The Russia scandal is about more than collusion. It’s also about the corruption of America’s elites.
As seemingly every national political figure not already hopelessly in the tank for President Trump rushed Monday to denounce his disastrous press conference with Russian despot Vladimir Putin, few condemnations received as much attention as this one from former CIA Director John Brennan:
Donald Trump’s press conference performance in Helsinki rises to & exceeds the threshold of “high crimes & misdemeanors.” It was nothing short of treasonous. Not only were Trump’s comments imbecilic, he is wholly in the pocket of Putin. Republican Patriots: Where are you???133K people are talking about this
I don’t know why Trump and his team accepted, and at times actively solicited, the help of Putin and Russian intelligence in winning the 2016 election, and why they have appeared at times to actively serve Putin’s interests once in office. Maybe they were just taking whatever help they could get; maybe the pee tape is real; maybe Jon Chait’s theory is right and Trump has been a Soviet/Russian asset for three decades.
But I think I know why Trump thought it was okay to do what he did — why he could get away with it. The reason is a culture of elite impunity, where business and political leaders face absolutely no accountability for misdeeds. And it’s a culture that Brennan and many political elites like him have fostered, and from which they have personally benefited.
It’s much bigger than collusion. It encompasses many decades during which political officials have evaded accountability for broken laws and illicit foreign contacts, and business and corporate elites have skirted punishment for outright fraud. It’s a problem that, ironically, Trump hammered home in the campaign: that there’s a different set of rules for elites than for normal people. It just happens that Trump knows that because he, for decades now, has been taking advantage of elite impunity.
And unless critics are willing to target the problem of impunity, a problem in which some of them may be implicated, stuff like the Russia scandal will just keep happening, again and again.
The culture of impunity
We don’t punish white-collar criminals in this country. Not really, and certainly not by comparison to how we punish poorer, less white people for less severe offenses.
Only one Wall Street executive ever served jail time for the financial crisis. Rampant foreclosure fraud during the crisis, in which mortgage companies illegally forced millions of families from their homes on the basis of false evidence, went largely unpunished. Lanny Breuer, President Obama’s assistant attorney general for the criminal division of the Department of Justice, was so notoriously lax that Obama’s White House counsel Kathy Ruemmler once jokingly asked him, “How many cases are you dismissing this week?”
And no one knows how easy it is to get away with complicated financial crimes better than Donald Trump. For decades, he was able to dodge any consequences for his routine collaborations with the Mafia, even though his relationship with (to give just one example among many) the mob-linked union official John Cody prompted the FBI to subpoena Trump. His real estate businesses are routinely entangled with corrupt officials abroad, with the Trump International Hotel and Tower Baku in Azerbaijan and the Trump office towers in India looking particularly fishy. (Under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, even unknowingly profiting from corrupt activities in a foreign country is a federal crime.)
And the people around him have similarly checkered histories. His longtime personal attorney Michael Cohen is, of course, currently under federal investigation from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York and has been linked to various insurance fraud schemes, including one involving recent Russian immigrants falsely claiming they were hit by cars. Ivanka and Donald Trump Jr. were nearly charged with fraud for their conduct in marketing the Trump SoHo hotel and condo development in 2012.
Jared Kushner is facing lawsuits for his role as a slumlord in the Baltimore area and for overcharging rent from his New York City tenants; we know that his company falsified rent control paperwork in New York. Kushner stands out among Trump’s associates in that his father is the rare person actually prosecuted for and convicted of serious financial crimes, which doesn’t seem to have made the younger Kushner any more cautious. If anything, it appears to have made him more committed to the family trade.
Donald Trump, Ivanka, Don Jr., Cohen, and Kushner aren’t under criminal indictment just yet. (Of course, Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chair, is, and for serious financial crimes that are so far largely unrelated to his work for Trump.) Maybe it’s all just a series of awful coincidences. Or maybe they have correctly perceived that you can get away with truly massive white-collar crimes, and have lived their lives accordingly.
Political crimes are basically never punished, even with a body count
This same culture exists, perhaps to an even greater degree, for political wrongdoing. The Russia scandal should have, but largely hasn’t, reminded us that a presidential candidate has collaborated with a foreign government against the American government before, and gotten away with it.
In the summer of 1968, as biographer John A. Farrell has demonstrated, Republican nominee Richard Nixon and his aides actively sabotaged efforts by Lyndon Johnson’s administration to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. They got away with it, prolonging a war that wound up killing more than a million people in the process. It’s barely even on the list of Nixonian wrongdoing that people remember. Henry Kissinger was at the time a Johnson adviser leaking information for Nixon to use in his efforts. Today he remains a broadly respected elder statesman, even in Democratic administrations.
It wasn’t even two decades later that the next Republican administration conspired with a foreign government, namely Iran’s. This time, the actions weren’t just horrendously immoral but illegal as well; elongating the Vietnam War was, alas, not a crime, but funding the Contras with Iranian arms deal money was. So was lying to Congress about it. Fourteen members of Reagan’s administration were indicted, and 11 were convicted.
It didn’t matter. Before leaving office, President George H.W. Bush pardoned six people involved, all high-ranking policy officials like Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger, National Security Adviser Robert McFarlane, Assistant Secretary of State Elliott Abrams, and CIA covert ops director Clair George. National Security Council official Oliver North and National Security Adviser John Poindexter had, at that point, already gotten their convictions tossed out, not because they were innocent but due to a complication resulting from Congress giving them immunity to testify.
Lawrence Walsh, appointed independent counsel to investigate Iran-Contra, would later write, “What set Iran-Contra apart from previous political scandals was the fact that a cover-up engineered in the White House of one president and completed by his successor prevented the rule of law from being applied to the perpetrators of criminal activity of constitutional dimension.”
And because the rule of law wasn’t applied, many of the perpetrators remain members in good standing of Washington’s foreign policy establishment. Poindexter returned to government to run the George W. Bush administration’s Information Awareness Office and “Total Information Awareness” program, leaving after a public controversy around a betting market he wanted to create where bettors would’ve profited if a terrorist strike occurred. Abrams, whose far worse transgressions in the Reagan years involved his support for El Salvador’s brutal military dictatorship and his efforts to cover up the El Mozote massacre, worked as a senior National Security Council official for the entirety of the George W. Bush administration.
In that administration, of course, dozens of policymakers collaborated to systematically violate US and international law forbidding torture. While low-ranking Army soldiers and officers were court-martialed in certain cases, like Abu Ghraib, the people ultimately responsible for the policy regime got away with it. John Yoo and Jay Bybee, who put together memos authorizing systematic torture of detainees without trial, escaped all prosecution. Yoo is a tenured professor at UC Berkeley. Bybee is a federal judge with life tenure.
The Obama administration not only declined to prosecute CIA officials who tortured detainees in accordance with the torture memos but failed to prosecute them even in numerous cases where those guidelines were exceeded. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop explained in 2014, the Justice Department didn’t even bother to bring charges in the cases of Gul Rahman and Manadel al-Jamadi, who were literally tortured to death.
Nor did they bring any charges against Jose Rodriguez, who authorized the destruction of 92 tapes showing the CIA torturing detainees, or against anyone who assisted Rodriguez. Gina Haspel, who Rodriguez has said drafted the order to destroy the tapes, and who ran a CIA black site for torture in Thailand, is now the director of the CIA.
Impunity means we will only get more wrongdoing
With that history — with such a clear record that neither businesspeople engaged in systematic financial wrongdoing nor political officials involved in criminal activity and illicit deals with foreign powers will ever face any consequences — why on earth wouldn’t someone like Trump, a man who lacks any willingness to sacrifice his self-interest in order to do the right thing, work with Russia? Why wouldn’t he feel okay asking Russia to hack Hillary Clinton’s emails? Why would Donald Trump Jr. have any reservations at all about accepting help from the Russian government, declaring, “If it’s what you say I love it”? People like them, in their shoes, have done the same or worse before and gotten away with it. Kissinger even got a Nobel Prize.
The obvious rebuttal here is that the Trumps are different. They’re distinctly immoral, uniquely willing to fly in the face of decency and patriotic duty and basic morality to make money and gain power. They don’t need a culture of impunity to do horrible things. To which I’d respond: yes, obviously. That’s who they are. But there will always be people like that, and there will be more as long as we maintain a system that gives them total immunity from criminal or even professional consequences for their actions.
Donald Trump Jr. himself, in his typical “say the loud part quiet and the quiet part loud” way, laid all this out pretty clearly in an interview with the Senate Judiciary Committee. “What about the thing that says, ‘It is part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump,’” Heather Sawyer, a Democratic counsel for the committee, asked him. “Did you also love that?”
“I don’t know,” Donald Jr. replied. “I don’t recall.”
“Did you understand that that would be problematic?” Sawyer pressed. Trump answered: “I didn’t think that listening to someone with information relevant to the fitness and character of a presidential candidate would be an issue, no.”
Donald Jr. was coached meticulously before that hearing, so it’s hard to read too much into what he’s saying. But I believe him. I believe he genuinely didn’t think that collaborating with the Russian government to get his father elected would be an issue.
That’s what impunity means: It means not thinking that grievous wrongdoing will one day be an issue. It helps explain why even decorated civil servants like John Brennan at best remained silent about, and at worst participated in, the CIA’s torture regime. It wasn’t an issue for him, ultimately; he eventually became director, where he could defend torturers at greater length.
But that’s exactly the problem. It should be an issue. We’ve set up a system where the baseline assumption is that nothing short of, I don’t know, full-on in-person murder can disqualify an elite political or business figure from their posting. And that means that people like the Trumps will continue to believe that criminality and collusion are just fine. Unless we’re willing to break down that system, and interrogate the role that even Trump’s enemies have played in building it, we will get two, three, many Trumps in the future.
Correction: I initially wrote that Jon Chait believes Trump has been an Russian “agent” for three decades. In fact, Chait believes that Trump “might” have been a Russian “asset” for three decades. I regret the error.
It revealed the real divides in American foreign policy.
The standoff over the Venezuelan presidency has not yet devolved into armed conflict, but the situation is incredibly tense, and the very real possibility for violence or even civil war to break out hangs over the entire dispute. And the Trump administration has repeatedly said that US military intervention to support Guaidó is not off the table.
So Omar wanted to know, if the situation in Venezuela were to deteriorate, whether Abrams would follow the same playbook there that he did in those other Latin American conflicts year ago.
.. “Would you support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity, or genocide if you believed they were serving US interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua?” she asked him.
“I am not going to respond to that question,” Abrams replied. “I don’t think this entire line of questioning is meant to be real questions, and so I will not reply.”
The entire exchange, front start to finish, was riveting — a rarity, given that it occurred at the kind of hearing that even foreign policy wonks like me typically find to be snoozers. And the ideological stakes were so high — a Trump official hated by the progressive left being challenged over his involvement in past US support for monstrous human rights abuses by a left-wing Muslim Congress member hated by the right — that it was destined to set off a much larger debate.
Which, of course, it did.
Was Omar unfair to Abrams — and Washington?
People on the further left of the political spectrum, socialists and progressives alike, found Omar’s questioning exhilarating. It’s extremely rare to see an American official held accountable for past wrongdoing so publicly, to witness them being forced to face their own records head-on, without pretenses.
A longstanding left-wing critique of American foreign policy is that it is incredibly insular and notoriously slanted in favor of US military intervention abroad, regardless of which party is in the White House. The Washington foreign policy debate is typically between centrists and neoconservatives over how heavily to intervene in foreign conflicts, rather than whether the United States should intervene at all.
A key reason this situation persists, critics (including me) argue, is that there’s a culture of elite impunity in Washington in which those responsible for previous policy disasters not only face virtually zero professional consequences (let alone legal ones) for their actions but in fact are welcomed back into cushy academic, think tank, and government positions.
None of the architects of George W. Bush’s torture policy were arrested or faced serious professional sanction. None the people responsible for distorting the intelligence about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction were punished (although people who tried to blow the whistle about said distortion certainly were). Henry Kissinger, who was complicit in war crimes in a shockingly large number of countries, remains a Washington celebrity and a highly respected elder statesman whose views on foreign policy continue to be given substantial weight.
Elliott Abrams is a man who epitomizes this culture of elite impunity. Not only does he now have a high-profile job in the Trump administration, he is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and was even a member of the US Holocaust Memorial Council, which directs the activities of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum, for six years. To see Omar hold him accountable, to reduce him to angry sputters, was for many on the left a sign of how important a voice she is going to be on the House Foreign Affairs Committee.
It was a sign that the new, more diverse voices into Congress might actually be able to succeed in opening up the foreign policy conversation and forcing people to reconsider fundamental premises — like whether America has the moral standing to involve itself in Latin American internal conflicts — that typically aren’t questioned in major US foreign policy debates.
But many on the right, and even some in the center, in the US foreign policy community had the polar opposite reaction. They saw Abrams as the wounded party here: a longtime public servant who has either always been a strong and moral advocate for human rights or at the very least has moved beyond his checkered past.
Max Boot, who is also a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations as well as a Washington Post columnist, blasted Omar’s “disgraceful ad hominem attacks” on Abrams, arguing that “he is a leading advocate of human rights and democracy — not a promoter of genocide.”
For neoconservatives and their allies, an attack on Abrams is an attack on everything they stand for. In the neoconservative imagination, the Reagan administration is the embodiment of everything good in American foreign policy: a morally righteous crusade against an evil, communism, that threatened the survival of democracy itself.
Abrams was a general in this war, a living monument to the good an active American foreign policy can do in terms of making the world a freer place. The Washington Free Beacon, a neoconservative tabloid website, referred to Abrams as a “hero” in its write-up of the Omar spat.
How can you square this hazy general account with the damning specifics of Abrams’s actual history in Latin America? The best case I’ve seen comes from Dan Drezner, a professor of international relations at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
His argument is that, based on his own research, “in the early 1980s, Abrams played a vital and constructive role in ensuring that the State Department’s human rights bureau was treated seriously by the rest of the State Department” — a dynamic that Drezner says “was far from a certain thing when the Carter administration created the bureau.”
The argument here is that Abrams played a major role in making the State Department focus more on human rights, making US foreign policy as a whole more attentive to human rights abuses in perpetuity.
The problem, as two Cold War historians pointed out on Twitter, is that the State Department’s human rights bureau under Abrams’s leadership wasn’t actually all that useful for protecting human rights. The research on the topic, they say, suggests that Abrams’s vision was so clouded by the Cold War imperatives to fight communism that he twisted the language of human rights to justify some pretty terrible behavior. The historical record shows Abrams repeatedly dismissing independent evidence on the abuses by regimes he supported as communist propaganda, while having the State Department issue human rights reports that highlighted abuses by left-wing governments while downplaying or ignoring offenses by anti-communist forces Abrams supported.
In other words, he may have institutionalized the State Department’s human rights bureau, but he also corrupted it.
Regardless of where you come down on this dispute — I’m quite obviously sympathetic to the Abrams-critical side — you can see why this exchange got so much attention.
For the left, it was a story of a young congresswoman bravely taking on the foreign policy establishment and forcing it to account for its grievous past sins. For the right, it was a far-left upstart — whom they also see as an anti-Semite — unfairly and ignorantly attacking the integrity of a living symbol of their foreign policy vision (who happens to be Jewish).
In short, the five-minute C-SPAN clip of their exchange cut to the core of one of America’s biggest foreign policy disputes: how to evaluate the United States’ proper role in the world.
In a tense exchange at a hearing on Wednesday, one of the newest members of Congress, Representative Ilhan Omar, confronted Elliott Abrams, a Trump administration official, over his role in foreign policy scandals decades ago, including the Iran-contra affair and the United States’ support of brutal leaders abroad.
Mr. Abrams, who served in top State Department positions under President Ronald Reagan and has remained part of the Washington foreign policy establishment, was appointed last month to be the Trump administration’s envoy to Venezuela, where a dispute is raging over control of the nation’s presidency. Last month, the United States weighed in, recognizing the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as part of a campaign by the Trump administration to oust President Nicolás Maduro.
What happened at Wednesday’s hearing?
Mr. Abrams was one of three people asked to appear before the House Foreign Affairs Committee for a hearing on Venezuela, an area of the world he knows well. Under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was an assistant secretary of state who fiercely advocated interventionism, including the covert arming of Nicaraguan rebels in the mid-1980s, a scandal that became known as the Iran-contra affair.
In the hearing on Wednesday, Ms. Omar, Democrat of Minnesota, confronted Mr. Abrams over his role in that scandal and his support for brutal Central American governments. In one tense exchange, Ms. Omar recalled testimony from Mr. Abrams about a massacre in which units of El Salvador’s military, trained and equipped by the United States, killed nearly 1,000 civilians in 1981 in the village of El Mozote.In 1982, Mr. Abrams dismissed news reports about the massacre as not credible and as leftist propaganda, and he later described the Reagan administration’s record in El Salvador as a “fabulous achievement.”
“Do you think that massacre was a ‘fabulous achievement’ that happened under our watch?” Ms. Omar asked him at Wednesday’s hearing.
“That is a ridiculous question, and I will not respond to it,” Mr. Abrams said. “I am not going to respond to that kind of personal attack, which is not a question.”
What is the Iran-contra affair?
The Iran-contra affair was a political scandal that dogged the second half of the Reagan presidency.It centered on two controversial, and linked, actions undertaken by his administration. One was the sale of weapons to Iran, despite an embargo, purportedly to secure the release of American hostages held in Lebanon. The second was the use of proceeds from those weapon sales to support the right-wing contra rebels in Nicaragua in their fight against the leftist Sandinista government.When first revealed publicly by a Lebanese magazine in 1986, the weapons sales were criticized for violating both the embargo and the United States’ refusal to negotiate with terrorists. The use of money from the sales to support the rebels in Nicaragua was also controversial because it violated a congressional ban restricting military aid to the group.
Reagan emerged largely unscathed by the scandal, leaving office with the highest approval rating of any president in decades. But more than a dozen others were charged with criminal offenses, primarily for withholding information from Congress. They included some who remain active in American politics to this day, such as Oliver L. North, now the president of the National Rifle Association, and Mr. Abrams.
While serving in the State Department under Reagan, Mr. Abrams was a fierce advocate of arming the rebels and, in 1991, he pleaded guilty to two misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress about those secret efforts. He was pardoned the next year by President George Bush.
What were Ms. Omar’s criticisms?
Ms. Omar devoted most of her time during the hearing to detailing Mr. Abrams’s role in events abroad during the Reagan administration, often cutting off his responses by telling him she had not asked a question.
She did, however, ask one question: whether Mr. Abrams would “support an armed faction within Venezuela that engages in war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide if you believed they were serving U.S. interests, as you did in Guatemala, El Salvador and Nicaragua?”
The United States’ involvement in Guatemala is not as well known as the Iran-contra affair, but the country was crucial to the Reagan administration’s strategy in Central America, with Washington often looking the other way when presented with evidence of atrocities. In 1982, the Reagan administration started to cultivate Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who seized power that year in Guatemala, as an ally in the region in its fight against the Sandinista government and Salvadoran guerrillas.
Reagan praised General Ríos Montt even though American officials privately knew the Guatemalan military had killed its own people. The general was convicted of genocide in 2013.
El Salvador officially apologized for the El Mozote massacre in 2011.
What has Mr. Abrams been doing since the Reagan years?
Despite his role in the Iran-contra affair, Mr. Abrams has remained active in politics.
In the 1990s, he led a think tank dedicated to applying Judeo-Christian values to public policy. He later joined the administration of President George W. Bush as an adviser on Middle East affairs.
In 2017, President Trump blocked Mr. Abrams from serving as a deputy to Rex W. Tillerson, then the secretary of state. But last month, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was able to appoint Mr. Abrams as a special envoy to lead the department’s efforts on Venezuela.