Trump currently owns a resort at the historic Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach. Graphic by Andrew Stewart.

It’s been widely reported over the past few days that Donald Trump’s Foundation made a $25,000 donation to Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi in 2013 and that as a result she failed to look into complaints about Trump’s for-profit university. But now reporters have found that this narrative doesn’t necessarily hold because, according to the New York Times, Trump made the donation slightly earlier than had been reported, lessening the possibility that the contribution was part of a quid pro quo deal on his for-profit educational venture.

Brian Ballard, Trump’s Florida lobbyist, now tells the Times it was “ridiculous” to think his client sought to buy off Bondi over the for-profit school issue. “I’m the Trump Organization lobbyist, and he has never, ever brought up Trump University with me,” he said. “It wasn’t something of concern to him.”

The media screwed up because reporters have been in such a rush to tarnish Trump that they got the facts wrong. And they also screwed up because in their haste they missed a more important story that shows Trump was seeking a quid pro quo, it just didn’t involve Trump University, so Ballard’s telling the truth about that.

Based on interviews and documents I’ve seen, Trump was looking for a quid pro quo, just not the one the media has been chasing. He wanted Bondi’s help to expand his gambling interests in Florida, which is why he had hired Ballard in the first place.

Trump’s Foundation cut the $25,000 check to Bondi on September 9, 2013. Having a foundation make a political donation is a big no-no. Trump — who wants to open a casino in Doral — now somewhat improbably claims it was all a mixup and he reimbursed the money from his own pocket.

Meanwhile, between the spring of 2013 and that November, Bondi was touring the state to prepare a report for the legislature about whether or not to expand gambling. So Trump’s cash was dropped on Bondi when she was in the midst of her gambling tour.

Here’s where things get even more curious. Trump’s donation to Bondi was cut on September 9 but it didn’t post to her campaign until September 17. Genting, a Malaysian giant hoping to build a casino in the Bayside neighborhood, donated $150,000 to the Florida GOP on the same day. 

Guess who represents Trump and Genting? That’s right, the lobbyist Ballard. It appears that neither Trump nor Genting were keen to advertise their donations. Trump made his through his allegedly charitable foundation and Genting made its through a shell company called Bayfront 2011 Development, LLC.

Incidentally, Ballard has a number of other gambling clients who want new casinos, including the Palm Beach Kennel Club. That firm is owned by the Rooney family — Patrick Rooney is a big GOP hot shot and former ambassador to Ireland and Tom Rooney, another clan member, is a right-wing member of Congress. The family and their business entities are major political donors and, in the case of Tom, a recipient as well. (Ballard told me he represented Tom Rooney but not Patrick.)

Ballard is one of the most powerful lobbyists in Florida. He is close friends with Governor Rick Scott, who Ballard has raised gobs of money for. Ballard’s sister, a former Palm Beach County Commissioner, went to prison on corruption charges. His father-in-law and sometimes lobbying partner, Jim Smith, is a former Democratic Attorney General and Republican Secretary of State.

So in the end, what happened? Bondi’s report recommended against allowing new casinos so neither Trump nor Genting got what they wanted. It seems likely Trump was thinking of a quid pro quo but Bondi — with whom he has had a long friendship — shut him down. For his part, Ballard says he was not aware of Bondi’s tour and it had no bearing on his work.

What the story shows, though, is that despite his protestations that he’s just a simple businessman, Trump tries to game the political system to expand his interests, just like everyone else.

And no one should conclude from this story that this was a case of democracy in action. Trump’s lobbyist wasn’t able to get him the desired impact but it might be because he was so cheap he only ponied up $25,000.

On September 18, the Seminole Tribe of Florida, which operates the Hard Rock casino and doesn’t want new casino competitors, donated $500,000 to Governor Scott’s PAC. Another anti-expansion gambling firm, Isle of Capri Casinos, gave Scott’s PAC $20,000 the same day.

So it may just be that Trump’s side got outspent. It’s also possible that the much maligned Bondi came out against casino expansion because it’s smart Florida politics. Casinos in Florida are generally pretty unpopular because what they do best is separate retirees from their Social Security checks and impoverish the elderly.

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