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Self-dealing Trump is Kleptocrats’ Role Model

US Once Led Anti-corruption Fight with Pioneering Laws and Diplomacy

Published in: USA Today
US President Donald Trump shown prior to the 2019 G-7 summit in southern France, during a lunch with French President Emmanuel Macron.  © 2019 Ludovic Marin/AP Images

In announcing he would not, after all, award the 2020 summit of the Group of Seven major industrial nations to his own resort in Florida, President Donald Trump tweeted, “I thought I was doing something very good for our Country,” and disparaged the “Crazed and Irrational Hostility” of his critics.

Even in backing down, Trump rejects any expectation that he should separate his public office from his business interests. Awarding himself the G-7 summit was especially audacious not least because in 2016, the G-7 committed to fighting corruption specifically in government contracts. But this brazen attempt at self-dealing was consistent with the Trump administration’s long record of retreating from America’s bipartisan role as a leader in the fight against global corruption.

Trump retreat from corruption fight 

The United States has long understood that corruption has profoundly corrosive and transnational ripple effects. Where there is impunity for official corruption, government itself becomes a means for the elite to enrich itself and silence its critics. Corruption allowed to fester breeds poverty, violence and instability that can have far reaching consequences. Human Rights Watch, the World Bank and others have documented how corruption often disproportionately harms the poor, denying them access to basic rights such as health, education and fair trials.

Recognizing this, the United States has pioneered groundbreaking efforts to curb corruption through its laws, enforcement and diplomacy. When the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act prohibited U.S. companies from bribing foreign officials in 1977, no other country had a similar law, but similar laws have since been enacted by the United Kingdom, Canada, Brazil, France and many other countries.

The 2010 Dodd-Frank Act required publicly traded oil, gas and mining companies to publish what they pay to foreign governments, a provision that inspired copycat laws in Canada, the European Union and Norway.

Also in 2010, the Department of Justice established an innovative kleptocracy asset recovery initiative, dedicated to seizing illicit funds laundered in the United States and returning them for the benefit of the public from whom they were stolen.

The United States, however, has retreated from this role under Trump, who once disparaged the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act as “ridiculous” and a “terrible law.” The Dodd-Frank transparency provision hasn’t yet gone into effect because Congress, with Trump’s support, repealed the federal rule creating the disclosure requirement and has yet to propose a replacement.

The Trump administration also withdrew the United States from the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative, a global standard for transparency around natural resources.

Ukraine to Guatemala, walking away

But it’s more than that. The Trump administration sought to cut funding for foreign anti-corruption programs, including in Ukraine. And it has noticeably demurred using its formidable diplomatic leverage to combat corruption in places where America's voice was once decisive. There is perhaps no better example of this transformation and its enormous stakes for the rights of ordinary citizens than Guatemala. 

Endemic corruption in Guatemala has allowed organized crime to thrive, fueling grave abuses. Yet the Trump administration helped strangle a fledgling anti-corruption commission in Guatemala, which shuttered its doors in September. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, was backed by the United Nations and founded in 2007 with the strong support of President George W. Bush. The United States, its top donor, had given it $44 million.

In 2015, when then-President Otto Pérez Molina threatened to end CICIG’s mandate, he said he reversed course because the Obama administration made its continuation “practically a condition” for U.S. aid. Only months later, Pérez Molina was forced to resign after a CICIG investigation connected him to massive corruption. 

In sharp contrast, the Trump administration has stood by silently since Guatemala’s latest president, Jimmy Morales, whom CICIG has also accused of corruption, announced last year that he would not extend the commission’s mandate.

Trump is role model for corruption

Beyond that, Trump’s flagrant self-dealing, by echoing the language of kleptocrats, is itself a major blow to the fight against global corruption. Soon after he was elected, he told The New York Times he sees no problem pursuing his business interests during official meetings. “The president can’t have a conflict of interest,” he said.

He has also refused to release his tax returns or divest from his complex web of international businesses, as all modern U.S. presidents have done. (He promised to put his businesses in a revocable trust run by his sons, although it would do little to resolve the risk of conflict of interest, and no trust agreement has been made public.) Since then, he has regularly used the presidency in ways that benefit his businesses — for example, making over 360 visits to properties he owns at enormous public expense.

In pursuing these open conflicts of interest, Trump gives cover to other kleptocrats who loot public funds. In one 2011 case, the Justice Department's anti-kleptocracy unit seized a private plane, California mansion and other assets belonging to Teodorin Obiang, son of the president of Equatorial Guinea, where I have spent years documenting corruption and its contributions to the dire state of health, education and human rights. Justice uncovered evidence detailing how officials, including the president’s son, siphoned off millions in government funds by awarding enormous contracts to companies they own.

Obiang’s defense was that he did not break any laws because conflict of interest rules don’t apply to senior officials. Justice vigorously protested this argument and ultimately settled the case for $30 million, which the agency must now repatriate for the benefit of ordinary Equatorial Guineans.

Trump backed away from his most audacious attempt at self-dealing in the face of criticism from Republicans, but they were merely treating a symptom. They should return to the fight against corruption at home and abroad.

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