How Should the U.S. Anticorruption Community Respond to Trump? Engagement vs. Confrontation

So Donald Trump is now the President of the United States, and has been for almost two weeks. Yes, this is really happening. And yes, this is really frightening. As has been pointed out countless times, Donald Trump poses a unique and unprecedented threat to American political institutions. It’s not mainly the hard-right policies that President Trump and the Republican Congress will push. People can strongly disagree with much of that policy agenda (as I do), but those policy positions are, alas, within the American political mainstream. And it’s not just Trump’s obvious narcissism, racism, and ignorance, bad as those are. On top of all that, Trump seems to view the presidency mainly as an opportunity for personal enrichment, and many of his top-level advisors and appointees seem to have a similar attitude. Notwithstanding his (obviously disingenuous) “drain the swamp” rhetoric, Trump—and many congressional Republicans—seem to have little regard for basic ethical norms and principles. And there are reasonable fears, based on what we’ve seen so far, that much of the Trump Administration’s policy agenda, though couched in familiar conservative market-oriented rhetoric, will in fact be oriented toward enriching the friends and families of senior administration officials, including but not limited to Trump’s own organization.

A democratically elected head of government who ran on a populist platform, but whose agenda seems to be oriented primarily toward using political power to enrich himself and his cronies? This might be a new experience for Americans, but as Professor Palifka pointed out in her post last week, this is a familiar story in many other countries (including Mexico, Ms. Palifka’s lead example). Think Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, Nestor and Cristina Kirchner in Argentina, Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand, Jacob Zuma in South Africa, and countless others. Now that the U.S. seems to be facing a similar situation, the U.S. anticorruption community—which I’ll define loosely as the diverse set of activists, advocacy groups, commentators, researchers, scholars, and others who focus on anticorruption in their professional work—needs to be actively involved in responding.

Unfortunately, the U.S. anticorruption community is not especially well-prepared to deal with this situation. Put aside for the moment that the most prominent international anticorruption advocacy group—Transparency International (TI)—recently voted to strip its U.S. chapter (TI-USA) of its accreditation, triggering an ongoing internal fight that has, I gather, left the chapter in limbo. (That’s a whole other story.) Much more important than any internal organizational drama is the fact that most U.S. anticorruption advocacy groups have typically focused on questions of U.S. anticorruption policy—such as FCPA enforcement, asset recovery, corporate transparency, and the like—not on systemic corruption in the U.S. government itself. True, some groups have in the past positioned themselves as fighting systemic corruption in the U.S. government, but those groups generally use a broad (in my view, overly broad) definition of “corruption” that emphasizes primarily campaign finance and lobbying reform—noble causes, to be sure, but not really the main worry right now. The U.S. anticorruption community faces a challenge that’s more akin to the challenge anticorruption communities have faced (or are still facing) in places like Mexico, Italy, Argentina, Thailand, and South Africa, though perhaps with even higher stakes.

My sense is that many leading figures in the U.S. anticorruption community are already thinking hard, and having many constructive conversations, about how to respond to the unique challenges posed by the Trump Administration. In the remainder of this post, I want to focus on a basic strategic question that I’ve seen come up many times in these conversations: Engage or confront? Continue reading

Guest Post: The Other Face of Vulture Funds–Digging in the Right Pockets

Ignacio A. Boulin Victoria and Enrique Cadenas, the co-directors of the Center for Law and Development at Universidad Austral in Buenos Aires, Argentina, contribute the following guest post:

It looks like a boxing fight. On the one side, the so-called “Vulture Funds” (mainly the US hedge fund NML Capital, CEO’d by the famous—or infamous—Paul Singer) threaten to inflict serious damage over a whole country’s economy. On the other, Argentina’s government, headed by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, whose administration—like that of her predecessor and husband, Nestor Kirchner—has been dogged by serious allegations of corruption, and whose vice president is currently being prosecuted for corrupt practices. Both parties have made remarkable efforts to win the media battle through propaganda and lobbying, with President Kirchner accusing the Vulture Funds of being “economic terrorists,” and the Vulture Funds denouncing Argentina as “a model of unsoundness” that “refus[es] to pay its debts.” Whatever the international perception, the conflict with the Vulture Funds seems to be helping President Kirchner, whose standing in national polls has been rising during the standoff.

But—though this may sound perverse to many Argentine citizens—from an unconventional perspective it’s possible that the attack of the Vulture Funds may produce, at the end of the day, good consequences for Argentina. The reason has to do with how the Vulture Funds’ attack may expose pervasive high-level corruption, and deprive some corrupt leaders of the proceeds of that corruption. Continue reading