The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Trump is still acting like a tinpot kleptocrat. Here’s a rundown.

(Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

Because the United States is the closest thing there is to a global hegemon, every country in the world has to carefully consider its relationship to us as it shapes its foreign policy. That can involve complex considerations — traditional alliances, military realities, trade relationships and so on. It can be tricky to manage if you want to win America’s favor or avoid its wrath.

Or they can just put money in our president’s pocket and those of his family. That works, too.

When we learned yesterday that over the past three months the Chinese government has granted Ivanka Trump 13 trademarks in the country, along with provisional approval for eight more — which “could allow her brand to market a lifetime’s worth of products in China” — no one could have been surprised. It’s only the latest in a long string of cases in which foreign and domestic interests have decided that, whether there’s something specific they’re seeking from the Trump administration at a particular moment or not, there’s no better way to keep things running smoothly than by greasing some Trump palms.

It’s happening all over:

  • Earlier this month, an Indonesian developer building a Trump-branded resort outside Jakarta signed a deal for $500 million in loans from the Chinese government. Three days later, the president announced that he wanted to bail out Chinese technology firm ZTE, which was going to be crippled by U.S. sanctions.
  • Cadre, a real estate startup co-founded and partly owned by Jared Kushner, is in talks with an investment fund that gets most of its capital from the Saudi government for a $100 million investment.
  • Last April, Jared Kushner’s father attempted to get an investment from the government of Qatar in 666 Fifth Avenue, a building that has become an albatross for Kushner Cos. (they drastically overpaid for it at the height of the real estate bubble). That attempt was unsuccessful, and not long after that, the Trump administration sided with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates in their conflict with Qatar. But this month we learned that the Kushners are close to a deal with a company partly owned by Qatar to bail out the property.
  • In countries all over the world where the Trump organization has licensed properties, governments are building roads and other infrastructure, speeding permits and otherwise spending money to ensure the profitability of Trump resorts, hotels and residential buildings.
  • Everyone from foreign governments to special interest groups to Trump’s allies have decided that the quickest and easiest way to do Trump a favor is to book stays and events at his properties; such bookings jumped dramatically after he became president. And you can get in on the act, because if you give a donation to Trump’s reelection campaign or the RNC, there’s a good chance your money will be used to book an event at a Trump property, which means you’ll be paying him.

That’s just some of what we know about, but there are almost certainly other cases of private or governmental interests directing money Trump’s way and managing to keep it concealed. And don’t forget, while Trump gave up day-to-day management of the Trump Organization, he’s still the one reaping the profits (and if you think he’d let Donald Trump Jr. and Eric Trump run things without any input from him, I have a bridge to sell you). Of course, we don’t know the full extent of where Trump’s money is coming from because he still refuses to release his tax returns like every president before him for the past half-century.

Corrupt politicians generally follow a pattern to enrich themselves. This financial investigator says they usually trip up doing it. (Video: Gillian Brockell, Kate Woodsome/The Washington Post)

What this all reveals is that Trump has created an environment in which naked corruption is now the expected way of doing business. For instance, when you found out that Michael Cohen was able to extract millions of dollars from a group of corporations for his “insights” on the Trump administration’s approach to various policy issues, you might have asked yourself: How could these companies be so stupid? Did they really think that someone like Cohen had anything to offer them?

The most obvious answer is that they were hoping that by giving Cohen ridiculous fees, they could win Trump’s favor. Who knows, maybe some of the money might find its way back to the president through one of Cohen’s dodgy LLCs. In the most remarkable case, the drug maker Novartis agreed to pay Cohen $1.2 million, had a single meeting with him in which it apparently determined that he was an idiot, but paid him the rest of the money anyway, because it was best not to rock the boat.

Why would major corporations used to doing business with reported campaign contributions and white-shoe lobbyists start giving what look like once-removed bribes? Because they probably figured that Trump is president now, and this is just how things are going to work.

And they’re right. But it’s important to understand that there needn’t be any explicit quid pro quos for this to be a deeply corrupt system of favor exchange. I doubt that Trump got on the phone with Chinese President Xi Jinping and said, “Listen, if you arrange for the loan to the Indonesian casino, I’ll make sure we save ZTE.” But it didn’t have to be said.

One favor isn’t necessarily in direct payment for another; it’s more of an ongoing system in which good relations are maintained by finding ways to give Trump what he wants above all else: money. If you’re China or Qatar, you might be arguing with Trump one day but know that the next day you could be cooperating. And you know that you send some cash his way or his family’s way, you’re making an investment that will pay off somewhere down the line.

And make no mistake: The Republican Party is directly complicit in all of it. Republicans could be asking questions, carrying out their oversight responsibilities, and generally taking the position that the presidency should not be treated like a business opportunity to be monetized at every turn. But the people who angrily shouted “Corruption!” when foreign governments donated to the Clinton Foundation to provide medications for people suffering with AIDS today look at other foreign governments putting money in Trump’s pocket and say, “What’s the problem?”

“I don’t feel good about turning down money,” Trump said in 2016. “Because my whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy, I grabbed all the money I could get, I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.” All of that was obviously true, except for the last part. Is anyone really surprised that rather than putting aside his greed, Trump has used the presidency to grab all the money he can get?

Read more from Paul Waldman:

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