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How Trump confounds the money-in-politics debate

Jack Abramoff, the disgraced and convicted former megalobbyist, knows a thing or two (or three) about the perils of money in politics. Having pleaded guilty to his central role in a wide-ranging payola scheme involving members of Congress, Abramoff served 3½ years in prison before becoming a crusader for reform.

It was a hard-won conversion from the dark side.

So Abramoff is a bit taken aback these days with billionaire Donald Trump's insistence that—having long used his money to influence politicians—he is now the presidential candidate least sullied by those same influences.

Au contraire, says Abramoff.

Donald Trump
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Donald Trump

"(Trump) is the dark side," he told CNBC.com in an interview this week. "He is the crony capitalist. He is not repentant. He is not like me saying, 'I have seen the light.' I admitted I was wrong. He never admitted he was wrong." Trump's press office did immediately respond to a request for comment from CNBC.com.

Since announcing his candidacy, Trump has argued that his experience as a businessman has shown him just how compromised elected officials are by their political contributors—and that his largely self-financed presidential campaign frees him from specials interests and lobbyists to represent the American voter.

"You know what's nice about me? I don't need anybody's money," Trump has said.

(Never mind that Trump's super PAC, is being run by lobbyists, according to The Daily Beast. Or that he has appeared at a fundraiser for that super PAC, an entity that can raise unlimited, undisclosed financial contributions from donors.)

Trump's avowals of financial-political independence have, at once, reignited and confounded the debate on campaign finance reform, five years after the Supreme Court's ruling in the Citizens United case ushered in a river of so-called "dark money."

Reformers have been waiting for a moment to reclaim the ground they feel has been subsumed by Citizens United and, to that end, have been hoping the message about campaign finance reform would begin reverberating as much on the right as it has on the left. In this way, Trump, the current Republican front-runner and putative tea party darling, has presented such an opportunity.

His comments on the horse trading in modern American politics have been welcomed by some notable open government advocates, such as Larry Lessig, the Harvard law professor who is pondering his own Democratic presidential campaign on a one-issue campaign finance reform platform.

In a story Politico published Tuesday, Lessig called Trump the "biggest gift to the movement for reform since the Supreme Court gave us Citizens United." He added that the New York real estate magnate was speaking the "absolute truth" on big money in politics.

But Abramoff and others worry that Trump, ever declamatory and not always logically consistent, threatens to muck up what could otherwise be a constructive advance toward reform efforts.

"Once Trump enters the discussion, the various sides of the debate have to now respond to his bombast," said Abramoff. "Nobody is any longer talking about things in a constructive way when [Trump] starts talking about them. It just kills any discussion of an issue and I feel that will be the way with campaign finance."

Last week, The Wall Street Journal editorial board called called Trump's case for his own pluto-autonomy the campaign's "worst argument."

"He may be 'unbeholden' in the traditional sense," Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the consumer rights group Public Citizen, told CNBC.com. "But Donald Trump is the business interest that so many Americans want to see lawmakers not become."


Trump is hardly the first wealthy self-financing political candidate to claim the unbeholden crown: Former Wisconsin Sen. Herb Kohl, former New Jersey Sen. John Corzine, and former presidential candidate Ross Perot all advanced similar arguments in the past.

Former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who reportedly spent $650 million of his own fortune on his three-term mayorship between campaigns, operating expenses and philanthropy, was often touted as the apotheosis of unbeholden politics. Nevertheless, he also demonstrated a clear bias for the 'haves' over the 'have nots'.

"Since the candidates are wealthy themselves, the tendency of the political system to cater to the needs and preferences of the wealthy is hardly reduced," said Martin Gilens, a Princeton University political scientist who studies the influence of money in politics.

"My view is that our campaign finance system should not allow big money to buy influence with elected officials over government policies," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the liberal, nonprofit Democracy21, which advocates for campaign finance reform. "But it also should not allow a very wealthy person to have enormous financial advantages over other potential candidates."

David Keating, president of the right-leaning Center for Competitive Politics, a nonprofit group that opposes campaign finance regulations, thinks Trump is actually helping those who argue for more outside money in elections.

"He is just acting like a politician trying to get votes," said Keating. "A rich person almost always is going to say, 'Vote for me, because I am funding my own campaign', rather than emphasizing that they are rich. Most people, if they thought about it, don't want just rich people running for office. And the best way to do that is to allow people to take much larger contributions than they are now."

Meanwhile, several lobbyists who have represented Trump's business interests say they don't take his lobbyist-bashing personally.

"Lobbyists are like the least of the problem, but I understand where he is going with it," said David Schwartz, a New York-based lobbyist who has done work for Trump in the past.

"I am used to having our profession denigrated during election time," said Brian Ballard, a Florida-based lobbyist who represents the Trump Organization on gaming issues and matters involving the Trump National Doral Miami golf resort. "I take no issue with Mr. Trump on this and believe he is sincere. I have great respect for him and have enjoyed working with him."

However, Ballard said he is supporting Jeb Bush for the presidency: "He, too, is not big a fan of my industry," Ballard said. "And again I'm OK with it."