Reported by Aaron Blake of the Washington Post
President Trump and the relatively few Republicans who have defended him regarding his contact with the president of Ukraine have settled on one universal talking point: This is about corruption.
“We’re supporting a country; we want to make sure that country is honest,” Trump said last week. “It’s very important to talk about corruption. If you don’t talk about corruption, why would you give money to a country that you think is corrupt?”
House Minority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) also said Sunday that’s all Trump was conveying to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky. “He and President Trump are talking about that in the conversation, things that both of them are doing to clean up corruption and drain the swamp,” Scalise said.
GOP Sens. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa) and Ron Johnson (Wis.) wrote a letter Monday supporting Trump’s alleged corruption-busting inquiries in Ukraine. “Such allegations of corruption deserve due scrutiny, and the American people have a right to know when foreign forces attempt to undermine our democratic processes,” they said.
Among the many logically strained arguments coming from the Trump side, though, this may be the biggest stretch, for a few reasons:
1. These cases are tenuous, at best
Trump pushed for two specific investigations in his July 25 call with Zelensky — one involving CrowdStrike and the other involving former vice president Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Both are dubious.
The first is essentially part of a conspiracy theory alleging that Russia wasn’t actually behind the interference in the United States’ 2016 presidential election. Even Trump’s former homeland security adviser Tom Bossert denounced it. “That conspiracy theory has got to go,” Bossert said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week,” adding that it has been “completely debunked."
As for the Bidens’ case, then-Vice President Biden pushed for the removal of Ukraine’s prosecutor general, who had been investigating an energy company that employed Hunter Biden. But as U.S. and Ukrainian officials have said, the investigation was dormant when Biden applied the pressure. And even when the investigation was underway, it hadn’t been scrutinizing the Bidens.
2. Both carry obvious political benefits for him
It’s one thing for the allegations to be dubious; it’s another for them to be dubious and carry obvious political benefits for Trump.
The CrowdStrike thing appears to be a Trump hobby horse aimed at questioning the origins of the Russia inquiry, while the Bidens thing is clearly intended to damage the Democratic candidate who polls the best against Trump in 2020.
And as far as we can tell, these are the only specific investigations Trump has pushed for from Ukraine. Ukraine is a big country with a demonstrated history of government corruption. It seems a very odd coincidence that the Trump team, if it is truly concerned about corruption, is focused on these two relatively narrow matters that just so happen to pertain to Trump, and not much bigger matters.
3. He has rarely mentioned corruption in other countries
A search through Trump’s past comments on corruption shows he has rarely raised concerns about corruption in foreign countries — except when it suited his political purposes.
Last month, Trump referred to Romania’s “tremendous corruption problem,” but only after being asked about it and saying the Romanian president (who was sitting next to him) was the right man to tackle it. He also, in 2018, hailed the visiting Nigerian president in a similar way.
He has regularly talked about corruption in Venezuela, which segues nicely into his arguments about the dangers of socialism.
Other instances in which Trump has decried governmental corruption:
- Puerto Rico, whose leaders he has clashed with over Hurricane Maria aid and recovery
- While talking about major urban cities run by Democrats, including Baltimore, Chicago and Detroit
And that seems to be the extent of Trump’s professed concerns about government corruption outside of Washington, according to Factba.se’s compendium of his public comments. No dire warnings about corruption in North Korea or Saudi Arabia or Turkey.
And indeed, Ukraine appears to be the first country that we know about that Trump has actually threatened if it doesn’t root out corruption.
4. The U.S. gives lots more money to countries more corrupt than Ukraine
The above fact looms large. If, theoretically, Trump simply decided that it’s time to start tying foreign aid to getting rid of corruption, Ukraine is apparently the first country he has zeroed in on. But Ukraine would seem to be an odd starting place, given there are many more corrupt countries that receive much more U.S. aid.
According to USAID, Ukraine in fiscal 2018 ranked 25th in the amount of U.S. aid it received — economic, military and other. Of the 24 countries who received more aid, 13 ranked as more corrupt than Ukraine on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
The United States sent more than twice as much money to Kenya, Nigeria, South Sudan and Syria as it did to Ukraine, despite them ranking as more corrupt. Of those four, Trump has talked about corruption in only one of them.
But even when he did, he suggested that corruption was a secondary concern, relative to trade.
“We give Nigeria well over $1 billion in aid every year,” Trump said in April 2018. “And we have already started talking with the president about taking down the trade barriers — very substantial barriers to the United States trading with Nigeria. So we think that we are owed that.
“President [Muhammadu] Buhari has also taken several steps to fight corruption and improve the Nigerian business climate. And, most of all, to me, yet again, is ripping down those trade barriers.”
ALBANY - Can't keep track of all the corruption scandals in New York state government? You're not alone.
The year 2018 has been a busy one for corruption convictions in the Empire State, with some of the state's most powerful lawmakers and some of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's top allies among those who have been found guilty since the year began.
Many of those government officials are due for sentencing in the days and months ahead.
Here's who has been convicted since the beginning of the year and when they're expected to learn their fate:
By Jon Campbell, Albany Bureau
Joseph Percoco, one of Gov, Andrew Cuomo's former executive deputy secretary, leaves U.S. District court, Tuesday, Feb. 27, 2018, in New York. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer) (Photo: Mary Altaffer, AP)
Who: One of Gov. Andrew Cuomo's closest personal friends for more than two decades; served as a top aide and campaign manager to Cuomo.
What he was convicted of: Percoco, a South Salem resident, accepted more than $320,000 from COR Development and CPV Energy, a pair of companies with business before the state that leaned on Percoco for favors. Much of the money was paid by CPV through a lucrative job for Percoco's wife that required little work.
He was convicted of one felony bribery count and two counts of conspiracy to commit honest services wire fraud.
When: A jury convicted Percoco (along with COR executive Steven Aiello) in March. Jurors acquitted another COR executive, Joseph Gerardi, and couldn't reach a verdict on Peter Galbraith Kelly of CPV, who later agreed to a plea deal.
Sentencing: Percoco is due for sentencing Aug 10. Prosecutors are seeking a "significant" prison term of more than five years; Percoco's attorneys are looking for two years.
Alain Kaloyeros, a former president of the State University of New York's Polytechnic Institute, arrives to federal court in New York. He was found guilty in a bid-rigging trial on July 12, 2018. (Photo: Seth Wenig, AP)
Who: The founding president of SUNY Polytechnic Institute, Kaloyeros was trusted by Cuomo to oversee many of the governor's top economic-development initiatives, including the Buffalo Billion program.
What he was convicted of: Kaloyeros was found to have rigged the bid for contracts that led to state-funded jobs worth more than $850 million, including a $750 million job to build a Tesla/Panasonic solar-panel manufacturing facility that is the centerpiece of the Buffalo Billion.
The contracts went to LPCiminelli and COR Development, whose executives were also convicted.
When: Jurors convicted Kaloyeros, LPCiminelli's Louis Ciminelli and COR's Aiello and Gerardi on July 12. They've vowed to appeal.
Sentencing: Kaloyeros' sentencing is set for Oct. 11.
Former New York Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver arrives at federal court, Monday, April 30, 2018, in New York. (Photo: Mark Lennihan, AP)
Who: Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, was one of the most powerful people in New York government during his two-decade tenure as speaker of the state Assembly, which ended when he was indicted in 2015.
What he was convicted of: Silver, an attorney, was convicted of accepting $4 million disguised as legal payments from law firms specializing in real estate and asbestos claims.
In return, he steered research dollars to a Columbia University cancer researcher who was directing clients to him, which he referred to the asbestos firm in exchange for fees. He directed Glenwood Management, a major real estate firm and campaign donor, to steer work to the real estate law firm that was paying him.
When: Jurors first convicted Silver in November 2015, but his conviction was overturned in 2017 after the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the corruption law he was convicted under. Prosecutors were allowed to retry the case, however, and secured a second conviction in May.
Sentencing: Silver is due for sentencing July 27. He was previously sentenced to 12 years in prison with a $1.75 million fine and $5.2 million in forfeiture before his previous conviction was overturned.
Dean Skelos arrives to federal court in New York, Thursday, July 12, 2018. (Photo: Seth Wenig, AP)
Who: A Nassau County Republican, Skelos was the powerful state Senate majority leader in 2008 and from 2011 through 2015.
What he was convicted of: Skelos was found guilty of using his considerable influence and power to secure more than $300,000 for his adult son, Adam, through low-show jobs and a $20,000 payment from firms with business before the state.
Adam Skelos was also found guilty.
When: Dean and Adam Skelos were originally convicted by a jury in 2015 before their verdicts were overturned when the U.S. Supreme Court narrowed the corruption law they were charged under. But, like Silver, they were convicted in a retrial this year — July 17, specifically.
Sentencing: Dean Skelos is due for sentencing Oct. 24. He was previously sentenced to 5 years in prison before his first conviction was overturned.
Former state Sen. George Maziarz (left) enters a courtroom in the Albany County Judicial Center with his attorney E. Stewart Jones on Friday, March 2, 2018. (Photo: Jon Campbell / Albany Bureau)
Who: A Niagara County power broker, Maziarz served 20 years in the state Senate before stepping aside in 2015. His district stretched into the Rochester area.
What he was convicted of: Maziarz pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of offering a false instrument for filing.
It was quite the plea bargain for Maziarz: He had been facing trial on five felonies before the state Attorney General's Office agreed to the deal.
He was accused of orchestrating a scheme to hide payments from his campaign to a former staffer who had been accused of sexual harassment.
When: Maziarz agreed to the plea deal in March.
Sentencing: He paid a $1,000 fine.
Assemblywoman Pamela Harris, D-Brooklyn, speaks during a debate in the state Assembly chamber at the Capitol in Albany. (Photo: NYS Assembly)
Who: Harris, D-Brooklyn, was a state assemblywoman in 2016 and 2017.
What she was convicted of: She pleaded guilty to four felonies after prosecutors had charged Harris with fraudulently pocketing $25,000 from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and $23,000 in New York City funds that were meant for Coney Island Generation Gap, a non-profit she once led.
When: She pleaded guilty in June.
Sentencing: Harris is due for sentencing Sept. 26.
FILE--In this Jan. 21, 2016 file photo, Sen. Marc Panepinto, D-Buffalo, speaks in the Senate Chamber at the Capitol in Albany, N.Y. (Photo: Mike Groll, AP)
Who: Panepinto served a single term in the state Senate in 2015 and 2016.
What he was convicted of: The Buffalo Democrat pleaded guilty to a single misdemeanor count of promising benefits for political activity.
Panepinto tried to cover up unwanted sexual advances by offering his victim, a staff member of his, a job or money to stay quiet.
When: Panepinto entered his plea in late June.
Sentencing: He's due for sentencing Oct. 2. He faces up to a year in prison and a fine.