The indictment of New York Representative Chris Collins on insider trading charges reads as if it were a textbook for high school students, meant to illustrate insider trading for someone who has never heard of the concept. Collins, who sat on the board of Australian drug company, Innate, learned from the CEO about the failed trial of the company’s one and only promising drug several weeks before this result was to be announced. One minute after receiving an email from the CEO sharing the bad news, Collins called his son. The next day, his son offloaded his shares in the company, eventually saving himself more than half a million dollars in losses.
Once upon a time, getting arrested by the FBI was bad for your political career, and may have even caused you to give up your job. But in Donald Trump’s Republican party, whether its insider trading, bald misuse of taxpayer dollars, or failing to report colleagues who are sexual predators, all accusations of corruption or criminality are just conspiracies perpetrated by the deep state and the fake news media to derail the careers of loyal GOPers. Collins has been kicked off his spot in the House Energy and Commerce Committee but refuses to resign, give up his upcoming reelection bid, or admit any wrongdoing whatsoever.
With President Trump in the White House, this strategy makes perfect sense. It appears that Donald Trump believes that financial crimes are on the books merely as a means for federal law enforcement to hassle political opponents. Earlier this month, he compared the trial of his former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, to that of Al Capone, suggesting that both were treated unfairly. He has also mulled pardoning Martha Stewart for charges related to an insider trading investigation, and he has stated on national television that is impossible for American businessmen to work internationally without violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—a law the Trump Organization has likely violated.
Representative Chris Collins isn’t the brightest crayon in the box—the clumsiness of his crime is evidence enough for that judgment. But just like Manafort, Collins isn’t too stupid to realize that his best chance of salvation at this point is to stand and fight and hope for a presidential pardon. Donald Trump is smitten with his pardon power, which is both vast and unchecked, not to mention particularly useful for a man under FBI investigation. Given the evidence against him, Collins is likely banking on his status as the first Congressman to endorse the president to save him, but he should study up on the president’s own history of disloyalty before he gets his hopes up.
Washington’s culture of impunity has been supercharged by President Trump’s arrival on the scene, but it was thriving even before his inauguration, as polarization and the spread of gerrymandered, super-safe Congressional seats has made it unlikely that the voters will punish representatives who break the law. Democrats have benefitted from this too. Take for instance, New Jersey Senator Robert Menendez, who was indicted in 2015 on corruption charges for accepting gifts and providing official favors to a political donor. Menendez won’t be convicted, as his case ended in a mistrial, but the public admonition delivered by his Senate colleagues shows why in a healthy and functioning democracy he would be shown the door in favor of someone with more scruples. But in a divided America, the only chance for a Democratic Senator to get voted out of office in deep blue New Jersey is to be defeated by a primary opponent, a remote possibility when election laws are written to suppress voter turnout and give party bosses control over who gets the nod.
From a voters perspective, turning a blind eye to corruption is rational in many individual cases. In a divided government where every vote counts, it makes sense to prefer a corrupt representative who votes the way you want than an upstanding one who will impose what you see as far worse harm through changes to public policy. With such a dynamic in play, and Donald Trump steering the ship of government, we have no reason to expect anything but more folks like Representative Collins to gather at the trough of public “service.”
Christopher Matthews is a writer who splits his time between New York City and Accra, Ghana, with an interest in the intersection of markets, the economy, and public policy. He previously held staff positions at Axios, Fortune Magazine, and Time Magazine, and has been published in Forbes and Debtwire.