WASHINGTON — In the fallout of the Harvey Weinstein scandal, Democrats have disavowed him and donated his campaign contributions to charities, while Republicans seized on any opportunity to hammer their rivals with guilt by association.
What doesn’t seem likely to change, though, is the way that politicians court donors and collect cash.
In fact, as much as Weinstein may be an embarrassment to a number of high-profile political figures, it’s mitigated by the near certainty that there will come a day when a donor from the right is beset with a different scandal and GOP figures scramble to distance themselves.
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), who donated $14,200 of Weinstein’s contributions to his campaigns to charity, suggested this week that procedures were already in place. “We vet donors carefully, but this didn’t come out until recently,” he said.
That is the argument that other Democrats have made as well: that the sexual harassment allegations against Weinstein did not spill out in the open until the New York Times and the New Yorker published pieces in which a number of women came forward on the record with their own stories.
Hillary Clinton said she was “shocked and appalled” by the allegations, and Barack and Michelle Obama said they were “disgusted” by the reports. Weinstein was a bundler to Clinton’s presidential campaigns, and he also raised money for Obama’s 2012 reelection.
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A number of industry figures who also volunteered for each campaign don’t doubt that Clinton or the Obamas were unaware of rumors surrounding Weinstein, and several say they couldn’t fathom the Obamas agreeing to have their daughter Malia interning for the Weinstein Company if that were not the case.
The point is that, before the New York Times story, Weinstein’s confidential settlements with female accusers would not have shown up in a background search. What was public was a 22-year-old model’s accusation in 2015 that Weinstein groped her, leading to a New York Police Department investigation. Weinstein was not charged.
But outside of the sexual harassment allegations, Weinstein’s reputation as a hard-charging, bullying executive was well-known in entertainment and well-chronicled in the media, as was a raft of civil litigation over his business dealings.
In campaigns’ zest to soak up as much money as they can as quickly as possible, though, a bully persona is hardly a disqualifier. Before the “Access Hollywood” tape surfaced, and before he was even a presidential candidate, Donald Trump almost relished in his reputation as a bombastic businessman. That didn’t stop campaigns, on the left and the right, from accepting his money.
“The Weinstein scandal could serve as an object lesson on the dangers of focusing on big campaign donations from a small group of very wealthy contributors who make up the donor base of both political parties. Unfortunately it won’t,” said Meredith McGehee, chief of policy, programs, and strategy at Issue One, a group trying to limit the influence of money in politics.
“Our politicians’ insatiable demand — indeed some call it an addiction — to big money isn’t going away anytime soon. Serious vetting is overtaken by the fear of what the other side is doing,” she added. “A Weinstein-type scandal is just seen as the cost of doing business.”
Weinstein’s history of involvement in campaign fundraising stretches back more than 25 years, largely on the Democratic side, and often with a focus on nationally recognized figures. Those in Democratic fundraising circles say even though he could bring in star talent to fetes and also hosted Obama at his home, he often overstated his role or attached his name to events that he had little role in organizing.
He was far from the top bundler in the Clinton and Obama campaigns, but, like few others in entertainment, he capitalized on connections to the political world to help promote his own aims.
In 2013, he spoke at a White House event led by First Lady Michelle Obama for students interested in getting into the entertainment business. The night before, the Obamas screened “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom” at the White House, just as Hollywood’s awards season was getting into high gear. Later that month, Clinton, former Secretary of State Colin Powell and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) co-hosted a screening of the movie at the Kennedy Center.
Weinstein also sent Clinton and Obama screeners of Weinstein Co. releases. He said he sent Obama a rough cut of “The King’s Speech,” which went on to win the best picture Oscar. He even framed the dynamics of the 2012 presidential race with the way that he distributed his movies.
“When you’re talking about spending money, I’ll give you an example of two movies that I distribute,” he told “The Rachel Maddow Show” in 2012. “I spent the exact same amount on both movies. One movie was called ‘The King’s Speech.’ It grossed $140 million, won a few Oscars, including best picture, and did sensational based on its budget. The other picture was called ‘Our Idiot Brother’ and we spent the same money and the movie grossed $25 million. Not bad for what we paid for it, a little bit of profit. To me, Romney is ‘Our Idiot Brother,’ Obama is ‘The King’s Speech.'”
As one industry bundler put it, Weinstein had a knack for finding themes in his movies that fit the narrative of a campaign or White House initiative. He ingratiated himself to political figures by having a “chameleon-like nature where he could be the most charming person in the world.” One of the better examples of it may be Weinstein’s gig filling in for Piers Morgan on his CNN show in 2012. Weinstein’s guest was Bill Clinton.
Hollywood fundraisers doubt that the Weinstein scandal will even slow the industry’s role as an ATM, particularly for the Democratic party and especially heading into the 2018 midterms. “Not at all,” says one industry bundler. “That’s my gut answer. Absolutely zero” effect.
Republicans have long targeted their political opponents for their connections to the Hollywood “elite,” to the point of cliche, but Democratic campaigns have largely shrugged them off as just another aspect of the money race.
“I doubt very much that the Weinstein scandal will result in changes to the way campaigns raise funds, including more scrutiny of donors,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political contributions. “Mostly campaigns are just raising money as fast as they can, hand over fist, and dealing with the fallout when it happens — if it happens — as quickly as they can, once the bad behavior becomes public and the potential for ‘guilt by association’ becomes clear.”
She said if somehow the Weinstein scandal became a liability for a candidate, and perhaps then contributed to a loss, then it may have an impact on fundraising. If the past is any guide, though, politics will have moved on to a different controversy.
Krumholz said “we’ll see if this has staying power as a theme in 2018 or if memories dim, with this scandal being replaced by others.”