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Grifters to the left of me, Liars to the right


Lev Parnas is a crook and a liar; he played a non-trivial role in spreading the web of lies at the heart of the Orange Extortion scandal.

Marcy Wheeler writes that:

Over and over, we see Parnas feeding very well placed people links to (usually) frothy media stories, many of those stories based on false claims he is getting Ukrainians and others to tell. Parnas claims — a claim that is only partly true — that these stories are all about the Bidens, though he admits they are partly about 2016. As such, Parnas presents himself as creating, then magnifying, the stories that President Trump wants to tell. He has positioned himself to be a gatekeeper because he serves as translator for Rudy, who is mentally unstable and probably desperate for other reasons but also believes he’s pursuing stories that will help his ostensible client, Donald Trump, though Trump is not the one paying to have these stories told. But he’s also the translator for John Solomon. Parnas is the only one on the American side who can assess what kind of prices Rudy (and Victoria Toensing and Joe DiGenova) are paying to create these stories. Indeed, a key part of this economy involved removing the people — not just Marie Yovanovitch, but also Fiona Hill and Bill Taylor — who could warn about the costs being incurred along the way.

In short, for the last 18 months, Parnas has played a key part in creating the right wing echo chamber, one that — particularly because the addled Rudy is a trusted advisor — forms a key part of how Trump understands the world. One way Parnas did that was by recruiting Ukrainians who were, for very crass reasons, willing to tell Trump and the rest of the frothy right what they wanted to hear, even though it was assuredly not true.

Wheeler notes that we still don’t really understand what drives Parnas, and this should make us extremely cautious about any of his uncorroborated “revelations.”

Last night’s interview continued that grift, only he moved to spin an echo chamber for the left this time. He emphasized — and Maddow predictably responded — some of the key allegations Democrats most want to be true. Mike Pence is closely involved, Parnas revealed, and while nothing he revealed would amount to impeachable conduct, Democrats immediately latched onto the possibility it would be. Everyone was involved, Parnas confirmed, including Devin Nunes and Bill Barr. It was all about Biden, Parnas almost certainly lied.

In short, doing what he appears to be very good at, Parnas is telling us what we want to hear, whether true or not.

The last few decades have seen no shortage of liars and grifters in American politics. But by electing Donald Trump, we brought in a style of kleptocratic corruption to the highest levels of the government – one that Americans simply aren’t used to. In some ways, the saddest thing about this whole sordid story is that it turned the American government into a force for corruption in Ukraine, a country that desperately needs western help to improve its governance and the rule of law. It’s kind of what human-rights scholars call the “boomerang model“, but through a mirror darkly.

There’s a reason that people who studied post-Communist countries were some of the most vocal in their warnings about Trump; they’d seen this movie before.

Still, this isn’t just about Trump. The United States – along with a number of other advanced industrial democracies such as Germany, Sweden, and Denmark – has been facilitating kleptocracy for decades. We enable money laundering via a laxly regulated luxury real-estate market. Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming provide some of the least transparent jurisdictions when it comes to incorporating shell corporations.

As Franklin Foer argues, we’re looking at something much worse than accidentally importing post-Soviet politics. The United States has actively inserted itself into a global web of corruption.

The defining document of our era is the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. The ruling didn’t just legalize anonymous expenditures on political campaigns. It redefined our very idea of what constitutes corruption, limiting it to its most blatant forms: the bribe and the explicit quid pro quo. Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion crystallized an ever more prevalent ethos of indifference—the collective shrug in response to tax avoidance by the rich and by large corporations, the yawn that now greets the millions in dark money spent by invisible billionaires to influence elections.

In other words, the United States has legitimized a political economy of shadows, and it has done so right in step with a global boom in people hoping to escape into the shadows.

American collusion with kleptocracy comes at a terrible cost for the rest of the world. All of the stolen money, all of those evaded tax dollars sunk into Central Park penthouses and Nevada shell companies, might otherwise fund health care and infrastructure. (A report from the anti-poverty group One has argued that 3.6 million deaths each year can be attributed to this sort of resource siphoning.) Thievery tramples the possibilities of workable markets and credible democracy. It fuels suspicions that the whole idea of liberal capitalism is a hypocritical sham: While the world is plundered, self-righteous Americans get rich off their complicity with the crooks.

The Founders were concerned that venality would become standard procedure, and it has. Long before suspicion mounted about the loyalties of Donald Trump, large swaths of the American elite—lawyers, lobbyists, real-estate brokers, politicians in state capitals who enabled the creation of shell companies—had already proved themselves to be reliable servants of a rapacious global plutocracy. Richard Palmer was right: The looting elites of the former Soviet Union were far from rogue profiteers. They augured a kleptocratic habit that would soon become widespread. One bitter truth about the Russia scandal is that by the time Vladimir Putin attempted to influence the shape of our country, it was already bending in the direction of his.

At least we have an opportunity in 2020 to push a kleptocrat out of the White House. But when it comes to cleaning up the rot at home, we’re in for a long slog. When it comes to reforming the role of liberal economic order in promoting transnational corruption, we face an even more difficult battle.

PS: speaking of how vulnerability to scammers knows no political boundaries, let’s check in on Michael Avenatti.

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