Pam Bondi: Where Quid Meets Pro Quo

Former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi (pictured above with the president) will join the team tasked with the defense of the president in his upcoming Senate impeachment trial, according to the Wall Street Journal today, January 17. The team will be led by current White House counsel Pat Cipollone.

Bondi’s role in the impeachment trial has not been delineated in public. She joins a team of specialists that includes former Whitewater Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr; occasional constitutional-law professor Alan Dershowitz; Jay Sekulow, a personal lawyer to the president; and Robert Ray, who succeeded Starr in the Whitewater inquiry.

Before she joined the White House staff in its impeachment preparations in November 2019, Bondi was a registered foreign agent for the government of Qatar and a lobbyist for a Kuwaiti firm. The more famous members of the Trump legal team have long histories as public figures, but Bondi’s history is more entwined with the current president’s public life than theirs are so far.

In September 2017, I profiled Pam Bondi for Reverb Press, a news and commentary website that was shut down in 2018 after Facebook clamped down on accounts that it deemed “political spam.” Most of the eight hundred accounts that were shuttered were not spam at all; Reverb published original work by journalists (for a brief time, me) and always labeled commentary as such. Most of the eight hundred were sites that were critical of the current administration, and almost none (well, none) were sites that supported the current administration. Reverb Press’s demise was documented in an excellent Rolling Stone article by Matt Taibbi, “Who Will Fix Facebook?”

Much of what follows is taken from my short history of the former Florida Attorney General, Pam Bondi, and her connections with Trump World, entitled “Florida A.G. Who Killed Trump U Probe Starts Cushy Gig.” (The headline still works, even with her new gig.) I have updated and streamlined it. From the article:

Pam Bondi’s relationship with president Trump and his 2016 election campaign was either an example of political incompetence on both sides or an example of political bribes and Trump’s quid pro quo approach to all of his business relationships.

In 2017, Bondi was appointed to a White House-led opioid crisis commission, and in November 2019 she joined the White House’s impeachment preparation team. These may not be the direct evidence of a political bribe, but these are more small pieces in a story that looks sufficiently like a bribe to warrant outside investigation. Similar transactional relationships permeate the current White House and its approach to staffing.

Back in April 2017, a Florida ethics commission cleared Bondi—behind closed doors—of violating state laws when she solicited a donation for her 2014 re-election campaign from private citizen Donald Trump in 2013. Bondi was found to have committed no crime when she or her campaign requested the donation from Trump in August 2013.

This is where clarity ends and quid appears to introduce itself to its friend pro quo.

On September 13, 2013, Bondi’s attorney general’s office told the Orlando Sentinel that it would investigate “Trump University,” a seminar series that then-businessman Donald Trump operated with the promise to make his students rich. The New York State Attorney General at the time, Eric Schneiderman, called “Trump University” a “bait-and-switch scheme,” and he filed a $40 million fraud lawsuit against Trump.

On September 17, 2013, a mere four days after the Sentinel published Bondi’s promise to investigate Trump University, Donald Trump’s charitable foundation cut a check for $25,000 to one of Bondi’s re-election campaign political action committees, “And Justice for All.” As a charity, the Donald J. Trump Foundation (which has since been closed for fraud) could not legally support election campaigns, so it paid a $2,500 fine to the IRS in 2016 for its Bondi campaign donation. The Trump foundation claimed the mistake was a “clerical error,” or an example of innocent incompetence.

Weeks later, on October 15, 2013, Bondi’s office announced that it would not investigate Trump University for fraud. It would not join New York State’s investigation.

Soon after the 2016 presidential election, the president-elect agreed to pay $25 million to settle two class action lawsuits and the New York fraud suit. In March 2017, 3,700 former students filed claims in the President’s $25 million settlement agreement.

Many Floridians were eligible to file claims in what became the $25 million Trump University settlement, and many more might have known about their eligibility had Florida’s attorney general joined the investigation or launched her own, as she had promised.

In March 2014, Trump rented out his Mar-a-Lago resort to Bondi’s re-election campaign for far less than its usual charge. Bondi announced her support of Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign in March 2016, one day before her state’s Republican primary, even though a fellow Floridian, U.S. Senator Marco Rubio, was still in the campaign.

Both Trump and Bondi deny that there was any relationship between his donation and her office’s decision days later to reverse course on its announced plan to investigate Trump University. Bondi’s attorney general office, her political campaigns, and her political future all depended—and depend—on her possession of an unsullied reputation, so her office admitted in 2016 for the sake of her clean hands that she had in fact solicited the donation in 2013 from Trump. His foundation had a paid an IRS fine, after all, so this statement crossed a T or dotted an I for her historical reputation.

Then-candidate Trump did not help Bondi clean her hands with his blanket denials of wrongdoing, however. When reporters asked Trump in 2016 about her request for campaign help and his organization’s subsequent donation, he denied speaking to her: “I never even spoke to her about it at all. She’s a fine person beyond reproach. Never spoken to her about it, never.”

The word “it” is asked to lift a lot of weight in that sentence. What did Trump mean by “it?” Was “it” the illegal donation itself, or the Florida Attorney General’s promise to investigate Trump University, or something else entirely? If “it” was what Trump wanted the Florida Attorney General to do with her promised Trump University investigation, that would serve to deny a “pay-for-play” scheme between the two entities, but if “it” referred to the donation, then Trump’s blanket denial meant that Trump and Bondi were not on the same page, since Bondi claimed that the two had in fact spoken about the illegal donation.

Hope Hicks, at the time the Trump campaign spokesperson, told Politico, “His comments were in reference to any discussion about Trump University—not the donation.”

Hicks’ specificity about the Bondi-Trump conversation ended at what it was not about, however: [Hicks] could not tell an AP reporter “when the IRS fine was paid, when Trump and Bondi spoke, or what they talked about. ‘I don’t think this was a lengthy, memorable call,’ Hicks told the AP. ‘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.'”

It is possible that Trump’s $25,000 donation to Bondi’s campaign in 2013 was an example of a naive billionaire not yet knowledgeable about the legal intricacies of political donations. It is possible that it was not part of a pay-for-play scheme. It is possible that Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi had an honest disagreement with several attorney generals in other states about the legality of Trump University’s business model. She came to her conclusion less than thirty days after he improperly aided her campaign, however.

The president seems to believe that everyone can be bought, and he amply rewards those who agree with him and who offer to set their own price for him.

Bondi has benefited from her relationship with Donald Trump ever since. In 2017, as the attorney general of a state with an opioid crisis on its hands, she joined a presidential commission tasked with addressing the opioid crisis just as it unveiled its plan but before contributing to the creation of the plan. In 2019, she left the attorney general’s office and became a lobbyist who represented business interests in Qatar and Kuwait. In November 2019, she joined the White House’s impeachment team and now will be a part of the team in front of the U.S. Senate.

Hers is one small story in a White House rife with quids, pro quos, and financial corruption cases large and small.

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