UNITED STATES

Russian nexus

Print edition : July 07, 2017

James Comey, former FBI Director, testifies at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing in Washington on June 8. Photo: Doug Mills/The New York Times

President Trump at a press conference on June 9 in Washington. Photo: Andrew Harnik/AP

Robert Mueller, special counsel overseeing the federal investigation into the alleged coordination between Russia and the Trump campaign. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

The focus of Donald Trump’s opponents is on the alleged Russian role in the presidential election; they are apparently not interested in the larger issue of corruption in international business of which he is a product.

UNITED States President Donald Trump is struggling to edge away from an issue that has dogged him since his victory in the presidential election last year—Russian interference. On June 8, former Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) Director James Comey went before the Senate to make several incendiary claims. Comey said that Trump had lied to impugn the reputation of the FBI (and Comey) and that he—Comey—had documented each meeting with Trump to make sure that the President’s lies did not go unchallenged. Comey said that he had given details of these meetings to a friend so that the press could be alerted. Finally, Comey said that he was fired on May 9 not because of his incompetency, as Trump argued, but because he refused to shut down the probe on Russian interference in the U.S. election.

What Comey did not say, and what the new Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller (formerly of the FBI) will not investigate, is that Trump’s world of international business is steeped in corruption. It is normal for Trump to hold meetings with people of dubious reputation and to raise finances and political capital from all quarters. International arms deals and real estate deals are well known for the bribes and intimidation involved in them—this is what is normal in the world of business. Trump’s entanglements from this world of international business are now on display, but it is not this world that will be indicted. It is a much smaller problem, namely whether the Russian government meddled in the U.S. election. Far graver issues—the stranglehold of corruption over international business—remain outside any investigation.

Russian Interference

In the clearest statement from Comey yet, he said: “The Russians interfered in our election during the 2016 cycle. They did it with purpose. They did it with sophistication. They did it with overwhelming technical efforts.” A day after Comey gave his testimony to the Senate Intelligence Committee, Trump told the press in his laconic style: “No collusion, no obstruction, he’s a leaker, but we want to get back to running our great country.” Trump’s lack of concern for the possibility of Russian interference in the U.S. election struck many observers—why did he not utter even the most meaningless phrases about his concern for the integrity of the electoral process and his support for the work of the special counsel who is looking into these matters? Trump preferred to defend himself unequivocally. Attacks directed at Comey and the defence of his person were all that was on offer.

The question of Russian interference in the U.S. election will refuse to dissipate. It is what drives the Democratic Party, which has seized on this issue as the Achilles heel of the Trump presidency. Other issues are, of course, to be considered as points of debate, but the Democrats see this issue as posing a particular vulnerability for Trump. It has certainly divided the country and provided the focus for the Democrats to deny Trump any legitimacy. Trump’s evident frustration with the inquiry led him to ask Comey to drop the investigation and then to fire Comey. This provided the Democratic Party with more ammunition against Trump, whose intemperate manner does him no favours. With each outrageous tweet or statement, Trump gives the Democrats more evidence of his illegitimacy.

Behind closed doors, the contours of the investigation are being drawn up. Leaks suggest that Special Counsel Mueller will not probe too closely into Trump’s own family, notably his son-in-law Jared Kushner, who has extensive ties to the Russian oligarchy. Rather, the investigation will be content to remain at the edges of the Trump team, with the main focus being on advisers such as General Michael Flynn who have already been set aside. Last December, Kushner, now Trump’s adviser, met with the head of Vnesheconombank, Sergei Gorkov. This bank has been on the list of institutions under U.S. sanctions since 2014. If Kushner discussed any business activity with the bank, he is liable to spend 20 years in a U.S. prison. It has been suggested that Kushner only met with Gorkov to open a channel of communication with Russian President Vladimir Putin. In March, Gorkov released a routine statement that Kushner had met him in his capacity as CEO of Kushner Associates and not as a Trump official. FBI officials had been eager to pursue the Kushner link to Russia. But there was pressure on them not to open that scab. Whether the new investigation by Special Counsel Mueller will be able to go after Kushner is crucial.

Whiff of corruption

Outside the parameters of the Russia probe sit other uncomfortable business deals that carry the whiff of corruption. The Donald Trump Foundation and the Eric Trump Foundation, both charitable entities, have been accused of criminal tax evasion. The work of these foundations has also leaked into the Russian interference investigations. Trump’s lawyer, Michael Cohen, who is on the board of the Eric Trump Foundation, was involved in trying to broker a peace deal for Ukraine. Cohen entered Trump’s world as a man who could bring in finance from Russia and Ukraine for the Trump organisation. A few days after Trump’s inauguration as President, Cohen met the Ukrainian parliamentarian Andriy Artemenko in New York City. Artemenko gave Cohen some documents to deliver to Flynn, who was Trump’s National Security Adviser at that time. Artemenko, a close friend of the Cohen family, told the Ukrainian press that he had been working with the Cohens since 2016 on a peace deal. It is the murkiness that inflames the scandal. Cohen has business interests in Ukraine’s ethanol industry and would gain from a less tense environment in the region. Artemenko made his money in arms deals and is using political influence to better his own portfolio.

Normal Corruption

The Artemenko-Cohen story is just one more seam in a rich mine of corruption. If the Special Prosecutor decides to put on his miner’s helmet and enter the bowels of these linkages, he will need a sensitive canary to check for noxious gases. What he might find is not merely that the Russians tried to influence the U.S. elections through cyberwar and through money paid to valuable players in the Trump team. That is the tip of the iceberg. It is what the Democrats would like the Special Counsel to concentrate on. It would merely indict Trump for his collusion in election tampering. But far more is at stake here, which Special Counsel Mueller does not have the authority to investigate.

Trump is the first international businessman to be the head of government in the U.S. All previous Presidents since the Second World War have been either public servants (even military officers) or professional politicians. None came to the White House directly from the world of business, let alone international business. The world of international business is stricken with political corruption, with finance raised often from disreputable corners and with large bribes paid to politicians on a routine basis. The World Bank Institute recently said that over $1 trillion was paid in bribes each year, ten times the amount provided for development aid. “Corruption is the cancer of globalisation,” said Angel Gurria, the head of the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), in 2007. Little has changed.

Criticism of the FCPA

Long before his entry into the White House, Trump spoke often against the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), which, in its own modest way, tries to crack down on the business of international corruption. Trump has called this a “horrible law” and has vowed to weaken it. As President, Trump set aside a rule that prevented U.S. energy companies from paying bribes. The FCPA was passed in 1977 to prevent U.S. corporations from using their financial muscle to gain political influence overseas. Defence behemoth Lockheed paid bribes to politicians from West Germany to Japan, with $3 million paid to Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka through the offices of the underworld’s Yoshio Kodama on behalf of Lockheed. Exxon paid millions of dollars to the Christian Democratic Party to secure benefits for its partner Esso Italiana. The FCPA did not stop this behaviour, but it did make it more inconvenient for U.S.-based international corporations to operate in the normal manner, namely through bribes and political intimidation.

In 2012, Trump went public with his criticism of the FCPA. “Now every country goes into these places and they do what they have to do,” Trump said. What he meant is that international businesses are able to pay bribes and finance their activities with illicit money. This, for Trump, is normal as it is indeed normal in the world of business. What the Russia probe reveals is not so much Russian interference in the U.S. elections as the normal world of sleaze and corruption. This is the world that produced Donald Trump, petrodollars mingle here with the ill-gotten gains of the Russian oligarchy, swilling in the pigsties of U.S.-based international corporations. Trump cannot understand the outrage at his dealings, murky as they are, because these are normal in the world of big business. But he can be comforted with the news that Special Prosecutor Mueller and the Democrats are not interested in this much deeper root of corruption. It is enough for everyone to dance around the question of the hacks and the meetings. If anything, the investigation might reaffirm an old saw: that Russia, and only Russia, is too corrupt for international business. What it will not adopt is a new saw: that international business is too corrupt for the world.

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