Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–June 2018 Update

Since May 2017, GAB has been tracking credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests, and providing monthly updates on media reports of such issues. Our June 2018 update is now available here. The most troubling new items included in this update are the following:

  • First, there is evidence suggesting that the Chinese government may have provided financial benefits to Trump-affiliated businesses in order to influence the President to take steps to lift sanctions on ZTE, a Chinese telecommunications company that has been sanctioned by the U.S. government for illegally transferring U.S. high-technology components to Iran and North Korea. In particular, shortly before President Trump announced that his administration would seek to lift the sanctions on ZTE, a Chinese state-owned company had provided a $500 million loan for a Trump Organization development project in Indonesia, and around the same time the Chinese government had granted several trademarks to Ivanka Trump’s company.
  • Second, investigations of Trump’s personal attorney Michael Cohen have revealed that Cohen’s consulting company, which he formed shortly before the election, had received substantial payments from several clients, including a firm closely tied to a Russian Oligarch, as well as several large firms with strong interests in pending U.S. government decisions (including AT&T and Novartis). It is not clear what, if any, consulting services Mr. Cohen’s firm provided, nor is it clear what happened to the money that the firm received from these corporate clients, raising the possibility that the firm may have been a “slush fund” for Trump, or, worse, as a means for funneling bribes to Trump or his close associates in exchange for favorable policy decisions. At this point, this is all speculation, though more information may become available as the investigations into Cohen’s activities proceeds.

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

Getting the Right People on the Global Magnitsky Sanctions List: A How-To Guide for Civil Society

Last December, pursuant to the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act, President Trump issued Executive Order 13818, which declared that “the prevalence and severity of human rights abuse and corruption that have their source, in whole or in substantial part, outside the United States … threaten the stability of international political and economic systems,” and authorized the Treasury Secretary to impose sanctions against (among other possible targets) a current or former government official “who is responsible for or complicit in, or has directly or indirectly engaged in: (1) corruption, including the misappropriation of state assets, the expropriation of private assets for personal gain, corruption related to government contracts or the extraction of natural resources, or bribery; or (2) the transfer or the facilitation of the transfer of the proceeds of corruption.” Pursuant to this Executive Order, the Treasury Department imposed powerful economic sanctions against 37 entities and 15 individuals, including Chechen warlord Ramzan Kadyrov, Israeli billionaire Dan Gertler, and Artem Chaika, the son of Russia’s Prosecutor General.

This was big news, for a couple of reasons. Most obviously, Trump doesn’t exactly have a reputation as a “human rights guy,” let alone a Russia hawk. Given that the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (unlike its predecessor, the 2009 Magnitsky Act) enables but does not require the imposition of sanctions, it was far from inevitable that the Trump Administration would make use of it. Perhaps just as newsworthy was where the specific names on the list came from: nearly half of those names were provided to the Administration by civil society organizations (CSOs) or by Congress (and in the latter case, it was likely CSO efforts that brought individual names to the attention of Congressional staffers).

The Global Magnitsky Act and EO 13818, then, seem to create promising opportunities for anticorruption CSOs to impose consequences on kleptocrats and their cronies. Because the process is so new, it’s not yet clear how it will develop, yet it is nevertheless useful to draw lessons from the first round of Global Magnitsky sanctions for how CSOs can be maximally effective in using this new tool. The Committee on Security and Cooperation in Europe (also known as the Helsinki Commission) hosted a workshop in early March 2018 to discuss this issue. I was fortunate enough to attend this gathering, and in this post I’ve attempted to distill a handful of key lessons that the participants discussion identified. I’ve framed the lessons as a “how-to” guide addressed to members of a hypothetical anticorruption CSO: that would like to take advantage of this powerful tool.

Continue reading

Is Trump Administration Corruption a Winning Issue for Democrats this November?

The corruption of the Trump administration is bad news for the United States—will it also prove to be bad news (politically) for Trump’s Republican Party allies? A number of astute political commentators have recently argued that the answer is yes. Most notably, Jonathan Chait published an article last week making the case that “corruption … is Trump’s greatest political liability,” and that even though Trump himself is not on the ballot in the 2018 midterm elections, it would be wise politics for the Democrats to focus on the corruption of the Trump administration in their quest to retake one or both chambers of Congress.

Chait notes, as an initial matter, that despite Trump’s historic unpopularity, Democrats face two interrelated challenges: First, there’s just so much negative news about Trump—from the Russia investigation to his racism and misogyny to the lurid revelations regarding his crude attempts to cover up an affair with an adult film actress—that it’s hard to focus on any one thing. Second, and more importantly, the majority of Trump’s supporters already knew back when they voted for him that he was a crass, crude, adulterous bully and bigot–which means that pointing out his infidelity, his bullying, and his bigotry now isn’t likely to have much impact. (The Russia investigation is another matter, but Chait suggest that it’s too abstract and complex for most voters.) Corruption, according to Chait, is the one story that could move the needle, even with Trump supporters. Chait’s reasoning (presented in a somewhat different order from his original article) runs as follows: Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–April 2018 Update

Last May, we launched our project to track credible allegations that President Trump, as well as his family members and close associates, are seeking to use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.Just as President Trump’s son Eric will be providing President Trump with “quarterly” updates on the Trump Organization’s business affairs, we will do our best to provide readers with regular updates on credible allegations of presidential profiteering (despite the fact that Eric Trump seems to think this is a violation of his family’s First Amendment rights). Our April 2018 update is now available here.

There are not too many new items in this month’s update, though there have been some additional stories on Jared Kushner’s potential conflicts of interest, most notably concerns raised about his White House meetings last year with representatives of financial institutions that subsequently provided substantial loans to Kushner family companies. There was also another example of mostly trivial but blatantly improper use of the presidency as a marketing tool, with Trump Organization golf courses ordering tee markers with the presidential seal, in clear violation of a law forbidding such private, non-official uses of the seal. (The tracker doesn’t include a discussion of allegations that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt received a below-market-rate apartment from an industry lobbyist, as this seemed sufficiently removed from issues related to the personal enrichment of Trump’s family and inner circle, but Rick has a good discussion of the ethics issues raised by the Pruitt situation in yesterday’s post.)

As always, we note that while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations that we discuss are speculative and/or contested. We also do not attempt a full analysis of the laws and regulations that may or may not have been broken if the allegations are true. For an overview of some of the relevant federal laws and regulations that might apply to some of the alleged problematic conduct, see here.

An Encouraging, Albeit Limited, Development in the Emoluments Clause Litigation Against Donald Trump

Sometimes it feels great to have been wrong. Last week, a United States District Judge ruled that a lawsuit brought by the District of Columbia and the State of Maryland against Donald Trump for alleged violations of the Constitution’s Foreign and Domestic Emoluments Clauses could go forward (at least for now). More specifically, the judge rejected President Trump’s argument that the plaintiffs lacked “standing,” as well as various related but distinct challenges to the court’s jurisdiction to hear the case.

When the first Emoluments Clause suits were filed against Trump (three have been brought so far, in different courts by different plaintiffs), I was one of many commentators who predicted that the cases would be dismissed on jurisdictional grounds. That prediction seemed borne out when the first of these cases, brought by the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) was dismissed on jurisdictional grounds last December. While some of the legal reasoning of that decision was questionable, I’d assumed that other courts would follow suit, on the logic that most judges would want to avoid having to decide these cases on the merits, and the jurisdictional doctrines are sufficiently malleable that a competent judge would be able to write a defensible opinion dismissing the cases for want of jurisdiction. (Initially I also fretted that a jurisdictional dismissal could be exploited by Trump and his allies to imply that the courts had rejected the merits of the argument that Trump’s mixture of his business affairs and his public office crosses a constitutional line, but on further reflection I now tend to think no development in these cases short of a Supreme Court ruling on the merits—and possibly not even that—would have a measurable impact on public opinion.) So it came as a welcome surprise that the ruling last week held that the Emoluments Clause suit can proceed.

There’s already been a fair bit of coverage of the ruling (see, for example, here, here, here, and here), and I’m not sure if I have that much to add, but since I’ve been commenting fairly regularly on developments in the Emoluments Clause cases, I’ll make a few additional observations: Continue reading

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act: Corruption by Another Name? Or Just Ordinary Law-Making?

Last December, the U.S. Congress passed, and President Trump signed, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act. The debate over this law—characterized as the most “consequential tax legislation in three decades”—and the reaction to its passage was polarized and acrimonious. This is usually the case with tax debates, perhaps especially in the U.S. What was more notable and less typical, though, was the extent to which critics of the Act used the language of corruption to characterize both the Act’s substance and the process through which it was passed. (See here, here, here, and here). For example:

  • At several stages of the process, the votes of key Republican Senators seem to have been secured (some might say “purchased”) with special provisions. In fact, Texas Senator John Cornyn, the majority whip, openly admitted that provisions designed to appeal to individual Republican Senators were included in the final bill in an effort to “cobble together the votes we needed to get this bill passed.” That by itself may not be so unusual, even though many would find it distasteful. But in some cases, the special provisions were not only ones that these Senators favored on ideological grounds, or that would benefit their constituents (and hence the Senators’ re-election hopes); these special provisions also provided substantial personal financial benefits to the holdout Senators. For example, Wisconsin senator Ron Johnson was the first Republican to oppose the bill, on the basis that it would double the gap between corporate tax rates and the rates applicable to individuals receiving income from “pass-through entities”. Ultimately, the bill was amended to accommodate Senator Johnson’s concern by incorporating a 20% tax deduction for such entities. As it happens, Senator Johnson himself has millions of dollars invested in four such entities. Or consider Tennessee Senator Bob Corker, a critic of early versions of the bill who had asserted that he would not approve of adding even “one penny” to the “rapidly growing national debt.” Yet Corker ended up voting for a revised version of the bill that would add over $1 trillion to the deficit. What accounts for the change of heart? Critics point to the fact that the revised bill also included a new tax break that would increase Senator Corker’s personal income by up to $1.2 million every year (dubbed the #CorkerKickback on Twitter). Senator Corker claimed ignorance of how the bill would personally benefit him, though the fact that he reportedly earned a total of more than $8 million of income from the entities that were granted the tax break make this ignorance highly unlikely.
  • And then there’s President Trump. The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act could reduce President Trump’s personal tax bill by tens of millions of dollars. President Trump reportedly earned between $41 million and $68 million of income from 25 pass-through entities (which were granted the new tax break which also benefited Corker). He has not divested, in any meaningful way, from his investments. He has also refused to release his taxes on the pretext that he cannot do so as he is under audit, even though no such rule exists. The passage of a tax bill that confers such enormous benefits on the President seems to many like a form of “legalized corruption.”
  • In addition, Republican Party leaders admitted that passing the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act was necessary to ensure that the party continued to receive funding from its donors, who stood to gain millions of dollars in tax breaks—another quid pro quo of sorts. Indeed, the Republican Party has been unabashedly open about this, with Senator Lindsay Graham stating that if the party failed to push the tax bill through, “financial contributions will stop,” and Congressman Chris Collins justifying his support for the unpopular bill on the grounds that his “donors [were] basically saying, ‘Get this done or don’t ever call me again’.” That may not meet the legal definition of corruption in the United States, but to many voters and commentators it certainly seems corrupt.

Is “corruption” the right way to characterize the unsavory politics of the tax bill? Continue reading

Corruption in the Trump Administration: A Discussion on “The Scholars’ Circle”

As readers of this blog are well aware, we’ve had quite a bit of discussion here regarding concerns about corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration (including our regularly-updated page that tracks credible allegations of such corruption and conflicts). I recently had the opportunity to participate in a discussion of these issues on “The Scholars’ Circle,” a radio program hosted by Maria Armoudian (and to which I’ve had the opportunity to contribute once before). I was joined for the panel by Professor Richard Gordon, an expert in money laundering who directs the Case Western Financial Integrity Institute. A recording of the program can be found here. Some highlights of the discussion:

  • We started with an overview of the various kinds of allegations of corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration—basically, an oral summary of some of the highlights of our Trump Corruption Tracker (from about 1:30 to about 7:55 on the recording of the broadcast).
  • Professor Gordon followed up on this by providing an overview of money laundering allegations against Trump associates and Trump businesses, principally before the election, which prompted some back-and-forth discussion of these issues (7:56-17:30).
  • We then proceeded to discuss what Ms. Armoudian called the “So What?” question: Why these issues are important, and what their larger adverse consequences might be (17:30-22:32).
  • This was followed by some consideration of why the allegations of corruption and associated misbehavior don’t appear to bother President Trump’s supporters, and what, if anything, might prompt them to care more about these issues (22:33-28:56).
  • Ms. Armoundian then posed the provocative question of whether the Trump administration might portend the a more general spread of the “culture of corruption” throughout American politics and society, along with the erosion of rule-of-law norms and values—making U.S. politics resemble more closely what we’ve seen in other countries, such as Kenya, Brazil, South Africa, Italy, etc. (29:54-42:23).
  • The discussion then turned to the broader question of the problems of American democracy and political institutions that allowed Trump to win both the nomination and the general election, and whether Trump an aberration or sign of things to come (42:24-49:14).
  • Ms. Armoudian concluded the conversation by asking about what, if anything can be done to preserve the traditional norms and values of American political institutions and to prevent a slide into a culture of corruption in the United States. This part of the conversation went well beyond corruption, and touched on the importance of making sure, more generally, that political institutions work, and are perceived as working, as well as trying to cultivate a health political culture (49:15-56:28).

I hope the discussion may be of interest to some of our readers out there.