In February of 2017, just a few weeks into President Donald Trump’s reign, GOP legislators employed powers granted to them under the 1996 Congressional Review Act (CRA)—a legislative tactic described, charitably, as “rarely used”—to repeal a number of rules and regulations established by federal agencies, with a laser focus on those enacted by the previous administration. For its first usage under Trump, the administration quietly directed the unwinding of one of the United States’ best tools at combating corruption abroad.
GOP lawmakers had a clear target in mind: eliminating a rule that compelled major American hydrocarbon companies to disclose how much they pay foreign governments. The rule, crafted out of the bipartisan 2010 Dodd-Frank regulations, helped keep companies like Chevron and ExxonMobil—traditionally at the heart of major oleaginous corruption scandals of the past—honest. For Trump, however, anything smacking of financial transparency was a bridge too far. In one of the first giveaways of his presidency, Trump absolved American oil-and-gas companies from disclosing any under-the-table payments to dictators overseeing nations like Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan.
The decision flew in the face of best-practices across the West. (Even Russian companies like Rosneft and Gazprom disclose these payments.) As anti-corruption watchdog Global Witness wrote, this regulatory rollback did nothing but “enable the corruption President Trump told us all he would end,” exclusively for the benefit of those already dominating the world’s most corrupt industry. It was ample grist for Senator Elizabeth Warren’s famous commentary that the Trump administration was “corruption in the flesh.”
This early decision by Trump, buried as it was underneath the detritus and fallout of Trump’s inauguration, barely made any waves in the press. But it set the tone for an American administration that’s proven to be as overtly friendly to corruption as any this side of Richard Nixon. More pressingly, over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed the president wielding empty claims about fighting corruption in the service of targeting his political opponents—and, in the process, become the first sitting American president to ever pressure a foreign government to investigate a political rival. Warren was, perhaps, understating the matter: This level of corruption shares the same DNA as any who’ve pulled from the Despot’s Playbook.
The fact that Trump has increasingly pointed to apparent concerns about “corruption” regarding his push for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden is, in a certain sense, predictable. Trump’s authoritarian cohort—those to whom Trump looks for inspiration, and for camaraderie—have long quoted this scripture to better obscure their dictatorial ends.
Targeting political opponents with claims of corruption has a storied and sordid history in places like Putinist Russia, where authorities recently slapped anti-corruption campaigner Alexei Navalny with claims of money laundering. In China, President Xi Jinping has wielded supposed “anti-corruption” campaigns as a means of shoring up domestic support amid a flagging economy—campaigns that, wouldn’t you know it, just so happen to rope in those on the wrong end of China’s internal political divisions. Xi’s wide-ranging campaign is, as one expert related, “more of a Stalinist purge than a genuine attempt to clean up the government.” (What this means for a potential investigation into supposed Biden “corruption” in China, which Trump has called for time and again, is anyone’s guess.)
Trump’s turn toward “corruption” as a pretext for his efforts to strong-arm Kyiv has a particular end game. Most pertinently, it’s increasingly the only defense left for Trump and his toadies to describe Trump’s unprecedented actions in Ukraine. Most of the other recent defenses of Trump’s conduct collapsed quickly under the faintest of scrutiny. The notion that there was never a quid pro quo involved in Trump’s mafioso moves against Ukraine? It turns out there were multiple, including military aid and a visit to the White House for new Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. The idea that Ukraine had no knowledge of this arrangement, and therefore couldn’t have possibly felt any pressure? As it happens, Kyiv understood perfectly well what was on ask, almost from the beginning. How about the way White House Chief of Staff Mick Mulvaney waved away the quid pro quo accusations by confessing in a now-infamous press conference earlier this month that “we do that all the time with foreign policy,” as if it was just a generally accepted practice? That defense had the shortest shelf-life of all, with Mulvaney mumbling an embarrassing walk-back only a few hours later.
All of which leaves “corruption” as the crux of Trump’s ever-imploding defense as he slouches toward impeachment. “I don’t care about politics, but I do care about corruption. And this whole thing is about corruption,” Trump said earlier this month about his pressure on Ukraine. “This whole thing—this whole thing is about corruption.” It’s a line Trump’s sycophants have already begun workshopping. To take one such lickspittle, Ben Shapiro attempted to claim that Trump could “argue plausibly that [Trump’s pressure] was part-and-parcel of his general anti-corruption concern.” Trump could argue that, sure. He could also argue that the moon was made of Swiss cheese with the same level of veracity. The notion that Trump has sincere concerns about corruption, at home or abroad, is a farce.
When it comes to Trump’s fealty toward enabling corruption, you can point to almost any of his policies; mix and match as you’d like. His campaign against Biden in Ukraine is emblematic. Biden served as the point-man for the entire West’s call to oust former Ukrainian prosecutor Viktor Shokin, the man who had single-handedly stymied Ukraine’s anti-corruption drive. Trump, however, needed to paint his presumed presidential rival as the quintessence of corruption himself. (Trump’s efforts were buoyed by the fever-swamp insanities of Rudy Giuliani, his personal lawyer, who’s already on record as whinging that Eastern European governments have been too effective at combatting corruption.) In Trump’s Upside-Down, it’s Biden who sunk to unprecedented levels of corrupt dealings. Conversely, those (like Shokin) specifically identified as crooked actors by the U.S., its European allies, and the entire trans-Atlantic anti-corruption community are, to the president’s mind, mere victims.
But this is just the most recent example of Trump purposefully treating corruption precisely backwards. Documents from early 2019 show that the Trump administration “sought repeatedly to cut foreign aid programs tasked with combating corruption in Ukraine and elsewhere overseas,” as the Washington Post. All told, the anti-corruption funds earmarked for Ukraine that the White House attempted to gouge out of the budget stretched into the hundreds of millions of dollars. One agency targeted for a direct hit to their coffers: Ukraine’s National Anti-Corruption Bureau, Kyiv’s foremost anti-corruption body.
The effort to degrade America’s ability to corral corrupt actors goes all the way back to the early days of the administration. In addition to hacking off requirements that American oil companies disclose what they’re funneling to kleptocratic parasites elsewhere, the Trump administration announced in late 2017 that it was pulling the U.S. out of the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI), the leading pro-transparency energy consortium in the world. As one anti-corruption voice noted at the time, this was only the “latest in a series of actions in Washington that have damaged the country’s credibility as a proponent” of “honest dealings globally.” Departing the EITI followed Trump’s announcement that the U.S.’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act—the keystone of America’s anti-corruption policies; the rock upon which America’s anti-corruption legacy was built—was a “horrible law.” According to former Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, Trump repeated these complaints directly from the Oval Office.
Trump’s affection for chicanery is hardly a recent phenomenon. If one can stomach a re-examination of his pre-presidency days, his latter-day turn as a reality-television charlatan was preceded by a long career as a developer drenched in dirty money. This is a man whose business dealings with the corrupt and the crooked are legion; a man whose entire business model rested in large part upon attracting the stolen, illicit funds washing through, and propping up, America’s luxury real estate market over the previous two decades. (His key aide in developing his shadiest constructs? Ivanka, of course.) Dictators from Haiti, kleptocratic ruling families from Central Africa, all the post-Soviet crooks you could want: Trump’s role in allowing them to launder their ill-gotten gains in his buildings are the perfect encapsulation of how enablers across the West provided the tools, and the anonymity, for these criminal syndicates to bum-rush billions of dollars out of their countries, and store their plunder safely in Manhattan high-rises and Miami condos.
Trump’s corrupt practices, predilections, and preferences are far too numerous to tally. But they all point in one clear direction: That any claim he makes to being concerned about kleptocratic cronyism in Ukraine is nothing but a cover for the unprecedented sacrificing of our national interests at the altar of the president’s political fortunes. Trump knows, lives, and breathes corruption, in every sense, and in every facet. If, after all his other attempts at exculpation for his actions in Ukraine fail, his last refuge is to claim to have been fighting corruption, then he doesn’t have a defense at all.