The Dept. of Greed, Sleaze and Shakedowns

May 18, 2018

It's hard to keep up with the tide of revelations about Trumpian corruption, from the rotting head of the empire on down. But where will it all lead? Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History, explains what's new and what's not in the latest developments.

NOT LONG after the FBI raid on Trump Organization attorney Michael Cohen's office and home, journalist Adam Davidson made a bold prediction in the New Yorker: "We are now in the end stages of the Trump Presidency."

In diagnosing the state of Trump's presidency, Davidson drew parallels to the disaster of the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq during the Bush Jr. years and the early indications of trouble in the subprime mortgage market that would later precipitate a near-meltdown of the global economy.

Davidson's point was that anyone who understood what was really happening in Iraq or the financial system in those early stages of crisis realized that the assurances of "mission accomplished" in Iraq or about the economy's "sound fundamentals" were delusions.

In the same way, the Trump lackeys who continue to insist that "there's nothing to see here" are likewise whistling past the graveyard--and are certain to be shown up as fantasists sooner rather than later.

Cohen, Trump's behind-the-scenes fixer, mostly stayed out of the spotlight until early 2018. That's when his role in making an October 2016 payment of $130,000 to porn star Stormy Daniels to prevent her from publishing her story of a 2006 affair with Trump came to light.

Left to right: Jared Kushner, Donald Trump and Michael Cohen
Left to right: Jared Kushner, Donald Trump and Michael Cohen

Since the FBI raids, Daniels' own attorney Michael Avenatti has--with the help of sources who seem to have access to Cohen's finances--revealed a whole raft of transactions that make Cohen's payoff to Daniels seem the least consequential.

As this article was being written, major multinational corporations, including AT&T, Novartis and Korean Aerospace, have been caught--and have admitted to--paying Cohen millions of dollars for "services" that appear to be little more than influence-peddling.

Apparently, Cohen also attempted to shake down Ford Motors for more millions, but Ford turned him down. A financial services firm, the U.S.-based Columbus Nova, whose main financial backer is Russian oligarch Victor Vekselberg, provided up to $500,000 to Cohen.


WHAT'S MOST noteworthy about the latest revelations that have tumbled out is that--with the exception of the money from Columbus Nova--there's very little that has an obvious connection to the ongoing Justice Department investigation, led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller, into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russian intelligence services during the 2016 presidential election.

Cohen's influence-peddling scheme is an easy-to-understand case of political corruption. In contrast, the Trump-Russia story revolves around obscure links between Trump's entourage and shadowy Russia-connected entities, and the Stormy Daniels payoff story seems to be the stuff of tabloid sensationalism.

Cohen may be a 21st-century version of old-time political fixers like Tammany Hall boss George Washington Plunkitt, who justified his "honest graft" with the quip: "I seen my opportunities and I took 'em."

But Cohen is far from alone in what is probably the most openly corrupt presidency since Warren G. Harding's interior secretary took oil company bribes to lease federal lands in sweetheart deals during the 1920s.

At the top sits a man whose pre-White House career was less that of a business genius than of a con man, as profiled in David Cay Johnson's The Making of Donald Trump.

And the sleaze certainly didn't stop when he took over the Oval Office. Trump properties have already made $15.1 million from GOP political committees, industry groups and government business, while the Trump Organization is trading on the president's position to score deals overseas.

Numerous Trump officials--fiscal conservatives all--have no compunction about demanding that taxpayers foot the bill for their special travel arrangements, vacations or designer furniture.

Perhaps the most egregious is Scott Pruitt, the energy industry tool masquerading as Environmental Protection Agency administrator, who--in addition to demanding a ridiculous number of special security arrangements--continued a sweetheart lodging deal with an energy lobbyist for most of his time in office.


THOUGH TRUMP has been more brazen than any previous president in making money off his office, a lot of this is somewhat standard-issue corruption. But it's important to bear two things in mind.

First, most of the outrageous fleecing of the public by the Trump administration is accomplished through perfectly legal means that don't make the headlines.

According to ProPublica, Trump has installed as many as 187 former corporate lobbyists in positions in which they are able to rewrite government policy in favor of their industries. Dozens of them have special statuses, under which they can simultaneously work as government consultants and in the private sector.

"Focusing on novel scandals alone can distract from the enormous scale of the Trump administration's embrace of revolving-door hiring," Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the nonpartisan Center for Economic and Policy Research, told ProPublica.

At least 125 Trump appointees came directly from conservative think tanks. Implementing their deregulatory agenda has led to an end to a ban on federal coal leasing, the repeal of Clean Power Act requirements, an end to "net neutrality" for Internet consumers and the canceling of arbitration rules under the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The implications of these policies for ordinary people's health and financial well-being are more profound than any administration official's "honest graft."

Second, much of what is under investigation today is not "garden-variety" corruption that we've seen before.

Remember, the president and his entourage is accused, in some quarters, of collaborating with a hostile foreign power. Meanwhile, Trump and others in his campaign and company may have been engaged in serious criminal wrongdoing, which the raid on Cohen's office may provide evidence for.

In his book Fire and Fury, Michael Wolff quoted Trump's former adviser Steve Bannon connecting the dots about the direction of Mueller's investigation:

This is all about money laundering...Their path to fucking Trump goes right through Paul Manafort, Don Jr., and Jared Kushner...It goes through Deutsche Bank and all the Kushner shit. The Kushner shit is greasy. They're going to go right through that. They're going to roll those two guys up, and say play me or trade me.


SO WILL Robert Mueller save us all?

Elite Washington--and particularly the Democratic Party and its acolytes in the liberal opinion-making media--hopes that Mueller's Justice Department investigation will put an end to the Trump nightmare.

Their glee was practically audible last December when Trump's former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI. The provisions of Flynn's plea bargain highly suggested that he had provided sufficient evidence to Mueller to implicate more senior people in the Trump orbit, up to the president himself.

It's unclear exactly in what crime or crimes the Trump team is implicated. So far, Mueller has secured guilty pleas that amount to admissions of perjury.

Since the fall of 2016, it's become an article of faith in Democratic circles that Trump colluded with a Russian intelligence operation to "hack" the U.S. elections. Evidence may emerge that conclusively confirms this, but for now, the Democrats' faith is entirely based on supposition.

For elite Democrats, this is a convenient excuse. If the Russians are really responsible for Trump, then there's no need to examine the real reasons--primarily a status quo, hawkish, neoliberal agenda put forward by an awful presidential candidate--why important Democratic base constituencies deserted them in 2016.

Receiving material support from non-U.S. entities is illegal under U.S. election law, but it's not the first time that such charges have been alleged. A number of fundraisers for Democratic President Bill Clinton's re-election in 1996 were prosecuted for what many Clinton opponents alleged was a Chinese intelligence operation to influence the election.

And while it is supposed to be illegal for private citizens to conduct foreign policy independent of the official government, no one has ever been prosecuted for violating that law dating from the 1700s.

Much historical evidence suggests that Richard Nixon made back-channel deals with North Vietnam before the 1968 presidential election that he won--and that the Ronald Reagan team did the same with the Iranian regime in 1980. So if the Trump campaign accepted help from a foreign power or made overtures to it before it was officially entitled to, this hardly sets it far beyond the mainstream of U.S. statecraft.


ACCORDING TO the unanimous assessment of all Obama-era U.S. intelligence agencies, the Russian state did engage in a multifaceted campaign to influence the 2016 presidential election.

But there are conflicting opinions on this. The Intercept's Glenn Greenwald has continued to insist that no solid evidence has been produced to justify these intelligence assessments. On the other hand, another Pulitzer Prize-winning Intercept journalist, James Risen, has moved from being a skeptic on Trump-Russia collusion story to believing that more evidence points to collusion.

Whatever ultimately proves true, it definitely appears that various members of the Trump entourage had ongoing contacts with Russian government figures, which they have wanted to conceal since the election. But the purpose for this isn't known.

And Trump may ultimately be more vulnerable to "obstruction of justice" charges for his ham-fisted attempts to shut down the investigation, starting with his firing of FBI Director James Comey.

The Trump-Russia investigation may be, in part, the national security establishment's revenge against a leadership team whose "America First" foreign policy challenges the multilateralist, free-trade agenda that has guided the U.S. for decades.

But the Trump-Russia affair also illustrates the deep rot in Washington's bipartisan political class that allowed a band of grifters, incompetents, money launderers and conspiracy theorists to end up in a position to influence U.S. foreign policy.

For U.S. strategists without a stake in the Trump administration, it stands to reason that you can't be a successful imperial power if you allow a second-rate adversary to penetrate your institutions and government.

Yet they can't erase the fact that U.S. global power is waning. Trump may be "accelerating perhaps markedly, even precipitously, the U.S. decline," as historian Alfred McCoy said in an interview with Intercept journalist Jeremy Scahill, but he's not the cause of the relative U.S. decline.

In any event, the Mueller investigation will continue to be a "sword of Damocles" hanging over the Trump administration. And if it does threaten Trump's downfall, it's likely that Trump would move to end the investigation, provoking a constitutional crisis by firing Mueller or some other maneuver.

Elite Democrats who dream of nothing more than returning to the pre-Trump status quo hope that "the Constitution" prevails over Trump. But it's far from clear that such a crisis will end up the way Watergate did.


OVER THE last two years, Trump has overcome numerous crises and outrages that would have sunk the careers of other politicians.

He's been able to do so not because of the hero worship of his narrow voting "base," but because people in high places have been willing to indulge him in the hopes that he'll deliver for them. It's noteworthy that retiring Republican Sen. Jeff Flake of Arizona--who has written a whole book denouncing Trumpism--still votes with Trump 84 percent of the time, according to FiveThirtyEight.com.

So before we get too far ahead of events and prepare for a President Pence, let's remember that there are plenty of political and business leaders who are willing to prop up the administration.

The corporations who tried to buy access to Trump through Cohen are frantically doing mea culpas now. But they certainly spent their money with their eyes open, and their biggest regret is that their gambits were exposed.

As political scientists Thomas Ferguson, Paul Jorgensen, and Jie Chen showed, Trump benefited from a flood of "dark" corporate money at the end of his 2016 campaign, and business used donations to the 2017 inauguration committee as a way to curry favor with the administration. Reportedly, Mueller has been looking into donations to the Trump inaugural for months.

So the idea that U.S. institutions, politicians or businesses will shift en masse to ditch Trump is at least premature.

Davidson may be right about the ultimate fate of the Trump administration, but he certainly is wrong if he thinks that the end of the Trump presidency will reset U.S. politics back to "normal."

That's because "normal" is still a place where right-wing billionaires can buy politicians and policy, and where the two major political parties implement versions of neoliberalism that continue to erode ordinary Americans' living standards and quality of life. It's also a place where a government structure dating from the 18th century empowers conservative and unrepresentative minorities, even when they lose the election.

Vox's Dylan Matthews added a view that is a necessary balance to Davidson's in an article headlined "The myth of an ending: Why even removing Trump from office won't save American democracy."

In warning his readers not to put much faith in a single cathartic event to free us from Trump, Matthews wrote something you hardly ever see in mainstream media outlets (other than the part about revolutions always failing):

In a way, I think there should be more talk of revolution, if only to expand the bounds of debate. The political system is badly defective, and revolution is honestly one of the few proposals to fix it that's equal to the scale of the problem. It deserves a fair hearing, even if I think it would be a terrible mistake--after all, most revolutions tend to fail, we've learned over the past few centuries.

Trump and his team may be the most cartoonishly corrupt group to run the American state in a century, but they are symptoms of a much deeper corrosion of the U.S. political system.

When mainstream journalists who are known for writing wonkish pieces about obscure aspects of government policy begin to speculate about revolution, it's time to pay attention to the deeper question.

Recent articles

Monday, November 12th

Friday, November 9th

Thursday, November 8th

Wednesday, November 7th

Tuesday, November 6th

Monday, November 5th

E-mail alerts

Further Reading

Today's Stories

From the archives