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Trump Change: Grift and Graft in the New Gilded Age

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Another day, another story about someone giving money to Trump in an effort to sway public policy. This time, according to the Washington Post, “a wealthy Iraqi sheikh named Nahro al-Kasnaza” who wanted the US to adopt a harder line on Iran “checked into the Trump International Hotel in Washington and spent 26 nights in a suite on the eighth floor — a visit estimated to have cost tens of thousands of dollars.” Of course, he denies that his choice of accommodations had anything to do with his political objectives. But that’s usually how this works.

Because contributing to Trump’s income might mean a meeting in the clubhouse or on the course, “Dozens of lobbyists, contractors and others who make their living influencing the government pay President Trump’s companies for membership in his private golf clubs….” Indeed, anticipating this kind of windfall, Mar-a-Lago doubled its fees in January of 2017.

Those hoping to sway policy aren’t the only ones making payments to Trump. Republican donors, whether rich or poor, are indirectly handing him cash via the RNC and the Trump campaign. And, of course, the US government is directly paying Trump money each time he visits his properties; Trump’s businesses have pointedly refused to charge taxpayers below the maximum allowable rate. Given Trump’s history of using shell companies to evade or avoid taxes, one has to wonder to what degree current disclosures understate his profits.

The rot extends further than Trump. I can’t recall as much cabinet-level corruption in any other post-war administration. Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund, via a Canadian company, singlehandedly bailed out the Kushners, who also received loans from at least one job-seeker and recently secured “$800 million in federally backed debt to buy apartments in Maryland and Virginia — the company’s biggest purchase in a decade.

The example of the Kushners is, I think, worth dwelling upon. Here we are dealing with, at the very least, the “appearance of impropriety.” It’s very hard to know if Qatar actually engineered the Kushner bailout; there’s a very good chance that no actual corruption occurred in the Berkadia and Jefferies Financial Group deal that produced the federally backed loans. But both examples underscore the corrosive effects that follow from government officials maintaining significant, unblinded business interests.

Such matters of “optics” and “appearances” inevitably remind me of the Clinton Foundation and its place in the 2016 campaign. Clinton’s opponents, aided and abetted by the news media, made all kinds of unfounded allegations about corruption involving the Clinton Foundation. None of these made a lot of sense. The Foundation was rebuffed when it asked for favors from the State Department. The Uranium One “scandal” depended upon willful ignorance about both the approval process and the economics of the uranium industry. David Sirota and Andrew Perez claimed to see a pattern involving donations to the Foundation and US arms sales, but a simple eyeballing of the data made clear that there was no relationship.

Nonetheless, the Obama Administration was rightfully concerned – on both political and ethical grounds – about how Clinton’s position as Secretary of State would intersect with the Foundation. As the late Senator Richard Lugar put the matter, “The core of problem is that foreign governments and entities may perceive the Clinton Foundation as a means to gain favor with the secretary of state” and the “Clinton Foundation exists as a temptation for any foreign entity that, or government that, believes it could curry favor through a donation. It also sets up potential perception problems.”

One reason, I think, that allegations about the Clinton Foundation carried weight is that Americans aren’t stupid. Nor are lobbyists and foreign governments. Nor is Hillary Clinton. Even though she doesn’t seem to have had the slightest disposition to treat the situation as an opportunity for quid pro quo arrangements, it is blindingly obvious that governments and individuals gave to the Foundation in the hope of currying favor and gaining preferential access. Even without any affirmative effort on her part, the very fact of Clinton’s position operated as leverage to encourage donations.

The thing is that, although it provided sinecures for Clinton allies, the Foundation is a charity. And it isn’t, like the Trump Foundation, a grift. The problems at stake with the Clinton Foundation are exponentially worse when it comes to Trump and his administration. Lobbyists, foreign governments, the RNC, and the Trump campaign are putting money directly into Trump’s pocket.

This bears emphasis: the Trump Organization is Donald Trump. It is a collection of business entities of which the president is the “sole or principal owner.” Practically every day is payolla day for the president. Every time Trump wants to visit his properties, he writes a check to himself from the US government. In many cases, none of this graft affects policy; the administration is already committed to advancing plutocracy. But it remains deeply corrupt, and deeply corrupting.

Trump’s first term has made crystal clear that Republican concern about many matters – such as the role of congress in overseeing the executive branch and best practices when it comes to securing classified information – extends only so far as partisan political considerations dictate. The same is obviously true of kleptocracy. However, just because the GOP couldn’t care less doesn’t mean that we need to normalize it.

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