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

Back 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 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–August 2020 Update

Back 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 has been true for the past couple of months, most of the newest items relate to the federal government’s response to the coronavirus pandemic, including further evidence that federal bailout money has flowed to businesses owned or closely connected to President Trump’s family and cronies, and White House pressure to include in the next coronavirus relief package an unrelated $1.75 billion for the renovation of the FBI headquarters building located across the street from Trump’s D.C. hotel. One item, though, actually concerns events that took place over two years ago, but were only disclosed this past month: Apparently the U.S. Ambassador to the United Kingdom, acting at President Trump’s request, tried (unsuccessfully) to use his influence to get the British Open held at Trump’s Scotland golf course.

As 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.)

Guest Post: The Coalition for Integrity’s New Report on How To Ensure Oversight of U.S. Coronavirus Response Funds

Today’s guest post is by Shruti Shah, the President and CEO of the Coalition for Integrity, a civil society advocacy organization focused on corruption in the United States.

The U.S. Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (the CARES Act), enacted in late March to address the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, provides over $2 trillion in various forms of relief, including over $600 billion for the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), which provides loans to small businesses, and approximately $500 billion in additional discretionary Treasury Department loans. To ensure appropriate allocation of these funds, and to reduce the risks of corruption, fraud, and other forms of misappropriation, transparency and oversight are essential. Indeed, we have already seen the perils of a lack of transparency in awarding the PPP loans. Instead of prioritizing businesses who were in danger of failing without an injection of cash, many large chains and other well-funded companies received loans. Further, there are reports that businesses owned by members of Congress received money under the program, which raises conflict of interest concerns.

Unfortunately, the Trump Administration has resisted even relatively modest measures to assure transparency and accountability in the allocation of CARES Act funds. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin previously announced that the names of PPP recipients would not be made public, making the misguided claim that the identity of PPP loan recipients is the companies’ confidential and proprietary information. But taxpayer have a right to know where their money is going (a principle the U.S. vigorously applies when sending foreign aid dollars overseas). Eventually Secretary Mnuchin relented to pressure to change course, and agreed to provide information regarding PPP loans in excess of $150,000. Yet the administration’s resistance to transparency and oversight has continued, as demonstrated by alarming reports that the Treasury Department’s Office of General Counsel has issued a legal opinion claiming that the Department has no obligation to provide key information to oversight officials, including the Pandemic Response Accountability Committee (PRAC), about the CARES Act’s PPP and discretionary business loan programs.

These reports underscore the importance of keeping up the pressure on Congress and the Administration to take appropriate steps to ensure genuine transparency and accountability in the allocation of pandemic response funds. Congress in particular may need to add new legal provisions to address the flaws in the oversight system. The Coalition for Integrity recently released a new report, entitled Oversight is Better than Hindsight: Anti-Corruption Recommendations for the CARES Act, which documents the current oversight gaps in the CARES Act and presents a set of recommendations on how best to close those gaps. These recommendations include, among others: increasing appropriations for oversight bodies, enacting for-cause removal protections for Inspectors General, enhancing whistleblower protections, requiring the Federal Reserve to comply with Sunshine’s Act meeting transcript or recording requirements, and appointing a chairperson to the Congressional Oversight Commission. The report also highlights a number of measures that the Administration can and should take, including better and more effective cooperation with the oversight bodies, creating a public-facing website with detailed information on contracts awarded under the stimulus program (as was done by the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board, which oversaw the stimulus funding enacted in response to the 2007-2008 financial crisis), and ensuring more generally that agencies are responsive rather than resistant to requests and recommendations from oversight bodies.

Effective oversight is not a partisan political issue. Misuse of stimulus money will compound the country’s collective misery at a time when millions are already suffering from the grave health and economic effects of the pandemic. In this context, insufficient public transparency and a lack of full cooperation with oversight bodies should worry us all.

 

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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