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.
Business deals, affairs, Russia ties—the president’s former fixer knows all.
This marks what promises to be a decisive moment in not only the Trump-Russia scandal but all the Trump scandals (known and unknown), for Cohen appears to have been involved in almost every aspect of Trump’s deeds and misdeeds.
.. With Cohen blowing the whistle, Mueller and other prosecutors will end up with a symphony of leads. After all, he likely has inside information on each of the three rings of the Trump scandal circus:
- the Russia affair,
- the business affairs,
- the affairs affair.
.. Make a Venn diagram of all this, and Cohen is dead center. This ex-consigliere poses a triple threat to the godfather he once ruthlessly served
.. Let’s start with Russia. Cohen intersects with the known narrative in at least two ways. He was there when Trump cut a deal with Russian oligarch Aras Agalarov and his pop-star son Emin to hold the Miss Universe contest in Moscow in 2013. When Trump gathered with the Agalarovs in Las Vegas in June 2013 to formalize their partnership, Cohen accompanied the celebrity businessman and was part of a celebratory dinner at a high-end restaurant. That is, Cohen was present at the creation of the bond forged between Trump and this Putin-friendly oligarch. (Also in attendance was an Agalarov associate who had been linked to Russian money laundering.) This could well be significant for investigators because it was the Trump-Agalarov connection that led to the now notorious Trump Tower meeting on June 9, 2016—when Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and Paul Manafort, then the campaign chairman, met with a Russian emissary whom they were told would provide them dirt on Hillary Clinton as part of a secret Kremlin plot to help Trump.
.. When the meeting became public in July 2017, Trump Jr. released a statement falsely claiming that the meeting merely had covered Russian adoption policy. Trump’s involvement in the drafting of that inaccurate statement has been a key issue.
.. In January, Trump’s lawyers sent a letter to Mueller noting that Trump had dictated his son’s response. This raised the question of whether Trump Jr. had lied to a Senate committee when he previously said during private congressional testimony that his father had not played a vital role in concocting the statement.
.. But this letter also highlighted other potential problems for Trump: Did he lie when he publicly said he had no prior knowledge of the meeting, and did he direct potential witnesses in the Mueller investigation to stick to a false cover story? Meaning, did the president engage in obstruction of justice?.. Cohen, though, was directly involved in another key interaction between Trump and Russia during the campaign. From September 2015 through January 2016, he handled secret negotiations between Trump and a Russian company to develop a luxury Trump tower in Moscow. The middleman for these talks was Felix Sater, a onetime stock swindler who had done business with Trump in the 2000s and who was a boyhood pal of Cohen. The deal was odd in that the Russian construction company had no previous experience developing such a property. Though the CEO of this company declared he was the sole owner of the firm, the company, as Michael Isikoff and I reported in Russian Roulette: The Inside Story of Putin’s War on America and the Election of Donald Trump, was actually owned by three off-shore companies, including one controlled by a Cypriot lawyer deeply involved in Russian finance... While Trump was trying to pull off this project, he said nothing in public about the venture and campaigned as an “America First” nationalist candidate. Throughout this stretch, Trump consistently refused to criticize Russian leader Vladimir Putin, without telling voters that he was pursuing a Moscow project that Sater told Cohen would be underwritten by a bank partially owned by the Kremlin... Given that the project would not proceed if the Russian government said nyet, this was a stunning conflict of interest—perhaps one of the most scandalous personal financial conflicts of modern US political history... he certainly is familiar with the details of the hush-money deals set up for porn star Stormy Daniels and Playboy model Karen McDougal, who each claim they had an affair with Trump. One critical question is whether these payments were made to keep the women quiet because their revelations could harm Trump’s electoral chances... For investigators zeroing in on the keep-quiet payoffs, Cohen is the man... Trump’s reputation as a businessman is not one of probity and prudence. He has long had—and lied about—business connections to organized crime... In 2010, the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., opened an investigation into whether Trump, Trump Jr., and Ivanka Trump had committed fraud related to the selling of units in Trump SoHo, a 46-story luxury condominium-hotel.In 2012, the probe was dropped. Vance had received campaign donations from Trump’s personal lawyer, but he has claimed that had no bearing on the case... A sketchy deal that Trump began in 2014 to develop a Trump Hotel in Baku, Azerbaijan, may have violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act... As a friend of Cohen points out, Cohen “worked in an environment that was total chaos. People were constantly running in and out of Trump’s office. The man had a 30-second attention span. Everyone knows everything. Everyone is talking. And there are no secrets.”.. In the middle of Hurricane Donald, Cohen was as close to the mast as anyone. He may well know of Trump actions deserving of investigation that prosecutors for Mueller and the US attorney in New York have never taken a gander at.If Cohen ends up a cooperative witness, one question will be how far federal prosecutors want to—or are willing to—dig into Trump’s business. A whole new terrain could be wide open for exploration... a lawyer who worked for the Trump Organization told an acquaintance of mine, “My job boils down to doing two things. First there is this: I say, ‘Mr. Trump, you can’t do that. You really can’t do that, Mr. Trump.’ Then I say, ‘Mr. Trump, why did you do that?’” Cohen was not that type of attorney. He was the handyman who came in after one of the regular lawyers had gone through those two steps—a Mr. Fix-it for a rule-bending executive... Cohen has been compared by some to John Dean, the Nixon White House lawyer who eventually testified that Nixon was in on the Watergate cover-up and who became a quasi-hero of that scandal... No doubt, Lanny Davis is advising Cohen on how best to rehabilitate himself and change his image from a sleazy pit bull who was willing to do anything for Trump (even take a bullet!) to a repentant henchman who now is eager to serve the truth.But if Dean was a torpedo that sank Nixon, Cohen is more an aircraft carrier. He probably has ammunition that can strike multiple Trump targets. His cooperation with prosecutors could dramatically reshape and perhaps expand the Trump investigations. He is someone that Trump ought to fear. There likely are bodies buried in Trumpland, and if you want to raise the dead, Cohen is the guy to see.
President Trump’s company has agreed to remove the Trump name from its hotel in Lower Manhattan and give up management of the property, the most visible sign yet of the toll his presidency has taken on his brand.
The decision, announced by the company Wednesday afternoon, follows signs that business has flagged for months at Trump SoHo, beginning during his polarizing campaign last year.
The hotel’s sushi restaurant closed. Professional sports teams, once reliable customers, began to shun the property. The hotel struggled to attract business for its meeting rooms and banquet halls, according to reporting by radio station WNYC.
.. This will be the third time since Trump’s election that his name has been removed from a building. In July, the Trump name was taken off the Trump International Hotel in Toronto
.. In the United States, the Trump name still adorns hotels in Honolulu, Las Vegas, Chicago, New York and Washington. The Washington hotel, opened last year, has been a bright spot in the company’s portfolio. Flush with business from Christian groups, trade associations and foreign clients, its profits have greatly exceeded expectations.
.. Elsewhere, the Trump Organization has seen greens-fee revenue fall at its golf courses in Los Angeles and the Bronx, and it has lost dozens of customers who rented out banquet rooms for parties or golf courses for charity tournaments.
.. Last summer, 19 charities canceled galas or other fundraisers they had planned for this winter at Mar-a-Lago, costing the Trump Organization hundreds of thousands of dollars in lost revenue.
.. But by this year, at least 11 of the 12 NBA teams that previously stayed at Trump SoHo had quit. Some cited logistical reasons. Others said they could not stay at a hotel with Trump’s name on it.