“We will no longer surrender this country, or its people, to the false song of globalism,” Trump declared in a campaign speech in 2016, setting the stage for his “America First” agenda. The message was effective, winning over voters who felt they had lost out in an age defined by globalization, free trade and powerful multinational corporations.
Now there's even more evidence underscoring his administration's flimsy commitment to the rhetoric that brought it to power. This week, we've been confronted by a steady drip of revelations contained in the leaked trove of documents known as the “Paradise Papers.” These are about 13.4 million files obtained in part from a Bermuda-based law firm that helped corporations and wealthy individuals set up offshore companies and accounts. In many cases, the moves allowed the firm's clients to avoid paying taxes at home. A similarly mammoth leak last year, dubbed the “Panama Papers,” prompted, among other things, the resignations of leaders in Pakistan and Iceland.
“The latest document leaks raise more questions about business ties between Russia and some of the most prominent members of Trump’s Cabinet,” my colleague Carol Morello noted. “The New York Times reported that the documents include references to offshore holdings by Gary Cohn, the chief economic adviser, and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. There is, however, no evidence that any of the holdings were illegal.”
“I'm not embarrassed at all,” Cohn told CNBC on Tuesday. Cohn was named in the papers as an officer of 22 business entities in Bermuda, dating back to when he was a senior Goldman Sachs executive. “This is the way that the world works.”
That is certainly true. As my colleague Rick Noack noted, the Paradise Papers may generate a media-led uproar, but the loopholes revealed in them still exist and are, in most cases, legal.
So, why does this all matter? Consider the argument of a more genuine economic populist, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.): “The major issue of our time is the rapid movement toward international oligarchy in which a handful of billionaires own and control a significant part of the global economy,” Sanders said in a statement this week. “The Paradise Papers shows how these billionaires and multinational corporations get richer by hiding their wealth and profits and avoid paying their fair share of taxes.”
That's something the populist, antiglobalist Trump would, in theory, be upset about. But Trump has not said or tweeted a word about the leaks. The Republican tax changes being unfurled under his watch specifically benefit corporations and the superwealthy. New York Times columnist (and Nobel Prize-winning economist) Paul Krugman calculated that, if enacted, the Trump tax cuts would even yield a $700 billion windfall to wealthy foreigners who own U.S. equities.
And perhaps the greatest irony revealed in the documents is that Trump's campaign attacks on his “globalist” opponent were themselves partially sponsored by offshore cash. According to the Guardian, the billionaire Mercer family — which funds alt-right website Breitbart and is closely linked to ultranationalist ideologue Stephen K. Bannon — “built a $60m war chest for conservative causes inside their family foundation by using an offshore investment vehicle to avoid U.S. tax.”
“Taxes are, as a noted American jurist put it, the price we pay for civilization,” noted an editorial in the Guardian, which is one of the publications scrutinizing the documents. “Voters tax themselves, among other things, for schools, roads, a health service, for welfare provision, to pay their soldiers and build a diplomatic corps. When a group at the top of society secedes and forms a globally mobile republic, able to choose which jurisdiction they wish to operate under, the public is right to ask why we allow this to happen. Why should taxes just be for the little people?”
Trump campaigned for the “forgotten people.” But he seems increasingly bound up with the “globally mobile republic” he so vehemently decried.