He was merely trying to root out his true nemesis: international corruption!
Ukraine does of course have a long history of corruption. This particular explanation of Trump’s motivation for withholding lethal military aid from the country, however, has always rung a teeny bit false.
Not only because the rough transcript of Trump’s “perfect” Ukraine call never once mentioned the word corruption. Nor because Trump has sought out shady business partners accused of corrupt practices in places such as Azerbaijan and Panama.
It’s also completely at odds with Trump’s repeated attempts to destroy America’s leadership role in international corruption-fighting.
He began this process almost immediately after taking office, when he killed a bipartisan anti-corruption rule that would have required energy companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose how much they pay foreign governments.
Since then, he’s been hunting for ways to cripple the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
The FCPA, passed after Watergate, was a trailblazing law. It said that bribes were illegal not only when paid to U.S. officials, but also when paid to foreign ones. That is, people or entities that operate in the United States (whether or not they’re American) can be held criminally liable here if they grease palms in, say, China.
In criminalizing the payment of bribes in foreign jurisdictions, the FCPA arguably made the United States the first country to significantly leverage its own market power to encourage more ethical business practices everywhere.
Some companies that had been routinely pressured for kickbacks abroad welcomed the law, saying that a well-publicized threat of U.S. punishment helps tie their hands. Other companies have complained that the FCPA puts them at a disadvantage relative to less scrupulous competitors. In the decades since the FCPA was passed, however, it has inspired international anti-corruption agreements and copycat laws in dozens of countries, which have helped to level the playing field.
Even so, Trump remains firmly in the “bribery is good for business” camp.
In 2012, for instance, he gave an extended CNBC interview ranting that the FCPA is a “horrible law” and that “the world is laughing at us” for enforcing it.
“Every other country goes into these places, and they do what they have to do,” he complained. If American companies don’t offer bribes, too, he said, “you’ll do business nowhere.”
When Trump got into office, he decided to act on that long-simmering contempt. According to the blockbuster new book “A Very Stable Genius,” by my Post colleagues Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig, Trump directed his then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson to help repeal the law.
“It’s just so unfair that American companies aren’t allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas,” Trump whined in spring 2017, according to the book.
Asked on Friday whether the White House is still interested in kneecapping the FCPA, National Economic Council Director Larry Kudlow confirmed that the administration is “looking at it.” He explained that, “We have heard some complaints from our companies.”
Does “our companies” refer to the Trump Organization? Or perhaps, given the president’s frequent conflation of his own private and government interests, the executive branch of the U.S. government?
After all, some legal experts I’ve interviewed have suggested that Trump might have run afoul of the FCPA in the Ukraine affair. Trump’s exposure under the law is iffy though; the FCPA requires that something of value be offered to a government official as part of an effort to obtain or retain “business,” a criterion that might be a stretch if the “business” in question is the U.S. presidency.
In any case, it seems highly unlikely that a U.S. federal prosecutor, even an aggressive one, would take on such a case, assuming the FCPA endures. But remember that other countries still have their own FCPA-inspired laws on their own books. In fact, the Trump-appointed head of the Securities and Exchange Commission recently gave a speech urging these other countries to step up their foreign enforcement, so the burden falls less heavily on the United States to police the world’s corruption.
So other countries out there, if you’re listening: If our government won’t hold Trump accountable, maybe yours will?