Here we are, nearing the end of Donald Trump’s administration. He may have only been a one-term president, but he has left quite a wake in his passing through the halls of power (not unlike Merry Brandybuck tossing stones into the lake beneath the western walls of Moria). It might not settle back down very quickly, if it settles down at all. Now the Clinton Democrats, for good or ill, will be back in power. Joe Biden, no stranger to D.C., is Trump’s replacement. He brings much political and personal baggage with him, as the campaign season demonstrated. The focus on his son, Hunter Biden, didn’t cost him the election. But it didn’t help either, considering his weak victory against a weak incumbent (similar to the Fellowship of the Ring escaping the Watcher in the Waters by running into the caves of Moria).
The recent focus on the Hunter Biden scandal re-opened some dark corners from the previous scrutiny into Ukraine. Specifically, it brings back to mind the investigations into the bipartisan collusion involving Ukraine and Vladimir Putin (John Podesta, Clinton Democrats, and Ukraine). The topic remains as relevant as ever. But, as expected, the years of scandals and investigations get lost in the shadows as the glare of political theater and media melodrama takes center stage. It’s not clear what more is known now than in previous years. There have been so many scandals and allegations that it’s hard to keep track of them all. If you want a quick summary, there is a decent piece by Joseph W. Kopsick, Evidence of the Trumps’ and Clintons’ Possible Collusion with Russia and Ukraine (Incomplete). However, he doesn’t link to any sources of evidence or quotes. It is a summary of accusations made, not a summary of the arguments for and against the question of the validity of the accusations.
Some accusations are weak and invalid. Consider how Joule Unlimited and Rusnano is used to claim a direct connection, possibly a point of corruption and collusion, between John Podesta and Vladimir Putin. There is much criticism about the perceived lack of compelling evidence (Travis Gettys, Fox News hypes WikiLeaks claims about Clinton’s ties to Russia — just as Trump asks followers to watch). Is it possible? Sure. But is it proven? Not even close. Then again, such a hypothetical link is not implausible, considering we know Podesta’s brother had no problem knowingly working with an organization involving someone backed by Putin. Still, speculation is not enough to justify an accusation. Just because I don’t trust the Clinton Democrats doesn’t mean I trust the slanderous agenda of Fox News and Trump. Outrage for the sake of outrage is not my cup of tea.
Besides the implications of bipartsan collusion are much more compelling and damning. But neither side wants to touch that or even acknowledge it. This is why Democrats want to implicate Trump in the crimes of Paul Manafort. The fact of the matter is Manafort’s main guilt, at least in terms of Ukraine, involved acts prior to his becoming Trump’s campaign manager. Sure, they had some business associations in the past and they ran in the same social circles, at least since the Reagan era. But even Trump should be considered innocent until proven guilty. Anyway, if one wants to paint Trump as a Russian asset or otherwise compromised, it’s not hard to do. He has been in the immediate orbit of those like Vladimir Putin for decades, along with personal connections and business dealings with Russian oligarchs and Russian mafia figures, often tied to Putin. The sale of property far below market prices implicates Trump in money laundering with the Russian mafia.
The potential wrongdoings that could be investigated and prosecuted are numerous. This corruption is an open secret. If you’re interested in the detailed case against Trump, check out Jay McKenzie’s series: Trump, Putin and the mob. Research collection. Part 1: Trump campaign connections.; Part 2: #BudapestBridge and the Hungarian connection to Trump; Part 3: Ron Lauder, Bibi Netanyahu and their friends at Breitbart; Part 4: Paul Manafort was the Kremlin’s point man on the Trump campaign; Part 5: Twitter, Russia and Silicon Valley’s “Persian Mafia”; & Part 6: Trump, Felix Sater and their ties to mafia Don Semion Mogilevich. Agree or disagree in the significance of the entanglements of Trump and his minions, one thing that can’t be doubted is the existence of corrupt cronyism, not to mention the geopolitical power and financial profit of their machinations. Nonetheless, that is a far cry from proving Putin got Trump elected. But it sure does corroborate how enmeshed he was with complex webs of unsavory figures.
One might add that Paul Manafort wasn’t a nobody who just showed up on Trump’s doorstep right before his campaign began. They may have not been close friends and Trump may have had a genuine senior citizen moment in his claiming to not have immediately remembered Manafort, but their relations were far from distant or superficial. Their dealings go back to the 1980s when Trump, as with Ronald Reagan, was one of the first clients of Manafort’s firm. Whatever other associations they may have had over the decades, six months before joining Trump’s campaign in March of 2016, here is what was going on: “Felix Sater and Donald Trump’s personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, work together on a Trump Tower Moscow deal. Donald Trump signs a letter of intent on the deal in October of 2015.” Then three months in as campaign manager, Manafort was at the “meeting held at Trump Tower between the Trump campaign and Russian operatives” (McKenzie, Part 4). One can sense underlying connections.
Keep in mind that Manafort was involved as a foreign agent in Ukraine for at least a decade. He may have been there as early as 2004 during that country’s presidential election (Mustafa Nayem, AMERICAN SPIN-DOCTORS ON YANUKOVYCH’S SERVICE; from ACTION UKRAINE REPORT – AUR – Number 833, U.S.-Ukraine Business Council (USUBC)) or, according to another source, even earlier in 2003 (Yulia Tymoshenko and John Does 1 through 50 v. Plaintiffs; United States District Court for the Southern District of New York). Certainly, he was a notorious and powerful Ukranian actor beginning at the latest during 2005.
And by 2006, when living in Trump Tower, Manafort was “hired by Oleg Deripaska and paid $10 million a year to improve Vladimir Putin’s image with the west” and “to lobby directly for Vladimir Putin” (McKenzie). Also, “Paul worked closely with, at least, two Russian intelligence officials in Ukraine — Viktor Medvedchuk and Manafort’s assistant, Konstantin Kilimnik. Manafort worked with Kremlin propaganda there to help elect a pro-Putin candidate, which, we now must admit, is exactly the situation we saw in Donald Trump’s campaign.” Essentially, “Paul Manafort was Putin’s employee for several years.” It’s hard to imagine Trump was clueless of the existence of Manafort and all that he was doing.
Here is McKenzie’s description of the decade spent in service to Putin and his minions, overlapping with the work he began doing with Trump prior to the campaign: “Consider the amount of work Manafort did from 2005 onwards with the men involved in the 2004 election rigging. Also remember that Manafort’s allegiances did not shift. He began work with Oleg Deripaska in 2000–01. He was introduced to Yanukovych by Deripaska. Manafort began to work with Putin directly in 2006, and Paul continued to work for Yanukovych until 2014, when he fled Ukraine and began living in exile in Moscow.” Manafort had a well known reputation for the work he had done there. It was as significant as his reputation in New York City and Washington, D.C.
It wasn’t only that Trump had to know the kind of people he was getting in bed with. He was already in bed with them. When pointing to them being part of the same social circles, this includes Putin himself and numerous Russian oligarchs, the latter only allowed to be in that elite position because they worked for Putin or otherwise served his interests. As a conclusion, McKenzie states that, “Who is the most common and recurring link between Firtash, Mogilevich, Deripaska, and Fred Trump’s former righthand man? Simple, it’s former Trump campaign chairman and Trump Tower resident Paul Manafort.”
Not even Fox News is able to deny the obvious: “Investigating the business ties between Russia and those in President Donald Trump’s orbit is a legitimate exercise. One-time Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was an advisor to the pro-Russian Ukrainian president. Former Trump advisor Carter Page had energy deals involving Russian companies. Former National Security Advisor General Michael Flynn gave a nicely paid speech in Moscow as a private citizen and was less than complete in explaining his conversations with Russian officials. And then there is the simple fact that Attorney General (former senator) Jeff Session, while a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, communicated with the Russian Ambassador” (Peter Schweizer, Trump vs. Clintons’ Russia ties (guess who always got a free pass)).
Of course, Fox News tried to downplay the import with lesser evilism, a tactic also used by DNC-aligned media. But it doesn’t feel overly satisfying to argue about whether Putin, as geopolitical puppet master, has reached further up the asses of the Trump gang or the Clinton gang. A political independent and equal opportunity critic has a hard time making sense of most of it. All that becomes clear is that the halls of power and financing are flooded with devious and sinister actors, and very little of it has to do with partisan politics. One begins to sense what is meant by references to the shadowy deep state.
To suggest that the Russian and related investigations were partisan fake news is total bullshit. The conflict certainly was spun by corporate media for the purposes of corporatist politics, but both sides participated in the staged production because both sides hoped to keep the real issues out of the limelight. Maybe it all comes down to power, as spoken through the language of wealth. Money knows no party lines nor national boundaries. Whether Republicans or Democrats hold the presidency, those benefitting from American business interests always seems to somehow involve profit for Putin-backed companies and Russia oligarchs. This was seen with uranium during the Obama administration (Democrats, Russians, and Uranium). And it was seen with steel during the Trump administration (Steve Horn, Behind Trump’s Push for “American Steel” in Pipelines, Another Russian Company with Putin Ties Stands to Benefit).
For many years, there were those who rightly pointed to the legalized bribery as a means for powerful interests to buy access and benefits. Besides the Uranium One scandal, this also included the Saudis having donated to the Clinton Foundation to ensure they would receive a generous arms deal from Hilary Clinton when she was Secretary of State (Clinton Foundation–State Department controversy). Those involved all operated within the letter of the law and maintained careful divisions to allow for plausible deniability, but any honest observer would admit that it is bribery and corruption. This was the infamous pay-to-play. This subverting of democracy is so normalized as to hardly be scandalous at all, at least to the mind grown cynical.
Donald Trump, in many ways, maybe doesn’t get criticized as harshly as one might expect. Everyone already knew he was a sleazy businessman before he was elected. Well known is his having run businesses into the ground, declared bankruptcy over and over, evaded debt collectors, cheated business partners, refused to pay contractors, and mistreated employees. Then there are outright scams like Trump University. Only his wealth and high-powered lawyers have saved him from the consequences and punishments that he deserves. All of that is on top of a lifetime dwelling in the swampy waters of the elite, from New York City to Washington, D.C. to Moscow and beyond. Surely, his close ties to the political elite in both parties, including the Clintons, helped protect him and his business interests.
Trump and his entre family were born in the swamp and have flourished there. The Trumps, in ever seeking profit, haven’t even pretended to care about democracy, but that is no surprise to their supporters and so outrage is limited. No one, Republican or Democrat, ever expected Trump to be anything other than a slimy swamp creature. In fact, Trump proudly campaigned on being corrupt, arguing that only someone as corrupt as him could fight corruption, as strange as that might sound to a mind not totally demented by the brutal logic of power. With such open corruption, it’s hard to attack Trump’s corruption as a weakness or a failure. It is simply who he is and why a certain kind of person voted for him, not that this minority of supporters exactly gave a public mandate to be wantonly corrupt. Still, it must be admitted that he was, in his own way, honest about his dishonesty.
Besides, it’s not like Trump is an anomaly. This is a family of corruption with a dishonorable legacy that goes back generations. Trump and his siblings, when they were still young, initially inherited money from their father, Fred Trump, as part of various illegal tax evasion schemes. And this continued into the 1990s (David Barstow, Susanne Craig & Russ Buettner, Trump Engaged in Suspect Tax Schemes as He Reaped Riches From His Father). Their wealth was built on real estate and construction in New York City, but it was initially accumulated by the grandfather, Friedrich Trumpf, who made his first fortune by running an illegal brothel during the Klondike Gold Rush in the Yukon. It was in New York City, though, that the family more fully got involved in corruption and criminality. That place was infamous for its machine politics that was well oiled with bribery, kickbacks, and graft; cronyism, favoritism, and nepotism.
The Trump family fit in perfectly well. New York City politics and big biz was enmeshed in Tammany Hall, along with boroughs and municipalities run like fiefdoms, not to mention powerful organized crime that controlled the construction industry. One didn’t become a wealthy businessman, particularly in real estate, in that climate without being a criminal and working with criminals. The evidence points to both Donald and Fred having bought politicians. This behavior became far darker as Donald began working closely with the local mafia, such as laundering money, a practice that he did with foreign organized crime as well. There was also mortgage fraud and much else that ties him to the former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of the closest cronies of the Trump family. This corruption was later joined with that of Jared Kushner’s family by way of marriage to Ivanka Trump.
That decadent culture of open corruption is probably why Trump is so cavalier about his own malbehavior, with a confidence that people like him are above the law because they have deep pockets to buy the legal outcomes they so desire. Such vast moral depravity was normalized for him in childhood when he got his first taste of American-style capitalism. It was only natural for him to continue this behavior once he formally entered politics, although he had been closely tied to the political elite his entire life. As promised, President Trump ran the country like a business and, in his experience, that means corruption by default. He doesn’t know how to run a business honestly, an alien concept to his mind.
Only part way through his term as president, there was documented 2,000 instances identified as “conflicts of interest between his business interests and his duty to the country as president” (Gretchen Frazee, Trump criticizes the Bidens, but his own family’s business raises questions). That happened in less than three years and he was only warming up. He really upped his game in this last year when he knew he was running out of time before the scam would be up and he has ended up adding more than another thousand conflicts of interest (Julia Conley, ‘An Astonishing Rate of Corruption’: Trump Has Amassed 3,000 Conflicts of Interest Since Taking Office). Also, that is only looking at the conflicts of interest, not the hundreds of other forms of corruption such as selling key political positions to private power, as seen with a tidal wave of regulatory capture. Then, on top of that, there are the near endless activities of his own family the he nepotistically inserted into power while they continued to push various family financial interests, often using their political position to ensure backing and funding or else to promote products.
So, why haven’t the Trumps been nailed for their known illegal actions? And why hasn’t Trump been impeached, as impeachment doesn’t even require proving criminality? “THE DEFENSE GOT ONE THING RIGHT at Donald Trump’s Senate trial,” writes Jim Lardner (Mapping Corruption: Donald Trump’s Executive Branch). “The case against him was thin, his team kept saying; and so it was, compared to the enormity of this administration’s other offenses.” It makes one wonder why the DNC and deep state that is portrayed as hating Trump chose such a weak case that would guaranteed he would get away without punishment. There were so many crimes that, if prosecuted, could land Trump and family in prison. The defenders of the Establishment wanted to put on a good show for the viewing public and they wanted to send the clear message to Trump that he needed to back down, but actually destroying one of the highest and most powerful of the ruling elite would set a dangerous precedent.* The weakness of that particular legal case, though, should not be taken as innocence, as Lardner makes clear:
“Set aside the hate-mongering and the stream of conspiracy theories and demagogic bombast. Trump has sowed corruption of a breadth and brazenness unseen in the far-from-innocent annals of our nation’s history. In three years as president, he has transformed the executive branch into a giant favor factory, populated with the agents or willing partners of virtually every special interest. Add up all the routine, daily outrages—the quasi-bribery and quasi-extortion, the private raids on public funds, the handouts to the undeserving, the massive flow of cash, jobs, and freebies back in return—and Trump’s attempt to squeeze a little re-election help out of the fragile government of a desperate Eastern European country does not loom particularly large in the reckoning.
“Adding it all up is a challenge, though. It’s hard to fathom the depths of the kleptocracy when there’s so much happening on the surface to divert us. The corruption most directly in our faces involves the looting and skimming and self-dealing of the president and his family. Our first hotel-owning president has inspired a parade of foreign diplomats and domestic lobbyists to pay tribute with overnight stays that are functionally indistinguishable from bribes. The Secret Service has blown over half a million dollars on golf carts protecting a leader who has spent nearly one out of every three days of his first term at one of his resort properties, which get free advertising on top of the revenue from lodging his guards and retinue. Ivanka Trump snags a valuable set of Chinese trademarks on the same day she dines with Xi Jinping. Kellyanne Conway hawks Ivanka’s products in TV interviews.
“But the personal corruption of the Trumps themselves perversely masks the sliminess perpetrated by literally thousands of presidential appointees, from Cabinet officials to obscure functionaries. Amid all the distractions, it’s hard to focus on the more consequential crookedness and follow out the plotlines of all the sordid stories, and grasp the brutal consequences visited upon countless people. We lunge from scandal to scandal without ever filling in the bigger picture, or taking proper account of all the knaves, thieves, and corporate stooges and their handiwork.”
Trump was never going to drain the swamp, no more than Trump’s cronies in D.C. were going to take down Trump. Here is the difference that is offered to the American public, typically framed as ‘lesser evilism’. The Trumps will punch you in the face and kick you in the balls to get what they want and then walk away with piles of money, whereas the Clintons will put a friendly arm on your shoulder and look you in the eyes as they slip a hand into your back pocket (maybe while starting another war to profit the military-industrial complex, a war that the corporate media won’t report on). Six of one, half a dozen of the other.
With Trump as patriarchal mob boss, the blatant thievery and thuggery is the supposed ‘honesty’ that Trump supporters so adore. This administration’s corruption has become so bold that it defies any need to be hidden, any pretenses of respectability. It might not be long before other politicians follow the example of the Trumps, as the entire elite loses all shame and fear. Then it will be normalized and full-on fascism can begin. This means that the equivalent of Manafort and the Podesta brothers could operate out in the open where eventually not even Federal investigators might be able to touch them.
All of that said, in the end, is Trump’s misbehavior really worse than the decades of conniving that built the American Empire in the first place such that it could be taken over by someone like Trump? The American ruling elite have been undermining democracy and overthrowing democratic governments for more than a century. Are we surprised that democracy here at home has suffered in our being publicly shamed on the international stage by Trump’s buffoonery? When Democrats had the presidency and majority control, did they constrain executive power according to the Constitution, instead of expanding it further? Of course not. We never would have had a Trump presidency without the Clinton dynasty and the Bush dynasty, without the systemic moral rot of administration after administration.
So, here we are. President elect Joe Biden will cobble the pieces back together, smooth over the threatening fractures, make the American Empire respectable again. This will inevitably fail in the long run, as democratic reform can only be delayed for so long before something else forces change. The corruption will continue to get worse, as will the public outrage. Next up might be a truly competent dictator, maybe sooner than some expect. Then Democrats will speak nostalgically of the Trump era when things weren’t so bad.
* * *
* Then again, some argue that, once the Trump family is out of power, they could become less protected from a deep state that may perceive them as having gone too far and so potentially could use them to set an example to keep the rest of the oligarchy in line. And the other oligarchs might not feel forgiving toward the Trumps in having threatened the Establishment with dangerous political games. Even the most horrific of crimes can be tolerated, as long as they are in defense of power itself. Trump’s presidency, instead, has left that system of power in shambles and that harms the interests and agendas of many people who otherwise would be extremely tolerant of the shenanigans of someone like Donald Trump. This plutocratic family might find it’s luck has run out.
“Trump is more vulnerable to prosecution,” Jon Schwarz explains, “than other presidents because he’s engaged in so many potential nontraditional presidential crimes. With the invasion of Iraq, George W. Bush committed what the Nuremberg trials referred to as “the supreme international crime” of initiating a war of aggression. But there was never any chance that he’d be punished for this, because the entire U.S. power structure agrees that American presidents have the right to do it. Same for conducting thousands of drone strikes or torturing people around the globe. By contrast, Trump has engaged in many comparatively small, shabby, possible criminal activities outside of his presidential duties” (Losing Could Expose Trump To Prosecution For Any Number of Crimes).
This probably won’t happen. But it could. No president has ever attacked the deep state before, even if it was merely political theater. The deep state doesn’t like to be forced out into the open through involvement in partisan fights and campaign rhetoric. Donald Trump is no Richard Nixon who will shrink away into the shadows after being ousted from power. And in finding his entire family having gained the status of pariah, Trump’s antics as an attention whore could get worse. Various actors in the Establishment might decide that it will need to fully and finally put the uncouth Trump clan back into its place. If the Trumps fight back, they might just make it worse and force empty threats to become real prosecutions. They’d be wise to tread lightly until events cool back down. Those in power would prefer that Trump simply concede power and just go away.
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As the main target of hatred for nearly the entire political right, along with more than a few on the political left, there has been decades of criticism, analysis, and investigations about the Clintons and their cronies; not to mention the endless conspiracy theories. But now the Trump dynasty is in the spotlight. For those interested, there has been an unsurprising increase of investigating reporting on the details of depravity for this scandalous family:
- Tracking Trump’s Conflicts of Interest
from Sunlight Foundation
- Federal Criminal Offenses and the Impeachment of Donald J. Trump
by Andrew Weissmann, Sam Berger, Randall Eliason, Barbara McQuade, Paul Seamus Ryan, Susan Simpson, Gary Stein and Michael Stern
- Exposing Trump’s Deals
from Global Witness
- Trump’s hypocrisy on corruption is just what Putin wants
by Indra Ekmanis
- The Self-Dealing Administration
by Michelle Cottle
- A New Report on Trump’s Foreign Business Holdings Points to a Gobsmacking Level of Corruption
by Jack Holmes
- Donald Trump Took Advantage of the US’s Legalized Corruption
by David Sirota
- Donald Trump has turned the White House into a bribe factory
- How Trump’s epic corruption reveals hidden weaknesses in the system
by Paul Waldman
- Trumpworld’s Corruption Is as Globalized as the Ultra-Rich the President Mingles With
by Ananya Chakravarti
- There’s a wider scandal suggested by the Trump investigations
by Ofer Raban
- Trump Didn’t Bribe Ukraine. It’s Actually Worse Than That.
by Renato Mariotti
- Giuliani and Trump: Bound by Corruption From the Beginning?
by Tom Robbins
- Corruption, Inc.: Andrea Bernstein on the Trumps, the Kushners, and the Age of the Oligarchs
by Dylan Foley
- Nepotism and the 2020 election, explained
by Matthew Yglesias
- Jared Kushner may have an ethics problem – to the tune of $90m
by Vicky Ward
- This Is Still Happening: Jared Kushner
by Jeremy Stahl
- This Is Still Happening: Trump Children Ivanka, Don Jr., and Eric
by Jeremy Stahl
- How Don Jr., Ivanka, and Eric Trump Have Profited Off Their Dad’s Presidency
by Jay Willis
- Enough about Hunter Biden. What about Ivanka Trump?
by Joan Vennochi
- Will Ivanka Trump be a target of multiple corruption investigations if her dad loses the election?
by Travis Gettys
- The Corruption of Ivanka Trump
from US Restance News