If there has been one overarching theme of the Trump presidency, it has been that of corruption. After less than a year and a half in office, Donald Trump’s White House is on pace to becoming the most corrupt and scandal-ridden administration since at least Richard Nixon’s — and perhaps in the entire history of the country. Rather than “draining the swamp,” Trump has ushered in a new age of corruption in Washington that reminds one of the brazen and widespread corruption of the gilded age.
Questions about the president’s lack of ethics began immediately after he was elected in 2016, and grew louder after he announced that he wouldn’t be divesting from his businesses or setting up a blind trust, as previous presidents had done to avoid conflicts of interest. At one point, the president-elect even insisted that as president he could not have conflicts of interest — which, although ridiculous, is also technically true from a legal standpoint, as presidents are exempt from conflict of interest laws.
Looking back now, that was just the tip of the iceberg, and questions have continued to multiply as we have learned more and more about the president’s dubious business dealings around the globe. With special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, which began a year ago last week, it was no longer just a question of whether the president would profit off the presidency, but whether his campaign had been involved with the Russian interference in the 2016 election — and whether his conflicts of interest extended all the way to Russia.
Yet in many ways the Russian connection — if there truly is a Russian connection — has been largely a distraction from the larger theme of corruption. Indeed, many of Trump’s loudest critics have focused almost all their time and energy on Putin and Russia, even when the bigger issue often seems to be old-fashioned corruption.
This was evident after it was first reported that Michael Cohen’s shell company, Essential Consultants, had received millions of dollars in payments from companies like AT&T, Novartis, Korea Aerospace Industries and the investment firm Columbus Nova. When it was revealed that Columbus Nova was connected to the Russian oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, Russia once again dominate the headlines, even though the story probably had less to do with a Russian conspiracy and more to do with simple corruption and greed.
Since that news broke earlier this month it has become ever clearer that Michael Cohen has been having serious financial difficulties over the past few years. Apart from being Trump’s personal attorney and “fixer,” Cohen owns a taxi business in New York — and anyone from New York can tell you that the yellow-taxi trade has been in a bad way since the rise of Uber and Lyft. Cohen reportedly owns more than 30 taxi medallions (licenses to operate a New York cab), and since 2013 the value of a single medallion has dropped about 80 percent, from around $1.3 million to less than $200,000. Cohen’s businesses are deeply in debt, and this debt was taken out years ago when medallions were at their peak value. It isn’t hard put the pieces together.
Cohen no doubt saw an opportunity to profit off his connection to the president, and with millions in debt he jumped on that opportunity. Now, as with his unwise investment in medallions, it is coming back to haunt him. The real shocker in this story, however, isn’t the apparent connection to a Russian oligarch but the fact that Cohen’s sleazy scheme wasn’t actually illegal. (Although there's a potential campaign finance violation related to the Stormy Daniels payment that could get him in legal trouble).
“It may be tawdry but it's not illegal,” Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, told NPR last week. “It's pretty much the way Washington works.” If Cohen doesn't meet the requirements to register as a lobbyist, McGehee continued, “then he is simply engaging in the selling of access to the administration, and that is not against the law.”
This may come as a surprise to many who aren’t well-versed in the inner workings of Washington, but the fact is that most of the corruption that takes place in America’s political capital — at least what many people would consider corruption — is perfectly legal today. As Randall Eliason recently observed in the Washington Post, “a bribery prosecution [of Cohen] would require proof that, in exchange for the payments, he secured agreements from Trump or other administration officials to perform specific official acts.” Proving that kind of quid pro quo is very difficult, Eliason notes, and “in the current legal environment, politicians and those close to them are generally free to buy and sell access to government power with little fear of prosecution.”
As the title of Eliason’s column suggests, this should be the most disturbing part of the Michael Cohen story. Likewise, one of the most disturbing aspects about the Trump presidency should be that all the sleaze and profiteering we have witnessed over the past year isn’t necessarily criminal.
In a corrupt system, the line between legal and illegal becomes increasingly blurred, and some conduct that may have been considered corrupt and criminal throughout most of American history has become perfectly legal today — as Zephyr Teachout, law professor at Fordham University, revealed in her book, “Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United”.
Of course, those in power have generally tried to project an ethical and honest image to the public, and have followed certain norms -- such as setting up blind trusts to avoid conflicts of interest, even though that wasn’t required by law and was more a question of optics. With Trump, there isn’t even a pretense of ethics. It's as if the president were saying: The entire system is corrupt, so why bother? Essentially, Trump sees how difficult it is to prove corruption under the current system, and doesn’t really care what the “corrupt media elite” think of him (“Much of the Media may be corrupt, but the People truly get it!” tweeted the president last Tuesday).
During his presidential campaign, Trump regularly boasted about how he legally bribed politicians with campaign donations. “I gave to many people. Before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman,” he said at one debate. “When they call, I give. And you know what? When I need something from them, two years later, three years later, I call them.” Though he rightly stated that this was a sign of a “broken system,” he never actually proposed any reforms to it (as did Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, for example, who both advocated campaign finance reform). That was because he never had any real intention of fixing the broken system, but figured that if he was at least honest about his corruption, many voters would forgive him for it, if not the corruption of others. (It turns out he was pretty much right.)
In a recent interview with Time, Larry Noble, senior director and general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, described the Cohen affair as “a reflection of Trump and the people he has around him, and their view of ethical issues – that they just don’t consider them.” The real problem here, however, is not that Trump and the people around him don’t consider ethical issues, but that in many instances they don’t have to. This is not to say that individual cases of corruption are not important, or that there isn’t obvious criminal behavior going on in TrumpLand (clearly there is, as the numerous indictments have made clear). The point is that systemic corruption is a bigger threat to our democracy than individual cases of corruption, even when it involves the president.
Under the current system, it is nearly impossible for politicians not to be corrupted in some way. As Teachout, who is now a potential candidate for New York attorney general, put it in a 2015 column in the New York Times, “The structure of private campaign finance has essentially pre-corrupted our politicians, so that they can’t even recognize explicit bribery because it feels the same as what they do every day. When you spend a lifetime serving campaign donors, it may seem easy to serve them when they come with an outright bribe, because it doesn’t seem that different.”
Corruption should be the No. 1 issue for Democrats in the upcoming midterm elections, and earlier this week Democratic leadership announced a new strategy for the midterm elections focusing on the “culture of corruption” in the White House. “The swamp has never been more foul or more fetid than under this president,” declared Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer at a news conference.
This is the right attitude, but it would be a mistake to focus solely on the corruption in the White House. Last week, for example, around the same time the Cohen story broke, it was announced that Las Vegas billionaire Sheldon Adelson would give $30 million — and potentially more — to a Republican Super PAC aimed at defending the GOP majority in the House. This announcement came shortly after a group that included House Speaker Paul Ryan met with the casino mogul to discuss the “importance of the 2018 midterms.” Not coincidentally, Adelson’s company ended up getting a $670 million tax break thanks to the Republican tax bill passed late last year.
Like Michael Cohen’s scheme, of course, this is all perfectly legal under current laws, no matter how sordid it may seem. That dangerous fact should be what drives Democrats this November.