Tracking Corruption and Conflicts of Interest in the Trump Administration–June 2017 Update

Last month, we announced the launch of 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. Our June update is now available here.

Highlights from the new material include:

  • Federal government agencies promoting Ivanka Trump’s book
  • Trump advisors and confidants Carl Icahn and Rupert Murdoch allegedly influencing administration decisions in ways that benefit their financial interests
  • Efforts by Jared Kushner’s sister to attract Chinese investors to a family company project by touting her son’s role as senior advisor to the President
  • Allegations that Jared Kushner and the chairman of a Russian state-owned development bank may have discussed the possibility of a loan to the Kushner family business in exchange for relaxation of U.S. government sanctions on Ukraine
  • Substantial payments by state government pension funds to entities affiliated with Trump Organization businesses.

(Note: While we try to sift through the media reports to include only those allegations that appear credible, we acknowledge that many of the allegations discussed 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.

 

Jared Kushner May Have Violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act

Recent media reports – which would be even more sensational if we weren’t getting so desensitized to Trump-related scandals – indicate that prior to Trump’s inauguration, his son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner had private meetings with Russian government officials, including both Ambassador Sergey Kislyak and Sergey Gorkov, the head of a Russian state-owned bank (and a close associate of Vladamir Putin). We still don’t know (and may never know) the precise contents of the meeting, but based on circumstantial evidence, several of the media reports discuss speculations Kushner and his Russian government contacts discussed the possibility of extending financing to business ventures owned by Kushner or his family (including, most notably, a financially struggling office building at 666 Fifth Avenue in Manhattan), if Kushner would help to persuade his father-in-law, the President-Elect of the United States, to lift the sanctions that the U.S. had imposed on Russia for its military intervention in Ukraine.

Again, we don’t yet know whether this is true. But let’s suppose for a moment that some version of that story is approximately correct: that during conversations with Russian government officials, Jared Kushner proposed or endorsed the idea that he would try to persuade his father-in-law to lift the Russia sanctions, and that Kushner did so because he believed (or was told) that if he did, a Russian state-owned development bank would provide valuable financing for his family’s business.

If that’s what occurred, then even nothing further came of these discussions, then there’s a very good argument that Jared Kushner committed a criminal violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA). Though there’s been quite a bit of discussion in the reports so far about various federal laws that Kushner may or may not have been broken in connection with these meetings (such as the little-used Logan Act, which prohibits private citizens from interfering with U.S. diplomacy). But I haven’t seem much discussion of the FCPA angle. So even though it might still seem unrealistic to imagine that FCPA charges will be brought, let me elaborate a bit on why I think there’s a plausible case for an FCPA violation here, if the evidence supports the characterization of the meetings sketched above: Continue reading

Guest Post: Trump’s Pledge To Enforce the Global Magnitsky Act–A Skeptical View

Ilya Zaslavskiy, a research expert with the Free Russia Foundation, contributes today’s guest post:

Earlier this month the White House sent a letter to Congress pledging a commitment to the “robust and thorough enforcement” of the 2016 Global Magnitsky Act (GMA). The GMA, which grew out of a similar 2012 law that focused only on Russia, allows the executive branch to impose certain sanctions—including visa bans and freezing of U.S. assets—on any foreign citizen who commits gross human rights violations or who retaliates against whistleblowers who expose corruption. After Trump won the election, many feared that his administration would shelve meaningful enforcement of the GMA. (After all, the Obama Administration had also been reluctant to implement the original Magnitsky Act aggressively, and did so only under pressure from Congress.) In light of those low expectations, the White House’s statement was taken by many as an encouraging sign.

But many activists and NGOs fighting corruption, in Putin’s Russia and elsewhere, remain rightly skeptical. After all, Trump’s praise and upbeat rhetoric about corrupt authoritarian leaders—not only Putin, but President Erdogan or Turkey and President Duterte of the Philippines—naturally call into question the Administration’s seriousness about aggressive GMA enforcement. Consider further the fact that, despite the overwhelming evidence coming out of Chechnya that its president Ramzan Kadyrov has authorized massive abuses against the LGBT community and opened what is amounting to prisons for gays, there are no signs that the Trump Administration is considering adding Kadyrov to any open sanctions lists, despite not only recent events, but his long track record of corruption and human rights abuses.

Moreover, the White House’s statement in support of the GMA might be an attempt to create the appearance of taking a firm stand against corruption and human rights abuses, to diminish political momentum for more consequential actions. Specifically in regard to Russia, the latest statement about the GMA should also be understood in the context of the broader scandal regarding the Trump team’s ties to Russia. This scandal has, if anything, intensified anti-Russian sentiment in Congress. Not only have leading Senators and Representatives come out in strong support of sustaining existing sanctions against Russia, but there are now a half-dozen initiatives under consideration in Congress that would both codify and expand these sanctions. In such context, it might actually be useful to Trump (and arguably his Russian friends) to appear to be taking firm measures against Russia and other kleptocrats, while resisting adoption or implementation of more meaningful responses. The recent White House statement pledging robust enforcement of the GMA fits that narrative. After all, rhetoric aside, neither the original Magnitsky Act nor the GMA create more than a small headache for Trump and Russians. Only few really high level names have been sanctioned under those initiatives. Financial sanctions (particularly restrictions on long-term loans) are what matters for the Kremlin most. Indeed, Russian leadership might even be happy to have the Magnitsky laws in place if those restrictions are relaxed.

 

The Trump Legacy: A Gladstonian Finale?

For a man whose biographer describes him as obsessed “with protecting his image,” President Donald Trump seems oblivious to how flouting conflict of interest norms is blackening that image.  Perhaps he thinks that the criticisms leveled (examples from GAB: here and here, major media: here, here, and here) are just the carpings of Clinton supporters that will fade over time. And that his presidential accomplishments will overshadow whatever he may do to grow the Trump patrimony while holding the office.

He might want to consider how conflict of interest charges have sullied the image of one of Britain’s finest leaders since he left office 123 years ago.  So great has the fuss been that that no biographer, no matter how sympathetic, and no history of 19th century Britain can ignore the charges. Continue reading

Is It a Crime To Promise To Support a Legislator Who Votes the Way You Want?

Last March, while President Trump and House Speaker Paul Ryan were trying—ultimately unsuccessfully—to muster enough votes for the first version of their proposed Obamacare replacement, the American Health Care Act (AHCA), the Koch brothers’ political organizations announced that they would set up a fund to provide substantial campaign support to all Republicans who voted against the AHCA (which the Koch brothers opposed on the grounds that it didn’t go far enough in repealing the health insurance expansions brought about by the Obamacare). Stripped to its essence, the Koch brothers said to Republican House Representatives: “If you vote the way we want on this bill, we’ll donate (more) money to your campaigns; if you don’t, we won’t.”

Was that offer a violation of the federal anti-bribery statute? In a provocative essay, Louisiana State University Law Professor Ken Levy says yes, it was. Professor Levy reasons as follows: The anti-bribery statute, codified at 18 USC § 201(b), prohibits any person from “giv[ing], offer[ing] or promis[ing] anything of value to any public official … with intent to influence any official act.” The Koch brothers certainly “offered” or “promised” campaign donations, and campaign donations indubitably count as a “thing of value.” Moreover, the Koch brothers made this promise in order to influence a vote in the legislature, clearly an official act. Moreover, as Professor Levy points out, although many people seem to think that the Supreme Court has ruled that providing campaign donations in exchange for votes is constitutionally protected, in fact the Court has held the opposite: promising campaign donations in exchange for an “official act” does qualify as an unlawful bribe, so long as there’s a quid pro quo; in the absence of a quid pro quo, Congress’s power to regulate campaign donations or expenditures is more limited. Thus, all the elements of a §201(b) violation are present, and at least in principle, the Koch brothers could be prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced to a prison term of up to 15 years and/or a fine of up to three times the value of the thing of value offered (which this case could run into the tens of millions of dollars).

Professor Levy’s legal analysis seems, at least on a first reading, to be correct. At the same time, I find it unthinkable that any federal prosecutor—not just Jeff Sessions, but even someone like Preet Bharara—would bring criminal charges in this case, or that any judge would allow a conviction to stand. Professor Levy’s provocative essay has forced me to think a bit harder about why that is. The fact that I can’t imagine a federal bribery case could or should be brought against the Koch brothers for their announced campaign support plan, despite the fact that the conduct seems clearly to violate the letter of the law, suggests that something has gone seriously awry with how U.S. law, and U.S. political culture, think about the relationship between campaign donations, political speech, and criminal bribery. Continue reading

Post-TPP Withdrawal: Loss of a Trade-Corruption Milestone?

As promised, President Trump removed the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement soon after he took office in January. The move withdrew the world’s leading economy from the largest regional trade deal ever proposed. It also represented a major step back from what looked like a breakthrough in linking anticorruption and trade. As I discussed in a previous post, the TPP’s anticorruption chapter was an important step towards inclusion of anticorruption commitments in trade deals, making the U.S. withdrawal from the TPP a step backwards for the decades-old movement to incorporate anticorruption provisions in trade agreements.

Yet Trump’s move was not the end of the TPP negotiations. Nor should it be the end of championing an increased role for anticorruption and transparency in trade deals. With the TPP having reached the final stages of negotiation, its Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter can provide an outline for future trade deals that might provide further opportunities for trade-corruption linkage. As outlined in a previous post, the TPP’s chapter on anticorruption made several strides forward, including obligations to join UNCAC and respect other anticorruption instruments. What’s more, the anticorruption provisions were to be made enforceable in trade dispute resolution tribunals (though, as Danielle has previously written, corruption can already support certain actions in trade dispute arbitration). Looking at the strides forward in the draft TPP, there are three key avenues through which the Transparency and Anticorruption Chapter can continue to strengthen international trade deals.

Continue reading

Guest Post: When It Comes To Attitudes Toward Corruption, Russians Are More Like Americans Than You Think

Today’s guest post is from Marina Zaloznaya, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Iowa and author of, The Politics of Bureaucratic Corruption in Post-Transitional Eastern Europe:

Russia and corruption have been dominating the news recently – with the reporting from Washington and Moscow converging in an unusual way. Ongoing accusations against Trump Administration officials resonate even more strongly when linked to Russia, a country most Americans view as rife with corruption. Indeed, many Americans think that Russian citizens are perfectly comfortable with the systematic corruption of political and business elites.

This is a myth. Yes, it is true beyond doubt that corruption is common in Russia – much more so than in the United States – affecting hundreds of thousands of people. But this is not because Russians are systematically more tolerant of corruption than are Americans. Continue reading