• Sarah Chayes

Is This Not Corruption?



WARP-SPEED EVENTS have overtaken this reflection, roughed out in early October. I opted to post it anyway, to mark still-valid points about right and wrong.


It always happens after an interview -- that dart of regret: “Shoot, I wish I had said…”

The interview in question, which aired on NPR’s Morning Edition on October 3, 2019, was about President Trump and the Bidens and wrongdoing as a business model. It referred to an article I had just published in The Atlantic.


Let’s dispense straight away with the question of equivalence. What Trump has done in Ukraine – mobilized U.S. government personnel and institutions and our collective treasure, and deputized his personal lawyer as an ad hoc diplomat, in order to leverage a foreign leader to do him a personal favor – is not comparable to what Joe and Hunter Biden did there a few years ago.


Trump deserves to be impeached and convicted and removed from office.


Indeed, whatever the impact on his tenure, Trump should be impeached. Impeachment is not merely a mechanism for removing an unpopular official. It is not about undoing an election. Presidential impeachment is the only way we as a society have to proclaim what acts on the part of our highest official are intolerable. It is not about individuals; it is about actions. It is a way to draw some defensive lines around the foundation of our democracy.

Given the torrent of detailed information pouring from distressed public servants and Trump insiders about the Ukraine campaign, given the president’s open use of his office to buoy his businesses’ bottom lines, given increasing signs of mental instability, and most significantly, given his consistent furthering of Russian geostrategic interests at the expense of this country’s, I don’t see how any legislator sworn to protect the Constitution can fail to indict him.


Trump’s egregious practices, however, should not blind us to a more insidious danger: the everyday corruption too many of us have come to condone.


As news emerged about the president’s effort to unearth damaging information about Joe and Hunter Biden’s activities in Ukraine, I kept hearing some version of the same phrases from media stalwarts – that the Bidens “…did nothing wrong,” that they were “guilty of no wrongdoing.” The chorus left me agape. Again, let’s be clear. Vice President Biden did not use his public office to protect a company of which his son was a director, as Trump and his acolytes contend.


But does that mean father and son did “nothing wrong?” Does that mean it’s perfectly fine to take an outlandishly lucrative position on the board of an energy company founded by an oligarch, former minister in charge of natural resources in the government of a notoriously corrupt dictator who has just been expelled by an indignant population? The fact that Biden knew nothing about energy or the country in question only deepens the wrong done. His qualification, of course, was his father’s position as vice-president of the United States and point man on that country in crisis.


There is nothing wrong here? This isn’t corruption?


Hunter Biden is no aberration, no remarkably flawed figure. That is not why I focused on him. The point is how widespread this type of behavior is.


It has become standard practice for senior public officials to allow their progeny or hangers-on to monetize their names and public offices and international connections. As Joe Biden did for Hunter in Ukraine and China, Trump is doing for Ivanka and Jared Kushner and Don Jr. all over the world. Bill Clinton did it for Douglas Band.


For former public officials to found or join the boards of consulting or private investment firms -- often both – has become standard practice. Madeleine Albright is one example, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley, and Robert Gates another, Rudy Giuliani a third. My former boss at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, former Deputy Secretary of State Bill Burns, is a fourth. What else could the business model be than to trade on the insider information gained through the consulting and prior connections?


It has become standard practice for top-tier individuals and institutions to launder the images of notorious kleptocrats. Prosecuted and acquitted on a narrow count of lying to the FBI, Gregory Craig probably assumes he is guilty of “no wrongdoing” for representing deposed Ukrainian dictator Viktor Yanukovych for $4 million in fees, routed through an offshore account. The Council on Foreign Relations just accepted a $12 million gift from Leonid Blavatnik, one of the slicker of the Putin-linked oligarchs. Nearly sixty senior foreign policy and anti-corruption professionals, of which I am one, have called on the Council to reverse the decision – not to let its distinguished name be used to burnish the name of Blavatnik and his practices – the way Harvard and MIT burnished child molester Jeffrey Epstein, or numerous museums hung the now infamous Sackler name in brass letters on their walls. CFR President Richard Haass dismissed our concerns.


In this context of widespread wrongdoing, the false equivalence question does not die. NPR’s David Greene kept returning to it -- did I really think this was the right moment to go after Hunter Biden, he wondered; did I really think Americans are able to make the kind of distinctions I called for?


I wish I had answered more clearly, in three parts:


1. Democrats are claiming the moral high ground, as they should. But then they must be credible. It is not credible to be the party of probity and insist that the Bidens “did nothing wrong.” To do so is to exacerbate, not lessen, citizens’ confusion. To do so is to open the door to Trump’s more egregious violations.


2. Half the U.S. electorate does not vote, partly because of this confusion.


3. The current debate is taking place not weeks before the presidential election, as in 2016 when revelations about Hillary Clinton hit, but months. There are alternative Democratic candidates. I wish they would grapple more forthrightly with matters of principle. I was disappointed that none did during the October 15 debate, when Biden again asserted that his son, and he, “did nothing wrong.”


But there is still time for the party of the moral high ground to nominate a candidate who walks it. For, so long as this is not widely considered corruption, we can not repair our republic.

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© 2018 by Sarah Chayes