The Trump administration delayed Southwest Light Rail Funding last year. Why? | Column

President Donald Trump in Rochester, days before Election Day. Photo by Ricardo Lopez/Minnesota Reformer.

Former President Donald Trump will be received like a conquering orange Julius Caesar among the throngs of fans at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando this weekend. 

Many of us will want to look away as he assaults our collective sense of decency. 

The easier path is to put it all behind us, like awakening from a bad dream.

But what we really need is truth about what went on in his government. 

For instance, I had a conversation with a senior state government official last year who told me to look into delays in the delivery of federal money for the Southwest Light Rail line. 

The Metropolitan Council had completed a long list of requirements to receive nearly $1 billion from the federal government to help build the light rail line between Target Field and Eden Prairie. 

Met Council President Charlie Zelle didn’t seem eager to talk about it when I asked him recently, but he answered my questions, and he doesn’t strike me as someone to make up a story. 

“It’s not anything I’ve experienced before,” said Zelle, who became council chair in early 2020 and previously served as commissioner of the Minnesota Department of Transportation. 

Throughout 2020, even as they broke ground on the project, local officials awaited what’s called the “full funding grant agreement” from the feds. 

Their Washington lobbyists suggested the money was being held up, not by the professionals or even the political appointees at the U.S. Department of Transportation, but at the White House. 

Who was telling them this? 

The lobbyists were instructed not to say. 

Creepy. 

What did they want? 

“It was all oblique,” Zelle told me.  

There were suggestions that the Met Council should fire some members and then hold elections to replace them, long a wish of suburban Republicans who loathe the council, which is a powerful regional planning agency with responsibility for transit, water infrastructure and growth policies.

But the governor appoints the council and only the Legislature can change that. It was a ridiculous demand. 

Other suggestions arrived from the lobbyists: Maybe there should be an event. Maybe the White House could control the list of who was at the event. Maybe there’s a business along the future light rail corridor that would host it. 

Remember: It was an election year, and Trump hoped to flip Minnesota red for the first time since 1972. 

Zelle’s response: “I said, ‘We can’t host a rally for the president.’” 

As they waited and waited for the money, Zelle told the council it needed to start making preparations to unwind the entire project in case the money never came, including layoffs. 

Who knows why, but whoever was making decisions finally relented. Maybe they got bored or busy with some other scheme. Maybe some west metro business heavy who wants light rail called the White House. Who knows. 

Zelle did agree to send a tweet thanking Trump. In retrospect, it should have been a red flag given that the president had nothing to do with bringing the money to Minnesota and deserved no thanks at all.

Met Council Chair Charlie Zelle tweeted his thanks to then-President Donald Trump.

I asked for public records, but there were none because these requests out of shadowy figures in the White House orbit were never put in writing, which is telling.  

The reason this dumb little affair is interesting is that it likely played out across 1,000 issues and 1,000 venues during the Trump presidency. 

Recall that Trump sought praise from governors, especially Democratic governors, in exchange for the federal government’s help in securing important medical supplies at the outset of the pandemic. That was so he could run ads featuring Democratic governors praising him. Lobbyists and foreign diplomats understood they should conduct business at Trump’s Washington hotel. Ukraine had to publicly dish dirt on Joe Biden in exchange for U.S. military aid.

This is the nature of authoritarian governments. Everything must return some benefit to the sovereign. 

Michael Coppedge, a professor of political science at the University of Notre Dame, measures government corruption — the use of public resources for private gain — as a principal investigator for the Varieties of Democracy project, or V-Dem. 

Trump kept them rather busy. 

“Based on these findings I feel confident saying it was more corrupt than any recent administration in the United States,” he told me in a recent interview. He had to go back to President Warren Harding to find anything equivalent. He compared the United States under Trump to countries in southern Europe like Spain and Italy, or South Korea.  

Like many critics of Trump’s administration, Coppedge said he hopes the rot started in the head, which, now severed, will allow us to return to something like normal. 

Given its size and scope, the federal government in normal times is remarkably free of the kind of authoritarian corruption common in the rest of the world. (In fact, Trump hated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act because he thought American companies should be able to bribe foreign governments.) 

I’m optimistic, but that brings me back to Trump and the red hats at CPAC this weekend. They take their cues from him, which means even unconsciously they’ll absorb his corrupt ways. Call it trickle down Trumpism. 

“It’s likely that Trump will continue to promote a new wave of candidates who think this is the best way to do politics. If they win elections, then I do think this norm will spread farther,” Coppedge said. 

Trump has been temporarily defeated, but Trumpism — the foul blend of venality, vanity and authoritarianism — remains, and it must be crushed.