Getting our heads around American corruption

This is The Long Version—a newsletter by Jonathan M. Katz.

The most surreal part of Ambassador Gordon Sondland’s appearance at the House impeachment inquiry, beyond President Trump’s literally nearsighted attempt to distract from his damning testimony in real time, was the excuse the president’s defenders used for his actions in Ukraine. They were, they said, all about preventing corruption.

We don’t “provide assistance to countries that are lost to us due to … corruption,” the Republican counsel, Steve Castor, argued. Trump was just looking to see if the new Ukrainian president was “going to deal with corruption,” Rep. Jim Jordan said. He was merely “looking out for the taxpayer,” ranking member Devin Nunes offered.

Let’s stop for a second and remember how Sondland, the owner of a small chain of Oregon hotels, became the U.S. ambassador to the European Union, putting him in a position to witness Trump’s impeachable actions in the first place. He was a longtime Republican donor who acted as a “bundler,” collecting donations from his Portland buddies for Trump’s 2016 campaign. He distanced himself after Trump’s racist attack on a Pakistani-American Gold Star family. But when Trump eked out his victory, Sondland funneled $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, pushing the money through four of his companies. Soon after, despite his lack of diplomatic experience, and taking over at a momentous time for the EU, he got the post in Brussels.

Republicans confronting a GOP donor in a job he secured from their party’s leader through patronage, while insisting emotionally that their only concern is “corruption,” should be an obvious punch line. But Americans tend to have two contradictory reactions when it comes to corruption. When we’re talking about politicians at home, we shrug and say: All politicians are corrupt. When we’re talking about other countries, we get more judgmental and defensive. Those foreigners are corrupt. We can’t trust them with our hard-earned money.

Both have in common the them. We are hard-working and honest; if we cut a corner or two, we’re smart. They are unscrupulous and greedy. Corruption is confined to individuals here. There, it’s “endemic”—as much a part of the landscape as the dirt.

What is happening amid the impeachment process is a combination of both strains, foreign and domestic. The Republicans are trying to normalize Trump’s corruption while shifting the conversation to two thems: Ukraine, and their political enemies at home.

When Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s White House chief of staff, blurted out in October that Trump had indeed engaged in a quid pro quo—demanding Ukrainian authorities make baseless allegations about the Democrats in exchange for already appropriated military aid and an Oval Office meeting—he made both cases: Ukraine is a “corrupt place,” he said. “I don’t want to send them a bunch of money and have them waste it … [and] have them use it to line their own pockets.” Then, without a whiff of contradiction, he argued that bribery was normal U.S. government procedure. “We do that all the time with foreign policy … Get over it.”

This is an extremely dangerous ploy. In countries where corruption is normalized, life doesn’t get more fair. It gets worse. In Haiti, where everyone assumes all politicians are corrupt by default, participation in elections is approaching single-digit percentages. With no other way for people to make their voices heard, the streets are on fire with anti-corruption protests. But no one is even sure what they’re fighting for, because there is no one Haitians trust to lead them. In the meantime, people are going hungry, unable to get to markets for food.

In fact, the accusation of corruption can itself be a corrupt tool. This happens frequently in Russia and China, where favored cadres in government are given a monopoly on corruption while jailing their enemies for similar or more minor offenses. That’s how Ukraine developed its reputation too: Twenty years ago, its president “controlled the country via a combination of graft and the threat of selective prosecution, through kompromat and blackmail,” the political scientist Keith Darden recently wrote. (Ironically, or not, he added, Trump has played into that very system of corruption in Ukraine by pressuring its government to “put its legal system in the service of political ends.”)

But while Trump is comicallyridiculouslycorrupt, it would be a grave error to let Democrats off the hook in reply. Rewarding unqualified people who give you money with ambassadorships, for instance, is standard practice in both parties. Bush formalized the patronage scheme. Obama continued it. Nixon was the first to get caught—on his own White House taping system, naturally—putting a retroactive price tag on it: “My point is that anybody who wants to be an ambassador must at least give $250,000,” he told his chief of staff, H.R. Haldeman, in 1971. (Funnily enough, the open position Nixon was talking about was in Brussels, where Sondland flew back after his Wednesday testimony.)

The revolving door between lobbying jobs and government is a bipartisan disaster. Corrupt Democrats such as Sen. Bob Mendenez of New Jersey get a slap on the wrist, then go on making policy for the rest of the world. After trailing Republicans for years, Democrats are now awash in “dark money.” And while the insurance industry gives most of its money to Republicans, Democrats rake in a healthy 46 percent. (At least one study found a correlation between taking insurance company money and opposing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ Medicare for All bill.)

While the idea of a Ukrainian/Democratic nexus of corruption remains the stuff of Devin Nunes’ delusions, the broad inability to see corruption as a problem in our own country absolutely led us to this moment. An inability to hold corrupt leaders accountable on one hand, and talk frankly about matters of degree on the other, led to the election of a man so corrupt, he bragged on a primary debate stage about paying off politicians—then got praised (by idiots) for his “honesty.”

That a president who made his reputation on bribery, and surrounded himself with expressly corrupt officials, is now implicated in an instance of naked bribery—aimed at subverting yet another election—should surprise no one.

As Fiona Hill, the White House’s former senior director for Europe, testified in closed session to the House Intelligence Committee last month:

“And, again, as I’ve said, corruption is our Achilles heel here in the United States. And I am shocked, again, that we’ve had the failure of imagination to realize that the Russians could target us in the same way that they use corruption in Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova, Armenia, Georgia. We, unfortunately, by not cleaning up our own act, have given them the doors in which they can walk through and mess around in our system.”

But there are still accountability mechanisms in this country, which we should use while we still have them. One of them is impeachment.

Jonathan M. Katz is a freelance journalist and author. His next book, Gangsters of Capitalism, traces the origins and contradictions of American empire. Follow him on Twitter @KatzOnEarth.

Photo of Trump and Sondland in Brussels: Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP