Corruption, Globalized

As long as there has been politics, there has been corruption. So the investigative hand-grenades which have been flying for the past year, first at the Trump campaign, now at Mrs. Clinton’s, are not exactly new in American political life. What is new, however, is the geography. Corruption used to be something American politicians did with other Americans. Now, it’s become something that involves other countries, and one in particular—Russia—which can’t be accused of friendly intentions toward the United States.

Curiously, at the beginning of the nation, Americans were confident that political corruption would never happen in their republic. Corruption was what occurred in monarchies, and (to judge by the long list of accusations in the Declaration of Independence) especially under King George III.

But once independent, American politicians proved to be just as short on virtue. Thomas Jefferson, the first Secretary of State under the first president, George Washington, put a journalistic hit-man, Philip Freneau, on the State Department payroll to dig up dirt on Washington and other cabinet members. Andrew Jackson frankly used his presidential appointments power to reward political cronies in what became known as the “spoils system.” Bribery and kickbacks were so notorious within the administration of James Buchanan (1856-60) that when Abraham Lincoln ran for the presidency in 1860, his supporters made a bigger issue of Buchanan’s corruption than of slavery. And corruption almost became a way of defining the presidencies of Ulysses Grant in the 1870s and Warren Harding in the 1920s.

Surprisingly, there were few actual convictions for corruption before the 1940s. Politicos whose corrupt practices were exposed to public gaze simply resigned or, more rarely, were impeached. Only very gradually did Congress move to criminalize corruption through the Hobbs Act (1946), the Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act (RICO, 1970), and the Federal Campaign Elections Act (1971).

Nevertheless, this has done little to stem the tide of corruption. Since 1986, five federal judges have been impeached on bribery charges; since 2000, five members of the House of Representatives have been convicted in corruption cases. In 1987 five U.S. senators—including John McCain—tried to intercede on behalf of Charles Keating and his failing Lincoln Savings & Loan after Keating made $1.3 billion in campaign contributions to them. Only one of the “Keating five” was officially reprimanded after a Senate investigation; the others were criticized for “poor judgment.” Bill Clinton, as president, brought the Democratic National Committee’s fund-raising activities under the White House roof, including 103 events which netted an average of $56,000 per person in contributions to the DNC. Yet, only one Clinton official, Ronald Blackley, was actually indicted and convicted.

Part of the depressingly relentless spread of corruption has to do with the size of the federal government itself—in an annual budget of $3.5 trillion, there are tremendous amounts of fruit on the federal tree to be picked illegally, and few places where it is liable to be noticed. Another part is the sheer variety of corrupt practices, which contort themselves into new shapes, from money-laundering to tax-exemptions, faster than statutes can criminalize them.

The newest beachhead, however, has involved corruption with foreign partners.  Starting in the 1980s, when Illinois Congressman Paul Findley was accused of receiving laundered contributions from Saudi oil interests, foreign money has exploited cracks in federal campaign legislation to make itself felt in federal elections. From 1994 to 1996, Johnny Chung funneled $366,000 in campaign donations to the DNC from 12 Chinese donors, with another $300,000 donated in 1996 from officials of the state-owned Chinese aerospace industry. In 2009, Louisiana Representative William J. Jefferson was charged with violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (which was originally designed to prevent U.S. corporations from engaging in foreign bribery) for bribes he solicited from third-world governments to promote their business interests in the U.S.

The charges of Russian “collusion” which have now been hurled by both political parties are part of this disturbing new trend. On one hand, Paul Manafort’s ties to Ukraine and Jared Kushner’s conversations with Russian attorney Natalia Veselnitskaya look embarrassing, but have as yet turned into nothing illegal under federal election law or the FCPA. The rebound accusations which have emerged over the past week that Mrs. Clinton’s campaign hired a British intelligence officer and Fusion GPS (a Washington-based intelligence firm with ties to Russian interests) to create a foreign-sourced dossier on Trump are far more blatant, and thus far more serious than Trump Tower chit-chat.

The Clintons have been associated with foreign pay-for-play activities since the 1990s, and the Fusion GPS affair is, in many ways, simply an extension of that association. But both the Trump and Clinton campaign imbroglios with foreign players are tokens of the challenges posed by globalization. In a world of instant communications, where global interests aggressively over-shadow national concerns and where enormous sums of unregulated money can be moved at digital speed through various levels of concealment, foreign influences are only likely to become more threatening. Whatever the outcomes of the various “Russiagate” investigations, the real test will be in how vigorously the American people will demand—and Congress adopt—newer, sharper legislation to deter foreign-connected corruption.

Maybe a reading of the Declaration of Independence would be a good place to start that call.


About Allen C. Guelzo

Allen C. Guelzo is the William L. Garwood Visiting Professor in the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. His website is

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6 responses to “Corruption, Globalized”

  1. One thing you don’t mention, Mr. Guelzo, is the department tasked with investigating corruption: the DOJ. I’ve heard and read many conservatives complaining about Trump undermining the rule of law by snarking at the DOJ, Karl Rove on Fox News Sunday the other day, for one.

    One thing these Conservative, Inc pundits don’t get from inside their bubble is the rage so many of us feel at watching a Special Counsel conduct a witch hunt while the DOJ sits on its hands and watches obvious long-standing corruption go by, from Holder with Fast and Furious and the IRS to Comey and Hillary’s emails and the tarmac meeting, to, now, the DNC primaries, Uranium One, and GPS Fusion.

    Is the President just supposed to sit idly by and stay silent when the DOJ is obviously filled with corrupt, unchecked, Deep State bureaucrats? How is it using the DOJ to go after your political opponents when your political opponents are destroying both the rule of law and the public’s trust and confidence in its fairness? If your political opponents are corrupt are they just supposed to skate because they are your political opponents?

  2. Also worth noting – the Supreme Court has decided that ‘illegality’ is no barrier to ‘politically correct’ decisions.

    Hence, we had Elena Kagan violating Federal law her very *first* case on the bench – ruling on the ACA (Obamacare) case which she’d been ‘heavily involved in crafting the legal defense of’…prior to becoming a justice – and both she and Ginsburg ruling on ‘gay marriage’ (Obergefell) – after both had ‘officiated same sex unions while such were against Federal law (Clinton’s DOMA) – rendering them poster-bimbos for violating Federal law regarding ‘judicial bias’.

    28 U.S.C. § 455 : US Code – Section 455: Disqualification of justice, judge, or magistrate judge

    When the courts are complicit in the corruption – we’ve pretty much jumped the ‘rule of law’ shark.

  3. How unquestioningly you adopt the approved narrative regarding Russian influence. While you do allude to Clinton complicity and other donor countries, Russia is the bogey man. That alone helps keep alive the canard that Russia bought the election, despite the fact that Trump set a record for small-donor contributions to his campaign and accepted no money from lobbyists. But of course, since he’s a businessman, that implicitly means he can be bought.

    Both Saudi Arabia and China publicly admitted to making donations to the Clinton campaign (to say nothing of China’s contributions to Bill Clinton’s and Al Gore’s campaigns), but China just wasn’t en vogue this election cycle. Russia was a far more convenient foil, because Hillary had squeezed what she could from Russia, but she wasn’t done with China yet.

    The story that nobody has ever touched is Barack Obama’s fire sale of American resources in Mumbai India — remember? No, I didn’t think you did. Obama dragged a contingent of ~3,000 business people to Mumbai, supported by a naval fleet and numerous military aircraft at a cost that the Indian press estimated at the time to exceed $1 Billion per day. Some how, after the economic “discussions” had concluded, both Massey and Peabody had sold a number of coal mines to China — mines that Obama already planned to close down for American use with his “clean energy” policies. What other assets did Obama pawn in Mumbai?

    Mumbai was the first salvo in Obama’s reverse-colonialist revenge on America. Anybody who is serious about the internationalization of corruption in American politics should figure out where the money went in Mumbai.

    • Obama – to anybody remotely paying attention – apparently used his ‘legal expertise’ to basically skirt law whenever possible.

      Hence, we had the imbecile handing the world’s foremost state sponsor of terrorism enough Uranium to fab up a dozen nukes on his way out of office. Which rather pales to the *treason* he committed in the Bergdahl swap – ‘providing aid and comfort to enemy combatants’ by illegally putting Gitmo detainees back in action against US interests.

  4. Sorry but this is not a new beachhead at all and there was plenty of corruption and spying by the Russians and the Germans in the 40’s I think you need to read “A Man called Intrepid” to get the flavor of that time. Nothing new under the sun nations have always spied and tried to influence through bribery or blackmail or whatever means necessary to gain an upper hand. The real problem is we have been unwilling to prosecute the elite namely the Clintons for their many misdeeds. That will eventually turn us into a third world nation.

  5. All that is necessary for evil to succeed is for the justice system to remain silent.