Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–July 2020 Update

Over three years ago, in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here. As was true last month, there are relatively few new items this month, in part because other issues (especially but not exclusively the coronavirus pandemic) have dominated the news. And indeed most of the notable new issues related to concerns about corruption and conflicts-of-interest in the Trump Administration relate to the coronavirus response. For example concerns that the administration has been steering relief funds to companies connected to Trump and his allies have been exacerbated by the administration’s efforts to block oversight of how these funds are spent. For example, the Treasury Department refused to share information about beneficiaries of certain business relief programs, and the Small Business Administration (SBA) has also provided federal officials and their families with a blanket exemption from the conflict-of-interest review that would otherwise apply when business owned by these individuals apply for coronavirus relief funds administered by the SBA.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, 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.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–June 2020 Update

Over three years ago, in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here. There are not too many updates this month, perhaps because the news has been dominated by other matters, including the ongoing coronavirus/COVID-19 health emergency. As noted in last month’s updates, many of the most recent stories involving potential corruption or conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration involve the administration’s response to the pandemic. This month’s update, for example, notes concerns about financial conflicts of interests for the people the administration has tapped to lead the U.S. government effort to develop a vaccine, as well as further evidence that the administration’s reluctance to insist on rigorous social distancing may be influenced by the impact on Trump hotels.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, 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.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–May 2020 Update

Over three years ago, in May 2017, this blog started the project of tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most significant updates this month (as was also the case last month) concern the ways in which the financial interests of the Trump Organization may intersect with the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic. Although the main criticisms of the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic have focused on the administration’s delays, misinformation, and general incompetence, some critics have highlighted suggestive evidence that the personal business interests of President Trump, his family, and their close associates may be influencing the administration’s approach to the pandemic. Critics have pointed to the following concerns:

    • Resistance to stay-at-home orders: There is some suspicion that the Trump administration’s slow and equivocal response to the pandemic may have been influenced by President Trump’s desire to avoid hurting the hospitality industry, one of the Trump Organization’s major lines of business. Media reports suggest that President Trump pushed for an end to social distancing by mid-April in part because of the adverse effect social distancing has had on his own hotels and resorts, and although President Trump ultimately relented and extended the social distancing guidelines through at least the end of April, he renewed his push for states to lift their stay-at-home orders in mid-May, despite the fact that states had not hit any of the targets laid out in the federal government’s own guidance on when it would be safe to reopen the economy. The potential conflict of interest was highlighted by the fact that on May 10, President Trump retweeted an announcement from the Trump Organization’s golf club in LA that it would be re-opening, accompanied by President Trump’s declaration that it’s “great to see our Country starting to open up again.” Former hear of the Office of Government Ethics Walter Shaub characterized this tweet as “shameless, corrupt, and repugnant.”
    • Scope of travel ban: Critics highlighted the fact that the 30-day ban on travel from Europe that President Trump announced on March 11 initially excluded the United Kingdom and Ireland, where Trump owns hotels and golf courses, though a few days later the Administration extended the travel restrictions to cover both countries.
    • Access to economic relief funds: President Trump’s financial interests may have influenced the administration’s response to the pandemic’s economic costs. In early March 2020, President Trump mentioned the possibility of a bailout for the hotel industry, and later that month, as Congress and the administration were negotiating an economic relief package, President Trump refused to rule out the possibility that his personal properties would accept relief funds under this package. However, the bill that ultimately passed, known as the CARES Act, however, banned President Trump’s properties from receiving government support. Nevertheless, when signing the legislation, President Trump issued a statement that suggested his administration would not treat the portion of the legislation that requires the newly-created Inspector General to report to Congress without presidential approval as legally binding, a move that raises concerns about both transparency and compliance. Furthermore, despite the fact that the CARES Act bars businesses owned by President Trump or other government officials from receiving stimulus funding, the Trump administration has funneled COVID-19 small business loans to companies connected to Trump and his allies. Separately from CARES Act relief, the Trump Organization, which leases the Old Post Office Building in Washington D.C. from the General Services Administration (GSA) for the Trump International Hotel, has reportedly asked the GSA for relief from its rent payments, a request that highlights the inherent conflict of interest in the President’s family company renting a building from the federal government.
    • Promotion of particular COVID-19 tests and treatments. For several weeks, President Trump aggressively promoted hydroxychloroquine as a potential treatment for COVID-19. Hydroxychloroquine is produced by Sanofi, a French pharmaceutical company. Three Trump family trusts have small investments in Sanofi, major Republican donor Ken Fisher owns a majority stake, and Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross used to run a fund that invested in Sanofi. Rick Bright, the former head of the U.S. Government’s Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency, filed a whistleblower complaint alleging that he was pressured to give government contracts to political cronies, including to Aeolus Pharmaceuticals, a pharmaceutical company that produced hydroxychloroquine, because the company’s CEO was friends with President Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. Another troubling example is the Trump Administration’s selection of a firm called OSCAR Health—a company founded by Jared Kushner’s brother and formerly partially owned by Jared Kushner—to develop a website to facilitate coronavirus testing. (The website was developed but quickly scrapped, and in the end OSCAR Health was not paid for its efforts.)

 

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, 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.)

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–April 2020 Update

As regular readers of this blog are aware, since May 2017 we’ve been tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the most significant updates this month concern the ways in which the financial interests of the Trump Organization may intersect with the Trump Administration’s response to the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic In particular:

  • There is some suspicion that the Trump administration’s slow and equivoval response to the pandemic may have been influenced by President Trump’s desire to avoid hurting the hospitality industry, one of the Trump Organization’s major lines of business. Media reports suggest that President Trump pushed for an end to social distancing by mid-April in part because of the adverse effect social distancing has had on his own hotels and resorts.
  • Critics also highlighted the fact that the 30-day ban on travel from Europe that President Trump announced on March 11 initially excluded the United Kingdom and Ireland, where Trump owns hotels and golf courses, though a few days later the Administration extended the travel restrictions to cover both countries.
  • President Trump’s financial interests may also have influenced the administration’s response to the pandemic’s economic costs. In early March, President Trump mentioned the possibility of a bailout for the hotel industry, and later that month, as Congress and the administration were negotiating an economic relief package, President Trump refused to rule out the possibility that his personal properties would accept relief funds under this package. The stimulus as passed, however, banned President Trump’s properties from receiving government support.
  • The Trump Organization has substantial outstanding loans from Deutche Bank (estimated to be in the neighborhood of $350 million). The Organization has asked Deutsche Bank to delay payments on those loans given the economic distress caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Critics have noted that this creates an inherent and troubling conflict of interest, given the power that the President has to affect Deutsche Bank’s interests (especially since a number of federal investigations of Deutsche Bank are ongoing.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, 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.)

More Commentaries on Corruption and the Coronavirus Pandemic

Perhaps unsurprisingly, folks in the anticorruption community have started to generate a fair amount of commentary on the links between the coronavirus pandemic and corruption/anticorruption; these pieces approach the connection from various angles, including how corruption might have contributed to the outbreak and deficiencies in the response, the importance of ensuring adequate anticorruption safeguards in the various emergency measures being implemented to address both the public health crisis and the associated economic crisis, and concerns about the longer term impact on institutional integrity and checks and balances. Last week I posted links to four such commentaries. Since then, we’ve had two commentaries on the corruption-coronavirus relationship here on GAB (yesterday’s post from Sarah Steingrüber, and last week’s post from Shruti Shah and Alex Amico). Since then, I’ve come across some more, and I thought it would be useful to provide those additional links, and perhaps to try to start collecting in one place a list of commentaries on corruption and coronavirus. The new sources I’ve come across are as follows:

In case it’s helpful to readers, I may start to compile and regularly update a list of corruption-coronavirus resources. The ones I’ve got so far (including those noted above):

I’m sure there are more useful commentaries, and many more to come over the coming weeks. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to keep a comprehensive list, but I’ll do my best to provide links to the resources I’m aware of, so if you know of useful pieces on the corruption-coronavirus link, please send me a note.

Thanks everyone, and stay safe.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–March 2020 Update

As regular readers of this blog are aware, since May 2017 we’ve been tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, 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.)

The Independence of U.S. Law Enforcement is Under Attack. Here’s What Congress Can Do About It.

The politicization of the institutions of justice, particularly those associated with criminal law enforcement, is one of the greatest threats to the rule of law and the integrity of government. Corrupt leaders in democracies and autocracies alike seek to undermine any check on their power, thus ensuring impunity for themselves and their allies, and may also try to weaponize criminal investigations to harass and discredit political opponents. For many years, most Americans viewed this sort of threat to the integrity of the institutions of justice as something that only happened abroad, or in the distant past. Not so anymore. Under the Trump Administration, the corruption and politicization of law enforcement institutions is a significant threat to American democracy.

That President Trump lacks respect for the independence and integrity of law enforcement has been evident for some time, at least since Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. (Trump dismissed Comey in part to the FBI’s investigation into potential collusion between Trump’s campaign associates and Russia during the 2016 election, and in part because Comey wouldn’t pledge his personal loyalty to the president.) In the last month, the situation appears to be getting even worse. As has been widely reported in the media, President Trump publicly criticized the Department of Justice (DOJ) for seeking a high sentence in the case of Trump associate Roger Stone; Attorney General Bill Barr claimed that President Trump didn’t issue any specific instructions regarding the case (and complained about the President’s tweeting), but Barr nonetheless recommended a much lower sentence that the DOJ’s own prosecutors had originally requested. Barr recently made the highly unusual decision to install an outside prosecutor to oversee the case against President Trump’s former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn. In another troubling move that didn’t get as much press attention, in early February Barr issued a memo saying that any FBI investigations into 2020 candidates or their campaigns would require the Attorney General’s approval.

Trump has asserted that he had the legal right, as President, to intervene in criminal cases. This is a contested claim, to say the least. Some argue that, under the U.S. Constitution, the President has ultimate control not only over general DOJ policy, but over decision-making in individual criminal prosecutions. However, others assert that this is not so, and that the Constitution actually imposes certain limits the President’s control over individual prosecutions—most importantly, that the President cannot seek to affect a criminal case out of corrupt or self-interested motivations.

Putting the legal debate to one side for now, and assuming that Congress—if not now, then at some point in the future—would like to establish new safeguards to insulate the DOJ and FBI from the corrupting influence of an unscrupulous president, what might Congress do? I suggest three steps that Congress might take:

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Senator Warren’s Plan to Establish an Independent Task Force to Investigate Trump is a Bad, Bad Idea

Last month, Senator and Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren made a bold anticorruption commitment. She said that, if elected, she would direct the US Department of Justice to establish a special taskforce to investigate the Trump administration for violations of US anticorruption laws—including federal bribery laws, insider trading laws, and public integrity laws. She has has called on every other Democratic presidential candidate to do make the same commitment. Given the egregious corruption of the Trump administration, Senator Warren argues, a special taskforce of this kind is necessary if we are to “move forward to restore public confidence in government and deter future wrongdoing[.]”

Senator Warren—perhaps more than any other Democratic candidate—has put the fight against corruption (both narrowly and broadly defined) at the center of her campaign, and she has generated a range of proposals to combat corruption and strengthen the integrity of US political institutions. She has many good ideas. But this is not one of them. Regardless of whether members of the Trump Administration—including the President, his family members, and members of his cabinet—have engaged in illegal corrupt acts, forming a special DOJ taskforce along the lines proposed by Senator Warren would be a bad idea—bad for the Democratic party, bad for the DOJ, and, most importantly, bad for the United States.

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Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–February 2020 Update

As regular readers of this blog are aware, since May 2017 we’ve been tracking and cataloguing credible allegations that President Trump, and his family members and close associates, have been corruptly, and possibly illegally, leveraging the power of the presidency to enrich themselves. The newest update is now available here.

A previously noted, while we try to include only those allegations that appear credible, 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.)

How Much Should We Worry That Trump’s Top Economist Is “Looking Into” Weakening the FCPA?

As regular GAB readers have likely figured out, I’m not terribly good at providing timely “hot take” reactions to news items—I’m too slow and get too distracted with other things, and by the time I weigh in on some recent development that caught my eye, I’m usually a couple of news cycles behind. So it will be with this post. But I did want to say a bit about the mini-controversy over comments a couple weeks back from Larry Kudlow, the Director of the White House National Economic Council, about the Trump Administration’s views on the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). For those who might have missed the reports, here’s the basic gist:

A forthcoming book about the Trump Administration includes the story (which had already been reported multiple times) that back in 2017, President Trump had vigorously complained to then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson that the FCPA put U.S. companies at an unfair disadvantage and ought to be scrapped or drastically altered. (Tillerson, to his credit, pushed back, and no action was ultimately taken.) Several pre-release commentaries on the book focused on this anecdote (see here and here), and a couple weeks back a reporter asked Kudlow about it. Kudlow responded, “We are looking at [the FCPA], and we have heard some complaints from our companies…. I don’t want to say anything definitive policy-wise, but we are looking at it.” When pressed for details, Kudlow said, “I don’t want to say anything definitive policy-wise…. Let me wait until we get a better package [of reforms].”

Kudlow’s comments triggered a great deal of critical reaction, including statements supporting the FCPA from civil society organizations like Transparency International and the Coalition for Integrity. These statements were forceful but measured, mainly emphasizing the benefits of the FCPA. Some other media reactions were more impassioned, playing up the narrative that the Trump Administration was planning to push for the legalization of (foreign) bribery (see here and here). That latter strain in the commentary, in turn, provoked pushback from other analysts, who saw Kudlow’s remarks (and perhaps also the President’s own statements and actions in this area) as no big deal (see here and here).

My own take is somewhere in the middle. On the one hand, we shouldn’t exaggerate the significance of Kudlow’s remarks. But neither should we dismiss them as meaningless or harmless. Continue reading