Monday, May 22, 2017

Trump's Corruption may be his Lasting Legacy and his Undoing

The Trump administration can be described as an oligarchy full of kleptocrats or a kakistocracy. Donald Trump is known for shady dealings and now that he is president his corruption has predictably become a defining feature of his presidency. While this should not surprise anyone who has followed Trump, the extent of the corruption is troubling.

Trump has a long history of corrupt business practices. This includes the scam that was Trump University. He has also failed to pay vendors for services rendered. Trump's progression from corruption as a "business man" to presidential corruption was seamless. Within a week of winning the election on November 8th he was hard at work exploring ways that he can profit from the presidency. Even before taking the oath of office he had created an influence peddling scheme whereby he sold access to foreign diplomats in the form of exorbitantly priced bookings at one of his hotels.

Although the Constitution expressly forbids the receipt of gifts from foreign diplomats, Trump argues that as president he is above the law. However, the malfeasance goes far beyond breaching the emoluments clause of the constitution. As president it starts with failing to put his business interests in a blind trust.

In a flagrant display of unprecedented nepotism he put his family and friends in key administration positions. Even those associated with Trump outside of the administration capitalized. The sister of Trump's son-in-law Jared Kushner is using her brother's name to sell US citizenship in China under the guise of a half million dollar real estate investment.

Campaign finance and the GOP

According to The Wall Street Journal of the $6 million in campaign funds that Trump spent in the first quarter of 2017, $500,000 was directed right back into Trump-owned hotels, restaurants and golf clubs. In total, since the start of his campaign, over $14 million has been funneled back into Trump-owned properties.

Although Republicans widely criticized Trump, once he became president they saw this as a chance to pass a slew of legislation. The Speaker of the House Paul Ryan was also critical but he changed his tune and is now protecting Trump. Some have suggested this may be due in part to a $100K donation Trump gave to the Ryan aligned Congressional Leadership Fund super PAC.

This all relates to the murky campaign finance under what is known as the Citizen's United ruling which allows politicians to receive virtually unlimited donations. This Supreme Court decision destroys century long legal prohibitions against undue influence. Justice Anthony Kennedy successfully argued for removing limits on independent expenditures specifically mentioning, "quid pro quo corruption" in his ruling.

Some allege that Betsy DeVos was appointed as Secretary of Education because of the massive amount of money she donates to the Republican party.

Opacity

As revealed by the Panama Papers corruption is widespread in government. However, Trump takes it to a whole new level. Corruption costs everyone, it is a cancer that undermines far more than just environmental protections. Conversely sustainability is a bulwark against malfeasance and corporate transparency goes a long way to combat corruption. In recent presidential history Trump's lack of transparency is unparalleled. This president has broken with tradition and refused to release his tax returns ostensibly to hid his malfeasance.

Tax payers footing the bill

There is also the issue of his seemingly weekly jaunts to Mar-a-Lago at the tax payers expense. In response Rep. Ted Lieu (D-CA) introduced the Stop Waste and Misuse by the President (SWAMP) Act. This bill would require Trump to reimburse the government for funds spent on travel to his own properties. Trump has also met with heads of state at his Mar-a-Lago property. This means that tax payers are effectively bankrolling a marketing campaign.

Media lays out the facts

Trump's corruption has been singled out by media outlets around the world. A recent example can be found in the German investigative news magazine Der Spiegel. The article points to rampant corruption and says of Trump, "He does not possess the requisite intellect and does not understand the significance of the office he holds nor the tasks associated with it." 

As explained in the title of a May 12, Esquire article, "This Level of Corruption Is Unprecedented in the Modern History of the Presidency And it's threatening our democracy."  The article states, "There is a level of intellectual—and, perhaps, literal—corruption that is unprecedented in the modern history of the presidency and that is a genuine and unique threat to democratic institutions that are the objects of destructive contempt."

A Reuters report reviews some of the ways that Trump has profited from being president. Public pension funds in at least seven U.S. states have invested millions of dollars in an investment fund related to Trump. This may violate a constitutional rule prohibiting the flow of money from states to the pockets of a sitting president.

Russia connection

A Dutch TV documentary (see video at the bottom of this page) looks at Trump’s dark money and dubious business partners including Russian oligarchs and convicted members of organized crime. The documentary specifically looks at Trump's relationship with a man that was once on Trump's payroll,  Russian mobster and convicted fellon Felix Sater.

Sater was found guilty of racketeering and Trump may also be guilty of the same crime. Trump is alleged to be involved with a money laundering pyramid scheme that helps Russian billionaires move money out of Russia. Through his association with a front-company called Bayrock, Trump may be guilty of graft, tax fraud and running a criminal organization. Part Two of the Dutch documentary series explores Trump’s relationship with Israeli billionaire Lev Leviev, who is suspected of trading in blood diamonds.

Trump may have violated a number of anti-money laundering laws. According to recent reports the Senate Intelligence Committee has requested information about a $10 million money laundering penalty imposed against Trump’s Taj Mahal casino in 2015.

Bribes and hypocrisy

In a flagrant example of quid pro quo, Ivanka Trump praised the progress of women's rights in Saudi Arabia and the UAE. In exchange the two nations pledged a $100 million donation to Ivanka's global project for women entrepreneurs. Saudi Arabia and the UAE are universally recognized as some of the worst places in the world for women. In these countries women cannot do very much without the permission of male guardians this includes the right to travel anywhere or gain access higher education.

Like Ivanka, Trump's hypocrisy knows no bounds. Trump's tour of the Middle East may be designed to get him away from the constitutional crisis back home but his ineptitude has only landed him in more hot water.  In stunning reversal Trump did another 180. His rhetoric went from a steady spew of anti-Islamic vitriol to obsequious efforts to pander to Muslim leaders.

The savage irony is apparent to all but the president's supporters. Trump ran on a platform of draining the swamp, yet he sacked a leading swamp drainer, when he fired Preet Bhahara, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Trump railed against Hilary Clinton for giving a speech at Goldman Sachs and then he went on to put senior executives from Goldman Sach's into key administration positions.

Threat to democracy

Trump is not only the most dishonest US president in history he is also the most corrupt. This corruption not only erodes America's credibility it siphons vast amounts of public funds. Even more importantly corruption also imperils democracy itself.

There are efforts underway to combat corruption and defend democracy.  Americans could learn a lot from events in Romania this past winter. 

"Trump's presidency is deeply corrupted, our democracy is compromised, and the system of checks and balances is failing us," Bill Moyers wrote.  Impeachment may be the only recourse but this will only work if Republican lawmakers see it as a matter of political survival.
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Watch the English language version of “The Dubious Friends of Donald Trump,” embedded below:



In this podcast we hear from well known conservative intellectual David Frum who talks about Trump's corruption.

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