Saturday, 19 May 2018

Trump's lasting damage to the US political system

The overt corruption of the American presidency is happening more or less in plain sight. 

This past week news broke about a number of recent deals involving Trump, his family, hangers-on and his enablers, that show that the worst fears about Trump’s potential conflicts of interest expressed prior to his election were entirely justified.  Last year’s efforts by Michael Cohen to enrich himself based on his closeness to Trump pale in comparison to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Trump’s family is raking-in through the patriarch’s political position.  The dealings of the Trump Organization, now under the notional management of Trump’s two adult sons, but still owned by the President, are prime examples of the corrupt self-dealing enrichment evidently going on. The China and the Lido City project in Indonesia is a good example – Trump promising to save jobs in, wait for it, China, and disregarding his own administration’s concerns about cybersecurity lifting sanctions against ZTE in the process – and in apparent return, receiving Chinese financial backing for his next mega development in Indonesia.  

While Cohen is a relatively small player in this larger story, his activities give us a taste of Trump world, where opacity, money-laundering and self-dealing are second nature. It matches with everything we’ve learned about Trump’s business practices stretching back decades.  Even if the Trump boys are keeping a distance from financial deals with Russians or others from the former Soviet Union, there’s little reason to believe their general business practices have changed.  Indeed, there’s every reason to believe that government-aligned plutocrats are lining up to throw money at the Trumps in order to ingratiate themselves with the American President. 

Everything we’ve learned about the Trump children shows they are cut from the same transaction/ethical cloth as Donald Trump and Michael Cohen. When we see Cohen hitting up various corporations offering access to Trump, it’s easy to imagine either of his sons equally working the main chance.  Only they don’t have to hit anyone up. Everyone will come to them. The amounts of money are vastly higher than Cohen’s efforts turned-up: the opportunities for corrupt transactions are vastly greater and the scrutiny is dramatically constrained.  It’s simply impossible to do business while simultaneously directing various elements of government policy without getting into numerous situations which would at least have the appearance of self-dealing or conflicts of interest.  

And consider the following information from Foreign Policy.  Just days before the raids on his office and homes on April 9th, Michael Cohen was meeting with Qatar’s Minister of Economy and Commerce during the Qatar-U.S. Economic Forum in Miami.  Foreign Policy is careful to note that we don’t know what the two were discussing, but we do know that just after the 2016 election, Cohen hit up a top official with Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund for a $1 million retainer, which the official reportedly rejected.  This follows Jared Kushner’s lead last year on siding with the more conservative Gulf monarchies in ganging up on Qatar and instituting an economic and air blockade of the country. This came after earlier Kushner family efforts to obtain a bailout from Qatar for the family real estate empire were rejected. Since then Qatar has undertaken a massive effort to get right with Washington and get out of President Trump’s doghouse.  This has involved pledges of investment in the United States but also copious efforts to spread money around to Trump associates. Perhaps Cohen also tried to get money and failed: not surprising, as even though it was before the raids, he’d been in the news for a couple months tied to the Stormy Daniels story.  

We also learned this week that a Canadian-based real estate investment firm, Brookfield, which is mainly backed by the government of Qatar, has agreed to purchase the building on 666 5th Avenue which has been threatening to topple the Kushners into bankruptcy. This is the critical deal the Kushners have been angling for two years. They tried with the Russians, various Chinese backed entities, various governments in the Middle East. The key efforts around the time of the inauguration fell apart because they attracted too much press scrutiny; the investors got spooked.  No longer.

How much money the Trump family pockets off these deals isn’t the point so much as the fact that it is starting to seem commonplace that the President and his family extract significant inflows of wealth on numerous major foreign policy decisions.  Foreign entities are now offering personal enrichment opportunities to the Trumps in return for US government support/policy changes.  Key decisions are greased by personal opportunities for the Trumps.

Of course, no one should believe that the decisions made by previous US governments were never swayed by the hundreds of billions of dollars spent in lobbying, or that behind-the-scenes financial corruption has not also existed in the past.  But what is emerging in the Trump presidency, as was predicted and feared by many before the election, is the kind of personal enrichment corruption endemic to authoritarian regimes and very weak democracies.  

(Edit:  New revelations about the Trump insider lobbying here.)

And it is happening pretty much out in the open.

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