If You Don’t Think Trump’s Financial Conflicts of Interest Matter, Consider the Kurds

Yesterday I posted a note regarding the update of this blog’s project on tracking the various ways in which President Trump and his family may be attempting to use the presidency for private financial gain, how the associated conflicts of interest might influence or distort U.S. policy. In light of recent events, I thought that perhaps it might be appropriate to highlight, and elaborate upon, a few items on that list that may be cause of particular concern:

  • President Trump has extensive business interests in Turkey, including a Trump Tower in Istanbul. This is not a new observation; the potential conflict of interest that this might create has been extensively documented (see here, here, and here), though in light of recent events these business connections have received renewed and intensified scrutiny (see, for example, here, here, and here). Indeed, then-candidate Trump acknowledged back in December 2015 that, “I have a little conflict of interest [in Turkey], because I have a major, major building in Istanbul.” Indeed, the Trump Towers Istanbul, which the Turkish conglomerate Dogan Holding developed, pays licensing fees to the Trump Organization. The Erdogan government can, and previously has, imposed substantial costs on Dogan Holding, and there are credible reports that the Erdogan Administration believes that this ability to put “pressure on Trump’s business partner [in Turkey]” gives the Turkish government the ability “to essentially blackmail the president.” Let that sink in for a moment.
  • In addition, entities close to the Turkish government have gotten in the habit of spending heavily at Trump properties in the U.S. Most notably, the American Turkish Council and the Turkey-U.S. Business Council have held multiple events at the Trump Hotel in D.C. (see here and here), attended by senior administration officials, with these events estimated to pay the Trump Organization well over $100,000 per event. (It’s also worth noting here that the Turkey-U.S. Business Council is headed by the founder of the consulting company that paid former national security advisor Michael Flynn $530,000 for lobbying work.)

It’s impossible to prove whether any of this directly affected President Trump’s foreign policy decisions regarding Turkish interests. But as Turkish forces continue to bombard the Kurdish forces in Northern Syria—an assault against loyal U.S. allies that was only possible because President Trump acquiesced in President Erdogan’s request/demand that U.S. forces clear out and make the attack possible—it’s hard not to wonder whether crucial U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS have been betrayed by the American Commander-in-Chief so that he can protect his financial interests.

This makes the stakes of the corruption concerns related to this presidency, including those implicated in the Emoluments Clause lawsuits brought against the administration, seem all the more pressing. The strategic and tactical wisdom of those suits, and their legal viability, is a complicated question on which my own views have evolved over time (see here, here, and here). But to characterize the issues raised by those suits as a minor distraction, as former New York Times reporter Linda Greenhouse did back at the start of the Trump presidency, is a hot take that hasn’t aged well. Here’s what Greenhouse had to say in that January 2017 Council on Foreign Relations roundtable discussion:

I think [the Emoluments Clause] lawsuit is a distraction…. I mean, it seems to me, what we need—we, as concerned citizens—need to focus on are the policy outcomes … emanating from this White House and not, you know, who’s paying the rack rate at the Trump hotel. I mean, that just doesn’t do it for me. (Laughter.) Maybe I’m missing something, but, you know, I think we need to focus on what really matters here.

Note to Ms. Greenhouse: Corruption and conflicts of interest at the highest levels of government “really matters.” Such corruption is often deeply connected to policy outcomes. I’m not sure anyone who follows these issues closely, and who cares about things like our national security policy and our treatment of vital and loyal allies, is laughing much about this now.

More on the 2017 Corruption Perceptions Index, and the Relationship Between Media/Civil Society Freedom and Corruption

The rest of the anticorruption commentariat (and the mainstream media) may have already moved on from the publication of Transparency International’s 2017 Corruption Perception Index (CPI), but I wanted to follow up on my other posts from earlier this month (here and here) to discuss one other aspect of the new CPI. The general overview, press release, and other supporting materials that accompanied the latest CPI stress as their main theme the importance of a free press and a robust, independent civil society in the fight against corruption. As TI states succinctly in the overview page for the 2017 CPI, “[A]nalysis of the [CPI] results indicates that countries with the least protection for press and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) also tend to have the worst rates of corruption.” And from this observation, TI argues that in order to make progress in the fight against corruption, governments should “do more to encourage free speech, independent media, political dissent and an open an engaged civil society,” and should “minimize regulations on media … and ensure that journalists can work without fear of repression or violence.” (TI also suggests that international donors should consider press freedom relevant to development aid or access to international organizations, a provocative suggestion that deserves fuller exploration elsewhere.)

Speaking in broad terms, I agree with TI’s position, and I’m heartened to see TI making an effort to use the publicity associated with the release of the CPI to push for concrete improvements on a particular area of importance, rather than simply stressing the bad effects of corruption (such as the alleged adverse impacts on inequality and poverty), or devoting undue attention to (statistically meaningless) movements in country scores from previous years. Whether TI succeeded in leveraging the CPI’s publicity into more attention to the freedom of the media and civil society is another story, but the effort is commendable.

That said, I spent a bit of time digging into the supporting research documents that TI provided on this issue, and I find myself in the uncomfortable position of finding the proffered evidentiary basis for the link between a free press/civil society and progress in the fight against corruption problematic, to put it mildly—even though my own reading of the larger academic literature on the topic makes me think the ultimate conclusion is likely correct, at least in broad terms. That latter fact, coupled with my recognition that the materials I’m evaluating are advocacy documents rather than academic research papers, makes me reluctant to criticize too harshly. Nonetheless, on the logic that it’s important to hold even our friends and allies accountable, and that in the long term promoting more careful and rigorous analysis will produce both more suitable policy prescriptions and better advocacy, I’m going to lay out my main difficulties with TI’s data analysis on the press freedom-corruption connection: Continue reading

The Role of Corruption in the Syrian Civil War

Many forces spurred on the development of the Syrian Civil War, a conflict that has likely led to the deaths of over half a million people, as well as the displacement of ten million more. While fighting was sparked by protests within Syria, a reflection of the larger wave of discontent in the Middle East and North Africa that spurred the so-called Arab Spring, the uniquely destructive path of Syria’s internal instability is tied to more specifically Syrian problems, including rule by a minority religious group – the Alawites – over a mostly Sunni country, early and continued support by Russia to maintain the Assad regime, a partially autonomous Kurdish minority in the north, and the rise of Sunni rebel groups including ISIS. While these larger points are important, another, more mundane factor is often overlooked: the pervasive corruption of the Assad regime, which contributed to the outbreak of the civil war in at least three ways:

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Corruption in Crisis Situations: Why Should We Care? What Can We Do?

A Deloitte audit published a few weeks ago revealed that the Assistance Coordination Unit (ACU), the aid management branch of the Syrian National Coalition (SNC), could not account for $1 million in expenditures in 2013. The misappropriation of $1 million, out of $60 million in total spending, may not seem like a lot, but it could be a warning sign about just how much of the $3.1 billion in Syria relief coordinated by the UN in 2013 actually reached its intended targets, and how much was lost to corruption. This concern — which applies not only to Syria, but to humanitarian aid in other conflict zones like Iraq, Somalia, and Afghanistan — is closely related to the issue Rick’s earlier post raised about the scandal of corruption in development aid, which should not be written off simply as “leakage,” but which can undermine rather than promote development. A parallel argument applies to corruption in humanitarian assistance to conflict zones: it undermines security. Indeed, although corruption in aid destined for insecure areas raises similar problems to corruption in development aid more generally, there are three factors that make corruption in conflict zones a particularly challenging and high-stakes concern. Continue reading