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Trump told us exactly who he was

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Today CNN released a video footage of Donald Trump having dinner with some of the key players implicated in the latest iteration of the Trump-Russia collusion scandal.

The video shows the future President Donald Trump attending a dinner with an Azerbaijani-Russian family who became Trump’s business partners in Las Vegas in June 2013. It also shows their publicist, Rob Goldstone, who would later send Donald Trump Jr. the emails that have brought the eldest Trump son to the center of the controversy over possible collusion between Trump campaign associates and Russia.

It concludes:

Scott Balber, an attorney for the Agalarovs, also did not deny the closeness of the relationship between the Trumps and Agalarovs, instead raising a question about Goldstone’s credibility.

It’s simply fiction that this was some effort to create a conduit for information from the Russian federal prosecutors to the Trump campaign,” Balber said on CNN’s “New Day.” “It’s just fantasy world because the reality is if there was something important that Mr. Agalarov wanted to communicate to the Trump campaign, I suspect he could have called Mr. Trump directly as opposed to having his son’s pop music publicist be the intermediary.”

The video complicates, but does not actually disprove, Donald Jr.’s characterization of his relationship with Goldstone. But it is a graphic reminder of a basic fact: the GOP nominated, and then America elected, a shady, corrupt, marginally capable businessman for President of the United States.

Much of Trump’s career played out amongst mafia ties. It involved, at best, skirting the law, and rampant acts of legal and quasi-legal fraud. He wasn’t very good at it either. So when he went bankrupt and his dad’s money was no longer available to bail him out, he turned increasingly to corrupt, shady oligarchs in places like the former Soviet Union. This is a world of money laundering, rampant bribery, and collusion with kleptocratic government officials.

The thing is, Trump basically told us that he was corrupt. Repeatedly. It was part of his pitch for how he was an outsider with the inside knowledge to clean up “the swamp.”

Of course, it was pretty obvious to anyone not blinded by partisanship or Clinton-rage that Trump wouldn’t clean up Washington—that Trump would bring more, not less, corruption to the White House. Still, I think it is difficult for many Americans to wrap their minds around—or even really conceive of—the kinds of business practices and dealings Trump brings with him. My offline and online friends include many academics, journalists, and researchers with deep knowledge of the former Soviet Union, as well as other deeply corrupt parts of the world. They recognized Trump’s type, and what that implied for the United States.

I should try to put this in perspective. The United States suffers its share of corruption these days, especially in certain sectors in specific places. Yes, the political system is rigged in favor of the wealthy. Large donors get special influence in Washington. The United States has its share of corruption scandals large and small. But, generally speaking, Americans don’t have to pay bribes for normal, everyday transactions with the government or in the private sector. You can give loads of money to Harvard in exchange for admitting your under-qualified son, but that’s not how most people get into college.

Hilary Clinton’s speaking fees damaged her candidacy, but more through the impression that they ‘must have been after something’, when that something was likely, at worst, a bit of access. Whether in this context, or that of the Clinton Foundation, critics had to drum up an enormous amount of noise, and sometimes outright disinformation, to even create the sense of a possible quid pro quo. In many of the areas of the world that Trump and his clan scramble for money, and the circles they run in, such deals would be very well, and just the way that things are done.

In other words, Trump was already, by American standards, not exactly an ethical businessman. But then he plugged himself into an international web of financial crime, kleptocracy, and corruption. The campaign was full of people who shared those networks—or even spent a lot of time trying to break into them. Trump’s campaign wasn’t a magnet for these sorts because it lacked experience and because  the GOP policy bench shunned it, although that certainly contributed. It attracted them because they were in the same extended networks, and because the people at the heart of the campaign—most notably Trump himself—were cut from the same cloth.

So, in a sense, I’d like to believe that part of the problem is that most Americans simply lack any reference point. They think Washington is corrupt, but they have no idea what real kleptocracy actually looks like. And, every day, the Trump Administration further effaces the lines between governance and personal enrichment.

Even if Trump-Russia collusion amounted to nothing more than #fakenews, this is a hell of a lot of damage that Trump’s enablers in the right-wing media and in congress are inflicting upon the United States. It’s also the broader context for understanding what’s actually at stake when Ivanka Trump sits in for her father.

But, ultimately, we can’t separate this facet of Trumpism from the Russia collusion story. For one thing, the overtures and connections flowed from, and through, the business networks. For another, all of this—from Trump’s public statements about Russia during the campaign, to his firing of Comey, to his contempt for democratic norms and a free press—come from the same mentality.

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