My contempt for Donald Trump is admittedly sincere and abiding, but I suspect that even observers who take a more temperate view of the man might agree that the Republican Party’s decision to accept him as their presidential nominee is a calculation that could haunt them for years. All across America, Republican officials who were peacefully living their lives, and in some cases actually doing their jobs, are being asked to express their support for his candidacy. Those who do so, even with visible reluctance, will forever be on record as having done so. That will, unavoidably, be a mark on their record.
Governor Greg Abbott has already acquired Die Trumpmarch: Last month, shortly after Ted Cruz suspended his campaign, Abbott announced that he would support the GOP nominee. Since then, while on the world’s most awkwardly timed book tour, he’s been prodded into saying a few nice things about the candidate himself, rather than his presumed opponent, Hillary Clinton. All in all, Abbott’s capitulation was not as jarring of an about-face as Marco “#NeverTrump” Rubio’s or Rick “cancer on conservatism” Perry’s. Neither was it as enthusiastic as Dan Patrick’s.
Yesterday, though, news emerged that will make it harder for the governor’s supporters to defend his decision to put the party first. In 2009, during Abbott’s tenure as Texas’s attorney general, the state actually investigated Trump University, the real estate seminar program Trump launched in 2005, which is now the subject of the kind of class-action lawsuit that most major-party presidential candidates somehow manage to avoid.
Abbott’s history with Trump, in other words, is more extensive than Texans may have realized, and, according to some accounts, seemingly far more fishy. In an article about Trump’s pedagogical approach published yesterday, the Associated Press summarized Texas’s investigation and added a striking detail: after the sheriff called off the posse, “Trump subsequently donated $35,000 to Abbott’s successful gubernatorial campaign.” That’s true, and it’s the kind of action that naturally raises questions, especially since Abbott responded by issuing a statement dismissing such questions as silly: “The unthinkable has happened—the media’s obsession with Donald Trump is now leading them to highlight the job then-Attorney General Greg Abbott did in protecting Texas consumers.”
According to Abbott, in other words, shutting down the scam was the primary purpose of the investigation; that being the case, the state closed its investigation in 2010 because Trump University, having been confronted with its blatant ridiculousness, quickly folded and withdrew from the state.
His office could, however, have pursued a settlement. John Owens, who was then the deputy chief of the agency’s consumer protection division, has weighed in saying that he thought they should have. “The case was closed and all the Texas consumers were left high and dry,” he told the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal and Gabrielle Banks. And Owens was even more pointed in an interview with the Dallas Morning News’ Lauren McGaughy: “The decision not to sue him was political.” David Morales, who was then the deputy attorney general for civil litigation, put out a statement today disputing Owens’s account. Per Morales, who approved the investigation in the first place, there was nothing political about the decision to open the investigation or to end it, and ridding the state of Trump University was, all along, “the most important element” of the state’s investigation.
The dispute between Owens and Morales is the type that can never be truly resolved, because both involve speculation about intentions and motives that can’t actually be proved. With that said, I’m inclined to side with Abbott about how he and his office handled Trump University. But these revelations are nonetheless bad for the governor. He responded appropriately to Trump University in 2010. That makes it hard to excuse him for supporting Trump now.
I’ll return to that point in a minute. Before I do, though, here’s why I’m skeptical of the idea that Texas’s investigation of Trump University was shaped by Abbott’s political motives.
First: Abbott is a politician, and when the investigation began, he surely had politics on his mind. Abbott was widely expected to throw his hat in the ring if Perry, who was closing in on a decade-long run as governor, decided not to go for another term. But Abbott would have had no occasion to curry favor with Donald Trump, who in 2010 was widely seen as nothing more than a bombastic self-promoter and reality-television star. If anything, the state’s decision not to pursue a settlement might have been due to an absence of political motivations. There are only 24 hours in a day. If you were a politically motivated Texas attorney general circa 2009-10, you would have focused your energy elsewhere. Suing the federal government, perhaps.
Second, Abbott didn’t actually treat Trump or his ridiculous “university” gently. A more detailed look at the Texas investigation published in USA Today shows that Abbott’s office made it very clear with Trump University that it would not receive a warm welcome in Texas. The state’s case was clear enough, in fact, that Trump University immediately hightailed it out of town. I can see why reasonable adults might agree with Owens and say that Trump University got off relatively easy. But would Trump see it that way? His tendency to brood over his various grievances, many of which are slight or even imagined, is so pronounced that the Washington Post recently wrote an entire article about it.
That brings us to the third point: It’s theoretically possible that Trump might have been moved to contribute to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign out of gratitude for treating him and his snake-oil scheme so gently three years earlier. But again, this is Trump we’re talking about. He has no record of being moved by feelings of gratitude, interpersonal respect, or appreciation. Meanwhile, over the course of his campaign for president, he has repeatedly acknowledged, if not bragged, about his lifelong hobby of trying to buy off politicians. It may seem suspicious that Abbott was the only Texas candidate he tried to buy in the 2014 election cycle (apart from some guy named Micah, who received a $25 contribution from Trump, which is random enough to be vaguely intriguing). But, as usual, context matters. Trump had never heard of LNG until two weeks ago, when a coal executive gave him a quick primer on American Energy Production 101. It would be naive, at this point, to assume that he’s heard of obscurities like lieutenant governors.
Worth noting, too, is that even if Trump was trying to buy Abbott by donating to his gubernatorial campaign, he didn’t succeed. His contributions were puny in context: $35,000 isn’t couch-cushion money, but Abbott, as a gubernatorial candidate, amassed a comically large war chest of roughly $50 million. And it’s fairly obvious that in addition to having preferred Cruz, Abbott doesn’t think much of Trump. In January, asked if he would consider being Trump’s running mate, he answered coldly: “No.” Last month, at the state convention, he didn’t even mention Trump by name during the brief passage in his speech encouraging Republicans to support their party’s presidential nominee. Even now, with the governor having accepted the mark of the Trump, I would say that the latter’s friends, if he has any, should advise the nominee against seeing Abbott as a potential ally.
Ultimately, then, the state seems to have handled the Trump University investigation effectively. The settlement would have been a help to the several hundred Texans who were bilked, but as Morales says, the more important goal was preventing Trump University from duping many more thousands who had yet to be lured in. And Trump’s contributions to Abbott’s gubernatorial campaign say more about Trump than Abbott, in my view. That $35,000 investment was just another of Donald’s dumb deals.
The news that Abbott’s office so ably chased Trump University out of Texas, though? That’s a damaging revelation. It proves that Abbott should know better than to support the GOP candidate. Put differently, it prevents him from employing the “feigned ignorance” strategy that he’s used to evade unpleasant questions about Ken Paxton, his successor as attorney general. That’s a tactic so annoying that my boss, Brian Sweany, was recently moved to call on the governor to knock it off, because it’s not fooling anyone. Abbott, in general, is too smart to play dumb. But “distracted”—that’s inherently tricky to disprove. The news that the state investigated Trump University creates a rare exception.
In calling on Republicans to support the party’s nominee, Abbott is lending his name and reputation to a candidate whose malicious greed is so brazen that Abbott’s office once had to intervene to protect Texans. Abbott and his team certainly deserve credit for leading an OAG that took action, but Abbott’s statement references his record of “protecting Texas consumers.” That raises a poignant question: why has he chosen to do the opposite this time around?
This is a question that Abbott should expect going forward, because he has yet to offer a compelling answer; I can believe the theory that he cares about the Supreme Court enough to wager a lot on the chance that Trump might accidentally appoint a conservative justice to it, but I didn’t think that was a particularly compelling case, even before Trump decided to spend all week viciously attacking the federal judge who’s presiding over the, you guessed it, Trump University case.
And it’s a fair question, by the way. I think we can all agree that some media, specifically cable news, is unduly obsessed with Trump. But this is a presidential election, not a game of beanbag. The media has to cover it. And, yeah, the stories we write this year are going to be stupider than usual. That’s because one of America’s two major political parties nominated an incoherent yet belligerent inanity for president. But this is the burden we bear over here in the cobwebbed corners of the Fourth Estate: we’re not supposed to flatly deny reality, even if the facts we find ourselves relaying are as unpleasant to write as they are to read.
And in this case, they are. Trump is GOP nominee for president. His opponent, in the general election, will almost certainly be Hillary Clinton. He is technically qualified to hold the office, should he win 270 electoral votes, as he was born in the United States and is over the age of 35. At the same time, Trump is an uninformed and emotionally unstable plague who has, over 70 years of life, proven himself incapable of wielding any form of power without immediately looking for some ham-fisted way he can leverage it to serve his profoundly fragile ego.
I’ve come to understand, since last summer, that many Americans were genuinely amused by Trump’s campaign at first, or—since we’re all shaped by our unique bundle of experiences in life—not naturally attuned to some of the disturbing traits that seemed so glaring to me. But Trump has an abundance of disturbing qualities, and over the course of the past year he’s shown us that so many times that I’ve sometimes wondered if his pathologies are, ominously, insulating him from criticism. We now know that Abbott was forced to confront some of Trump’s qualities years ago, and that he responded with similar clarity the first time he crossed paths with the candidate he now supports. The problems with Trump and the perils his presidency would represent are really not that hard to see. The only thing that’s murky about this picture is why Abbott, our governor, wants Texans to ignore them.