Could Trump’s 'Big, Beautiful Wall' Be a Profit Engine - for Him?
During his State of the Union address Tuesday night, Donald Trump made it quite clear that he is still fixated on "building a wall on the southern border," though he has quietly dropped his repeated promise that Mexico would pay for it. There is certainly reason to be concerned that Democrats may consider voting for a bill that includes wall funding, in exchange for a provision that would offer Dreamers -- undocumented young people brought to America as minors -- a path to citizenship.
Letting Trump have his stupid wall, the thinking goes, is a small price to pay to protect young immigrants. For one thing, if Democrats regain control of the government in the next few years, they can zero out funding for the wall before ground is ever broken for its construction. So while the wall would almost certainly, if built, cause massive environmental damage and cost a fortune — while doing almost nothing to prevent undocumented immigration, as most immigrants enter the country legally and then overstay their visas — it may well be the least bad of Trump's agenda items on which Democrats could offer him a compromise.
There's one largely unnoticed aspect of the wall project that should be carefully considered by any Democrat who's considering a vote for the wall in exchange for protections for Dreamers: The extraordinary potential for graft and corruption that would likely be built into any Trump-friendly scheme to build the damn thing.
The Texas Tribute and ProPublica published a joint report on Tuesday detailing the legal battle over a kickback scheme that grew out of construction efforts on the Bush-era version of the wall. Hidalgo County, Texas, is suing a man named Godfrey Garza Jr., accusing him of masterminding an elaborate conspiracy to use federal funds to build a border barrier in order to enrich himself and his family at the taxpayer expense.
Garza, who was director of the county's drainage district, "cajoled company executives to hire a firm owned by his family in exchange for a cut of lucrative construction contracts, according to new documents filed in state district court" write Kiah Collier of the Texas Tribune and T. Christian Miller of ProPublica. Hidalgo County officials allege that Garza's company, Valley Data, paid bribes to get lucrative government contracts, but then failed to do any work outside of being "a kickback vehicle and money laundering machine.”
The entire debacle, Miller and Collier write, raise "additional questions about Homeland Security’s oversight" process.
There is absolutely no reason to believe that accountability and oversight will improve in the Trump era, if he does in fact get his wall funding. On the contrary, there's every reason to be worried that putting money aside for this massive boondoggle, even if it gets zeroed out before the first shovel hits the ground, will offer Trump and his cronies a massive opportunity to enrich themselves on the government dime.
As I wrote about on Wednesday, the grim reality is that Trump — while generally lazy and stupid — has been active and imaginative in concocting ways to use his office to enrich himself, often in ways that could very well be illegal. The most well-documented method is the way that Trump doubled the membership fees at his Palm Beach resort, Mar-a-Lago, so that corporate CEOs and lobbyists now pay $200,000 a year to gain unfettered, off-the-record access to the private club where the president spends nearly every weekend. Trump and his family have business dealings throughout the world that create multitudes of opportunities for wealthy special interests to spend money handsomely to gain influence.
The mainstays of Trump's business empire before he ran for office were construction and corruption, and he regularly combined the two. He's tied to a sleazy operation in Azerbaijan, a hotel project that has become mired in controversy over graft and political self-dealing. A similar hotel project in Brazil was shut down after a criminal investigations was opened. Trump business dealings have connected him to alleged gangsters and money-laundering operations in Russia and other former Soviet republics. Trump's homegrown construction projects in Atlantic City and elsewhere famously tied him to mobsters who often landed in prison for racketeering. This propensity for sleaze has been inherited by his children, as Ivanka Trump and Donald Trump Jr. barely avoided criminal prosecution in 2012, after evidence emerged suggesting that they had lied to potential buyers about the valuation of condos they were selling.
Giving Trump a huge bucket of money and a bunch of government construction contracts to start handing out is basically a license for corruption. The only real question is how flagrant it would be: Will Mar-a-Lago dues double again, as construction companies seek private audiences to get contracts to build the wall? How blatant will the bribery get? Considering how indifferent congressional Republicans have been so far to Trump's various other shady dealings, it's not much of a stretch to imagine that Trump might see if he can hire himself -- or some shell corporation under his control -- to build his wall. Again, not a single shovel has to hit the ground for taxpayers to lose out on this. Construction is a business where a lot of money can wind up in people's pockets, without a project ever being completed, or even getting off the drawing board.
In the end, this might be a price worth paying: a direct cash-and-corruption payout to buy Trump's support for an immigration bill that secures the Dreamers' future. If Democrats decide to pay it, it should be considered a ransom. The real blame for Trump's corruption, of course, lies with Republicans who enable him and voters who handed the keys to the White House to a man who corrodes everything he touches. If Democrats pay this ransom, they need to do it with both eyes open. Odds are that right now Donald Trump is figuring out how he can make money off his "big, beautiful" wall. Maybe finding out how will offer us one more opportunity to bring an end to his misbegotten presidency.