Less than a year ago, Norm Eisen, in his capacity as a fellow at the Brookings Institution, convened a campaign finance “Solutions Summit” that brought together a meeting of regulation advocates whose supposed solutions differ about as much as Oxford blue and Midnight blue. It wasn’t a conference; it was a trade show. Around the same time, Eisen co-authored an op/ed repeating an ever-recurring refrain to reverse the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which enabled corporations and unions to independently speak out about candidates for office. The vitriol directed at corporations by reformers in the wake of the case is difficult to understate.
But a strange thing happened yesterday: Norm Eisen found a reason to love at least one corporation, Nordstrom.
It began as Nordstrom faced the wrath of President Donald Trump on Twitter following the department store’s decision to drop the president’s daughter Ivanka’s fashion label:
My daughter Ivanka has been treated so unfairly by @Nordstrom. She is a great person — always pushing me to do the right thing! Terrible!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 8, 2017
Eisen, who has established himself as go-to “ethics” paparazzi against the Trump administration, was quick to respond:
— Norm Eisen (@NormEisen) February 8, 2017
For Eisen, it is not about Nordstrom, but about nailing Donald Trump any way he can. His hypothetical lawsuit would be but the latest in a pitiful series of potshots. Eisen has made it his quest to rid the President of alleged business conflicts, citing legal standards that are non-existent, and would be impossible to comply with if they did. The organization Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), of which Eisen is co-founder and chair, already filed a lawsuit against Trump arguing that he is violating the Foreign Emoluments Clause of the Constitution. CREW’s standing to bring the case has been repeatedly debunked and rebuked, but Eisen continues to insist that there will somehow be a case schedule, which will lead to discovery of President Trump’s tax returns. For spoilers about standing, be sure to note a number of cases the organization has tried to bring against the Federal Election Commission; CREW should have learned the doctrine by now. But, to borrow Eisen’s laser-sharp cynicism, also keep in mind that there may be a method to CREW’s inclination to bring quick, albeit meritless, lawsuits that garner lots of press but little in the way of results.
To understand the particularly rank opportunism here, look back to Eisen and the regulation lobby’s applause (indeed, spearheading) for efforts to overturn Citizens United. Again, Eisen couldn’t care less about Nordstrom, but his past efforts have shown such disdain for corporations that he once couldn’t care less what any member of the government—until, that is, Donald Trump—inflicted upon them. The efforts of certain members of Congress and resolutions at the state level are often not merely attempts to eliminate corporations’ First Amendment rights, but any rights under the Constitution. Here’s an example from one such resolution, which died just last week in the Wyoming Legislature:
[T]he Legislature of the State of Wyoming respectfully urges the Congress of the United States to propose and send to the states for ratification an amendment to the United States Constitution . . . clarifying the distinction between the rights of natural persons and the rights of corporations and other legal entities[.]
Eisen rushes to Nordstrom’s defense here, but will still stand by efforts to prevent the corporation from speaking out against President Trump in 2020, if it so chooses?
Why not? His ilk also supports constitutional amendments that would allow the president to send in the FBI to raid Nordstrom’s offices without a warrant, seize all of Nordstrom’s merchandise—heck, the corporation itself—and without any due process whatsoever. Those actions, like censorship, are all prevented by rights enumerated in the Constitution, but, to hear far too many reformers tell it, these are only for natural persons and not for their incorporated associations.
The quick pivot of the campaign regulation lobby after the November election was bewildering, even to those of us who watch the watchdogs. Somehow, many so-called campaign finance reformers have managed to become even more unserious about anything other than theatrics. Watchdogs serve no purpose if they bark at every tweet and, in light of President Trump’s behavior here, they’re barking at their own reflection: retaliation, along with enemies lists, government inquisitions and censorship were forgiven, or even the tools of reform, as late as November of 2016. Rather than reassess the dangers of these in light of who now sits in the White House, reformers will, at best, pretend there are other distinctions.