obviously, his terrific looks—is his wealth, because it means Trump will never find himself beholden to anyone but Trump.
At a press conference in Dubuque, Iowa, on Tuesday evening, Trump told reporters, “I know the system better than anybody. The fact is that whether it’s Jeb, or Hillary, or any of ’em—they’re all controlled by these people! And the people that control them are the special interests, the lobbyists and the donors.”
He smiled slightly.
“You know what’s nice about me?” he asked. “I don’t need anybody’s money.”
In practice, however, the candidate seems willing to associate himself with just about anyone offering support—even if that support comes in the form of everything he hates rolled into one: a super PAC run by lobbyists.
On July 1, a pro-Trump super PAC, Make America Great Again PAC, filed with the FEC.
The organization listed on its paperwork a New York City address, which Bloomberg traced to a Midtown FedEx store. The address the PAC provided for supporters to mail their checks to was a Midtown UPS store. Calls to the group’s listed phone number went unanswered, as did an email. The treasurer who submitted the form to the FEC signed it “Les Caldwell,” short for Leslie, and Leslie refused to comment on the record to Politico, while just about every Leslie Caldwell listed in New York chose not to answer or return any of my calls.
Curiously, a closer look at the group’s filing reveals a return address not in New York City but in Colorado.
That address belongs to Jon Anderson, a lobbyist whose “practice is focused on corporate compliance and representing clients before federal, state and local government,” according to the website of his firm, Holland & Hart.
A consultant for the PAC, Mike Ciletti, also from Colorado, is also a lobbyist. He has his own group, New West Public Affairs, which he co-founded in 2009, according to his LinkedIn profile. His clients include the Community Financial Services Association, the trade association for payday lenders, which are often accused of predatory lending.
Anderson didn’t return a call, and Ciletti responded to interview requests with frustration that his activity with the PAC had placed him in the spotlight. “Personally I am waiting to see what other email addresses, phone numbers you can find to try to reach me at. Hats off to you,” he said in an email. “I am not interested in going on the record at this point, perhaps in the future. The focus should be on the candidates.”
At first glance, Make America Great Again PAC seems like it could be a so-called scam PAC, or a fake political operation intended to do nothing more than help its founders get rich. Scam PACs have been cropping up since the rise of the Tea Party. A Politico investigation in January found that of the $43 million that 33 PACs together raised in the 2014 election cycle, only $3 million was spent on candidates. The rest, well…
But Trump seemed to quash those concerns when in mid-July he attended a 200-person fundraiser organized by Make America Great Again PAC at a private home in Manhattan. “It was a combination of friends that have known Mr. Trump for years while others were meeting with him for the first time,” press-shy Ciletti told the press.
Make America Great Again PAC is one of four PACs supporting Trump’s candidacy, though it is the only one to receive his endorsement in the form of a fundraiser appearance.
It might even be said that, when you really assess the pillars of Trump’s campaign platform, he might be known as the Buddy Roemer of 2016—if Trump weren’t so bombastic and intent on incessant racial insensitivity.
To the extent that he is selling a political philosophy, it’s this: “I’m really rich.” He’s not just bragging when he says that. What he means is that the system is so broken that anyone who is not really rich is at the mercy of their financial backers. “I’m really rich” is Trump’s way of saying he is, by virtue of his terrific wealth, incorruptible.
Trump is a cynic. In his view, the only way to fix the broken process by which candidates are elected using massive sums of money funneled to them by shadow organizations and power-hungry billionaires looking to get favors in return is to evade the process altogether by supporting someone like him—someone with the capacity to be their own biggest donor, and thus to answer to no one but themselves.
In his June 16 announcement speech, Trump mentioned lobbyists six times.
“I’ve watched politicians,” he said. “They will never make America great again. They don’t even have a chance. They’re controlled fully—they’re controlled fully by the lobbyists, and by the special interests, fully.”
Ford Motor, Trump complained, was going to build a $2.5 billion car factory in Mexico, and if anyone besides him were president, they couldn’t do a thing to stop it. “They’re going to get a call from the donors or probably from the lobbyist for Ford and say, ‘You can’t do that to Ford, because Ford takes care of me and I take care of you, and you can’t do that to Ford.’”
President Trump, of course, could do whatever he pleased to Ford. “I’m using my own money,” he said. “I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”