Kaine’s $160,000 Gift Controversy: More Bad Optics for the Democrats
Policy + Politics

Kaine’s $160,000 Gift Controversy: More Bad Optics for the Democrats

© Carlos Barria / Reuters

In choosing Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia as her running mate, presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton apparently set aside any concern about the more than $160,000 worth of gifts, trips and other gratuities that Kaine had accepted while serving as lieutenant governor and governor between 2001 and 2009.

Those previously disclosed gifts – all completely legal under Virginia’s notoriously lax government ethics law – included an $18,000 vacation in the exclusive Caribbean island of Mustique, $5,500 in clothes, tickets and transportation to watch the George Mason University men’s basketball team play in the NCAA Final Four  in Indianapolis, and a trip on a private jet to Aspen, Colorado.

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The largest amount was $45,075 in travel expenses that Kaine incurred while campaigning for President Obama in 2008 that was covered by the Obama for America PAC. A total of 139 companies or individuals gave roughly 220 gifts or travel reimbursements for work-related conferences, according to the Virginia Public Access Project.

Kaine, 58, a centrist Democrat with an impressive resume of government experience, was widely regarded as a “safe” choice for Clinton, in part because of his reputation for being a nice guy and having a spotless reputation.

His decision, for whatever reasons, to accept so much largesse in the course of his official duties – arguably doing what thousands of other Virginia state officials have done over the years – has raised questions about his judgment in the context of the 2016 presidential campaign.

Kaine is teaming up with another highly accomplished political figure – a former first lady, U.S. senator and secretary of state who is fighting for her political life against Donald Trump by trying to rehabilitate her severely battered reputation for honesty and integrity.

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Fifty-seven percent of Americans say they don’t like or trust her, which makes her just slightly more popular than the bombastic and abrasive Trump. Voters blame Clinton for a litany of perceived sins, including her negligent handling of State Department email, her questionable foreign policy judgments in Syria and Libya, and her long-standing cozy relationship with Wall Street.

Before he finally conceded victory to Clinton in the primary election and climbed aboard her campaign recently, Democratic Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont branded Clinton a tool of Wall Street and suggested she wasn’t “qualified” to become president. Sanders all but said it was obscene for Clinton to have accepted $600,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.

Trump was much harsher, of course, dubbing his Democratic rival as “Crooked Hillary” and insisting that she should be convicted and sent to prison for using a private email server to send and receive top secret government State Department documents that jeopardized national security. He has also charged that she used her influence as secretary of state to improperly drum up tens of millions of dollars in contributions from Saudi Arabia and other countries to her family’s global charitable foundation.

Some Democrats considered the choice of Kaine a good antidote to the steady stream of vile Trump directs towards Clinton. During his first joint campaign appearance with Clinton in Florida last Saturday, Kaine told a crowd, "When Donald Trump says he has your back, you better watch out. He leaves a trail of broken promises and wrecked lives wherever he goes. We can’t afford to let him do the same thing to our country."

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 By contrast, he added, Clinton “doesn't insult people, she listens to them. What a novel concept." 

But Trump, a master of detecting and exploiting his opponent’s weakness, wasted no time over the weekend zeroing in on Kaine’s gifts.

Trump called Kaine corrupt for accepting "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in gifts as governor, and he compared him to Kaine’s successor, former Republican Gov. Bob McDonnell. Trump argued that McDonnell almost went to prison for accepting “a fraction of what Kaine took.”

The cases of McDonnell and Kaine couldn’t be more different, according to PolitiFact.com, the fact-checking website, which dismissed Trump’s assertions as a “Pants on Fire!” distortion.

McDonnell was convicted in federal court of accepting $177,000 in undisclosed personal gifts and sweetheart loans from a dietary supplement businessperson who was actively seeking business with the state. The U.S. Supreme Court overturned McDonnell’s bribery convictions in June, finding that the lower court and prosecutor incorrectly instructed the jury about how to define an illegal quid pro quo.

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But that won’t deter Trump, who has dubbed the Democratic senator “corrupt Kaine” and has folded him neatly into his larger narrative of Democratic Party corruption and business as usual. “And I think, to me, it’s a big problem,” Trump said of Kaine’s gift taking during an interview with Chuck Todd on NBC News’s Meet the Press. “Now, how do you take all these gifts? Hundreds of thousands of dollars."

It all comes down to optics in an election year pitting angry, outraged “outsiders” against establishment politicians, and right now Trump and his supporters appear to have the upper hand.

“The thing is, Trump can make Mother Teresa look shady,” Ross Baker, a political scientist with Rutgers University, said on Monday. “You just can’t set a course by what outrageous charge Donald Trump is going to throw at you. I mean everything Kaine did was within the law. And unless you could demonstrate some kind of quid pro quo, clearly he did what was legal. You can criticize Virginia’s gratuities statute, but you can’t criticize him for breaking the law.”

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Amy Dudley, a spokesperson for Kaine, told The New York Times that two thirds of the reported gift or reimbursement filings were in the “work-related travel category,” and that every gift was reported – no matter how large or small. Moreover, Dudley dismissed any suggestion that Kaine may have done anything over the years to benefit any individual or business in return for gifts.

But that may not be precisely correct. The Times reported on Monday that a review of archival email correspondence during Kaine’s years as  lieutenant governor and governor  “shows that he received gifts, in some cases, around the same time he and his staff were considering official government requests from these donors.”

For instance, Kaine hitched a ride to Aspen on a corporate jet owned by the former Barr Pharmaceuticals Company in 2006, around the same time the company was lobbying him over issues regarding its drug sales, according to the newspaper. That same year, Dominion Resources, the state’s largest electric utility and a formidable lobbying presence at the state capital, paid for Kaine’s trip to attend the Final Four tournament in Indianapolis.

While these and other gifts are largely ancient political history, they are likely to get a fresh and penetrating look from the Republicans this fall, as the presidential campaign heats up.