Future historians will study the ’16 election and marvel at the fact that a minority of voters — currently a second-place 46.8 percent and falling — fell head over heels for a con artist who vowed to “drain the swamp.” Especially since it was clear, before and after the election, that Donald Trump is a notorious swamp swimmer. As are some of his closest pals, like Rudy Giuliani.
Over the next four years (or however long this regime lasts), charting the Trump team’s hypocrisies will be an onerous task. I have no illusions that the 46.8 percent will care, but so be it. I’m writing for those who are clear-eyed, not pie-eyed. And I’ll start with this simple observation: The conflicts of interest that we already know about are far more serious and blatant than anything the Clinton Foundation supposedly did.
Yeah, the Clinton Foundation got donations from people who wanted to do some business with the State Department. But Giuliani, who’s supposedly on the short list for Secretary of State, has been paid directly by foreign powers, quite frequently and lavishly, during his long career as a “consultant” (a fancy word for unregistered lobbyist). He’s the epitome of a swamp creature. But that’s fine with Trump, because Trump’s top criteria is loyalty, not ethical probity.
The 46.8 percent was convinced that “crooked” Hillary was awash in conflicts of interest. But here’s what real conflicts look like: Giuliani has longstanding ties to a firm that provides “image consulting” to Russian oligarchs allied with Vladimir Putin, and does consulting work for a Russian pipeline that’s currently the target of Western sanctions. If Giuliani (who has no foreign policy experience) were to become Secretary of State, would he take actions regarding Russia that benefit our national interest, or his business interests?
Another longstanding Giuliani client is TransCanada, which sought to build the Keystone pipeline that was nixed last year by President Obama after Secretary of State John Kerry signaled thumbs-down. If Giuliani were to succeed Kerry, would he revive the TransCanada application as a favor to his client?
Would Giuliani tilt extra favorably toward Saudi Arabia, as a favor to the law firm that made Giuliani a partner, the same law firm that has listed Saudi Arabia’s oil ministry as a client?
Would Giuliani’s relations with Iran be rockier than we would like, given the fact that he frequently took big speechmaking bucks from an Iranian dissident group that antagonizes the governing regime?
Would we be able to trust his dealings with Qatar, given the fact that his consulting firm has sought to enrich Qatar’s government through real estate deals in New York? (The Wall Street Journal broke that story nine years ago.)
We don’t actually know whether Giuliani will wind up at State; perhaps a noctural Trump tweet will tell us for sure. And when it comes to conflicts of interest, Giuliani is just a minnow in the undrained swamp. Trump himself is the biggest fish. Which anyone who cared enough to pay attention, anyone with the gift of cognitive reading comprehension, has long recognized.
I wrote in September, while referencing that Newsweek investigation: “Here, after all, is what conflicts of interest really look like, as opposed to the penny ante Clinton Foundation factoids about donors giving money and taking meetings that get them nothing. Here, by contrast, is substantive proof that Trump’s business practices – conducted with scant transparency — would raise ‘the prospect of legal bribery by overseas powers seeking to influence American foreign policy, either through existing or future partnerships.'”
Past American presidents have put their business assets in blind trust, to be run by independent trustees. But our aspiring autocrat says he’ll cede the Trump Organization and its 500 limited liability companies — with its investments in former Soviet republics, the Middle East, Turkey, India, the state-owned Bank of China, and elsewhere — to three of his adult children. Which means he’ll be well positioned to feather his nest. Which means he’ll continue to have substantial financial interests in regions and nations that could be subject to sanctions if or when our national interest requires it.
Would he serve the latter, at the expense of his business assets? Heck, we don’t even know the extent of those assets, because the 46.8 percent didn’t care that he refused to release his tax returns.
Who knows, maybe the supine Republicans will wake up and pay attention. Rand Paul — hey, remember him? — a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, seems to have shaken off a few cobwebs. He told CNN the other day: “It is worrisome, some of the ties to foreign governments. That was a big complaint many of us [had] with Hillary Clinton.”
But he was referring only to Giuliani, so his moment of dissent may prove ephemeral. The bottom line is that Trump’s vows to “drain the swamp” were just another con. Because he is the swamp. And all those Trumpkins who hate Wall Street have set themselves up to be conned.