Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–December 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. The December 2018 update is now available here.

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.

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–November 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. It looks like our approach is catching on, given that this past month the New York Times published a similar compendium (which the authors described as “the definitive list”) of Trump-related corruption and conflict-of-interest allegations. It’s not clear whether the NYT plans to regularly update this compendium–if they do, then we might wind down the Trump COI tracker here at GAB, given the NYT‘s much wider reach and greater resources. But for now, we’re going to keep plugging away with our monthly updates. The October 2018 update is now available here. The most notable additions since the previous update include:

  • Reports that Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke may have been involved in a shady property development deal that entails negotiations and transactions with parties connected to firms over which the Interior Department has regulatory authority.
  • Renewed and intensified concern about President Trump’s past and present business ties to Saudi Arabia, in light of the administration’s tepid response to the murder of Saudi journalist and U.S. resident Jamal Kashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Turkey, apparently by Saudi intelligence agents.
  • President Trump’s intercession with Japanese officials on behalf of his campaign donor and supporter Sheldon Adelson, in connection with the latter’s interest in a lucrative license to operate a casino in Japan.

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.

Is the U.S. Political System Characterized by “Legalized Corruption”? Some Tentative Concerns About a Common Rhetorical Strategy

Today is Election Day in the United States. It’s an important election (they all are, really), and I hope those of our readers who are eligible to vote in the United States will do so. But this post isn’t going to be about these U.S. elections specifically. Rather, I want to consider a question about the U.S. electoral system more generally: Is it accurate to describe the U.S. system as a one of “legalized corruption”? That is, do the campaign finance and lobbying rules in the United States amount to a system in which wealthy individuals and interest groups “purchase” favorable policy through what are effectively “bribes”—in the form of campaign contributions or support?

The use of the rhetoric of corruption and “legalized bribery” to describe the U.S. political system has been around for a while, and it seems to have become even more pronounced over the last few election cycles—perhaps galvanized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s controversial decision in the Citizens United case. (For examples, see here, here, here, and here.) I certainly understand, and indeed share, the underlying concerns about how the influence of concentrated economic wealth can distort the political process and tilt policy outcomes in a direction that favors the affluent. Yet I’ve felt increasingly ambivalent about the use of the language of “systemic corruption” or “legalized bribery” to describe the very real money-in-politics problem in the United States. There are three main reasons for my ambivalence. Continue reading

Giuliani’s Inappropriate Letter to Romania’s President Will Harm Anticorruption Efforts

Romania has long been considered one of the most corrupt countries in the European Union, but in recent years it has been making a concerted effort to bolster its fight against graft. Since 2013, Romania’s National Anticorruption Directorate (DNA), with the support of the ruling political parties, has been convicting roughly 1,000 people on corruption-related charges each year. However, once these anticorruption efforts began ensnaring high-level politicians—including Liviu Dragnea, the head of the biggest party in the Romanian Parliament—the government began to criticize the DNA’s work as biased, overzealous, and unfair. This conflict has been escalating, most dramatically in late 2017, when hundreds of thousands of Romanians took to the streets to protest an overnight decree that pardoned those serving sentences of five years or less for corruption-related crimes, and also decriminalized government officials’ corruption offenses involving less than $47,000 (raised to $240,000 in a later draft bill). The protests led to violent clashes with the police, who used tear gas and water cannons to disperse the crowds.

Adding to the turmoil, Rudolph Giuliani, former Mayor of New York City and current personal attorney of U.S. President Trump, recently wrote a letter to Romanian president Klaus Iohannis, condemning the overreach of the DNA and supporting the government’s efforts to curtail the DNA’s enforcement of anticorruption laws. Giuliani was paid to write the letter by the Freeh Group, a private American firm whose overseas clients include a Romanian businessman convicted for fraud last year, and another Romanian businessman currently under investigation by the DNA for bribery. Giuliani’s letter raises two distinct corruption-related problems. Continue reading

Lessons from the Trump Administration’s Conflicts of Interest

In May 2017, this blog began tracking corruption and conflicts of interest in the Trump Administration, in order to identify and document the myriad ways that the President, his family, and his closest advisors may “use the presidency to advance their personal financial interests.” This includes payments directly from the U.S. government to the Trump Organization (e.g. the Secret Service renting out space in the Trump Tower); use of the presidency to promote Trump brands (e.g. numerous Republican re-election campaigns held in Trump owned businesses); regulatory and policy decisions that benefit the Trump family and close advisors (e.g. the General Services Administration approving a lease for the Trump International Hotel); and private and foreign interests dealing with Trump businesses (e.g. Trump hotel, resort, and other development projects around the world). Keeping track of all these various conflict and corruption risks is important at a time when the news of yesterday gets drowned out and forgotten amid the drama of today.

After working for over a year as one of several contributors to this tracking project, I think that there are also some broader lessons and themes that have emerged from these efforts, which are worth highlighting:

Continue reading

Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–October 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. After a lapse of a few months during this past summer, we’re again updating the tracker on a monthly basis. The October 2018 update is now available here. Notable additions since the previous update include:

  • Reports that Trump’s Bedminster Golf Club offered discounts to President Trump’s White House staff on branded golf club merchandise, apparently to encourage White House staff to wear Bedminster apparel as a way of promoting the resort and the brand.
  • Reports that President Trump has been personally involved in plans regarding the construction of a new FBI headquarters, including suspicions that President Trump may have interceded to ensure that the new headquarters would be built at the same location as the current headquarters, across the street from the Trump International Hotel, rather than at a larger and more secure location in the suburbs, because the Trump hotel benefits financially from its proximity to FBI headquarters.
  • Reports that administration officials with financial or processional ties to the steel industry have been exercising their influence to deny tariff exclusions to companies applying for such exclusions under Trump’s new steel tariffs.

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.

Will Brazilians Elect Their Own Donald Trump?

Will Brazil get its own Donald Trump? Brazil’s next election is right around the corner (the campaign starts August 16, and first round elections are October 2) but currently Jair Bolsonaro—a right wing, pro-gun rights, anti-gay firebrand who has proudly branded himself the “next Donald Trump”—is polling first among eligible candidates, trailing only former president Lula Inácio de Silva—who as of now is not actually allowed to run due to his conviction on corruption charges—and the “null option” (that is, none-of-the-above). What explains Bolsonaro’s appeal? In large part, the issue of corruption. Revelations of graft and bribery have continued to pile up in Brazil over the last few years—most notably (though not exclusively) in connection with the so-called Car Wash investigation of corruption in Brazil’s state-owned oil company, which may have involved upwards of $5 billion in stolen public funds. These corruption scandals have already led to the impeachment and removal of former President Dilma Rousseff, criminal charges against the current President Michel Temer, and the conviction and imprisonment of former President Lula. Given all this, it’s little wonder that in a recent poll, corruption was ranked as the most important issue for 62% of Brazilian citizens.

Much as Donald Trump pledged to “drain the swamp,” Bolsonaro has centered his campaign on the issue of corruption. He asserts that he is the only candidate in the election who has not engaged in some form of corruption or white collar crime. Of the five major presidential candidates, he’s the only one who is not either from a major party that has been mired in a recent corruption scandal, or been part of a coalition with one of those tainted parties. (Bolsonaro’s party, the PSL (Social Liberal Party) is small, barely present at the national level, and he is advertising his status as a political outsider as one of his appeals.) Thus Bolsonaro has presented himself as the only candidate who will usher in a new, less corrupt era for Brazil.

This places some Brazilian voters who care deeply about corruption in a difficult situation. Many Brazilians may feel like their only alternative to perpetuating a corrupt system is to take a gamble on a disruptive figure like Bolsonaro. Indeed, at a recent campaign event, supporters cited his aggressive anticorruption and anti-crime stances as the principal reasons why they were planning to vote for him. Diehard supporters aside, it’s possible that some Brazilian voters who are not totally comfortable with Bolsonaro might nevertheless be swayed by his outsider persona and his aggressive attacks on Brazil’s current political class. For those who have followed U.S. politics over the past few years, this probably sounds disturbingly familiar—and indeed seems to fit into a now-recognizable pattern, also manifested in the Philippines’ 2016 election of populist, zero-tolerance Duterte. It’s precisely that similarity that should, and I hope will, give these on-the-fence Brazilian voters pause. Continue reading