For decades, there has been strong bipartisan support for U.S. leadership in the global fight against corruption. Under Republican and Democratic presidents, the leadership at the State, Justice, Treasury and Defense Departments promoted whole-of-government anti-corruption programs on a global scale — without the need for secret missions. And for good reason: Corruption undermines the rule of law, stunts economic growth and benefits regimes and organizations that threaten international peace and security.
These programs were backed by substantial economic and political support and by the example of respect for rule of law set by all branches of the federal government. But under the Trump administration, these three pillars of U.S. support have been weakened dramatically.
Economic support for anti-corruption programs, historically tens of millions of dollars each year, has been vital to securing global consensus for landmark agreements setting anti-corruption standards and for regional and country-level programs promoting their implementation.
Yet Trump’s 2020 budget proposal, the largest in federal history, seeks to reduce economic support, slashing spending on anti-corruption programs generally and on such programs in Ukraine, in particular. The administration tried to do the same thing last year: In 2019, the budget would have cut funding from $30 million to $13 million for programs related to fighting corruption in Ukraine. Fortunately, Congress rejected that request, but the president’s message is clear — fighting corruption in Ukraine is not a priority.
There is no doubt that corruption presents a threat to the effective and proper use of foreign aid. And it’s true that, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, many countries receiving the most U.S. assistance appear to be the most corrupt. Afghanistan (ranked 172 out of 180 countries in the index) and Iraq (ranked 168) illustrate how widespread and intractable corruption jeopardizes the effectiveness of billions in U.S. assistance and, more important, threatens our strategic national security objectives.
The right response is to help fight corruption, not to choke off aid. But there is scant evidence that the president has taken an equally personal interest in fighting corruption in these countries.
The administration hasn’t just cut economic support for anti-corruption programs. It has undermined political support by praising corrupt leaders.
Prior Republican and Democratic presidents have sent a strong political message endorsing good governance by refusing to meet with kleptocrats and speaking out about the importance of fighting corruption. In contrast, Trump and multiple Cabinet officials have expressed robust support for leaders of countries with endemic corruption and anti-democratic policies. Trump has embraced, among others, the anti-democratic leaders of Russia, Turkey and Egypt, and even said “we fell in love” of the North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. Those leaders have all attacked the judiciary, the media, civil society and even the truth — all essential to fight corruption.
As to leading by example, Trump has flouted constitutional, legal and ethical norms here at home, too. He and his administration have what appear to be unprecedented levels of conflicts of interest. The president’s result from his refusal to divest his business interests in a blind trust. Trump hotels and golf courses in the United States and abroad have received hundreds of paid visits from foreign officials, members of Congress, the vice president and Cabinet officials. Trump and his family have received loans, trademarks, licenses and other benefits from foreign governments of strategic interest to the United States. As a legal matter, the president is not subject to the conflict-of-interest law that would prevent any other government official from doing the same thing. But his conflicts remain, undermining trust that the country’s interests are paramount in his decision-making.
The impeachment hearings have focused on the quid pro quo necessary to prove a criminal offense of bribery in a court of law. But an act need not be illegal to be considered corrupt. The president who promised to drain the swamp, however, put his personal political interests ahead of our national interests, demonstrating his apparent view that if it’s not illegal, it’s not corrupt.
The credibility of U.S. leadership in the fight against corruption has been damaged by the president’s failure to demonstrate any concern about the corrosive and damaging impact of corruption in Ukraine or, sadly, here at home.