For Strongmen like Trump, Everything is for Sale and Everyone has a Price
The news that former president Donald Trump was keeping highly classified documents at Mar-a-Lago, his private residence in Florida, sheds light on how strongmen leaders think and operate and why they are such risks to national security.
Authoritarian leaders have an entirely proprietary view of governance. They don't recognize boundaries between public and private. They believe that as head of state it is their right to possess and exploit anything in the nation, from natural resources to economic assets to information—the latter being the most valuable currency, as the former intelligence official Vladimir Putin well knows.
Forced out of the White House after his coup attempt failed, beset by financial worries and multiple investigations, how could Trump fail to cast his greedy eyes on the vast store of classified information available to him? Of course he apparently made off with the documents that would give him the best leverage, nuclear-themed materials being part of the trove.
All along, the presidency was just a means to an end for Trump, who had autocratic, not democratic, goals for his time in the White House. Chief among these was turning public office into a vehicle for private enrichment and making deals with others of his tribe. "Dictators? It's OK. Come on in. Whatever's good for America," Trump declared in 2019, his intended audience understanding that he meant "whatever's good for Trump."
In established autocracies, leaders are free to plunder the economy, private businesses, and institutions and siphon the money into offshore accounts controlled by cronies and proxies. In some cases, the government becomes a kleptocracy, as Putin's Russia is today and Libya was under dictator Muammar Gaddafi. The latter's practice of hiding his own illicitly-obtained wealth inside state-controlled entities such as the Libyan Investment Fund is symptomatic of the eclipse of public-private boundaries (and has made it hard to recoup the money he stole).
In countries still plagued by the regulatory and ethical constraints of democracy, the autocrat must act on a smaller scale as he furthers his own interests and those of his inner circle. Trump managed to spend 1/3 of his time during his first three years in office traveling to promote Trump-branded properties, and Citizens for Ethics has reported that Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump, who were "presidential advisors," made up to $640 million in outside income during Trump's presidency.
One of Ivanka's specialties was obtaining or renewing trademarks from foreign governments. 28 were approved during the Trump era, including 16 new ones approved by China in 2018, while her father's "trade war" with that country was heating up.
Such conflicts of interest matter because strongmen practice corruption in part by bringing family members into their inner circle in government, where those relatives can do side deals with other autocrats, guard secrets, act as fixers, and amass information useful as "insurance" if things go badly --like sensitive documents vital for national security.
The House Oversight Committee was already investigating the $2B Saudi investment in Kushner's new startup hedge fund, Affinity Partners, when the revelations broke about Trump storing information in his home about the new nuclear weapons his administration was developing (the kind of information the Saudis have long coveted). Now this deal, and Kushner's past activities in the White House, are under new scrutiny. Was the investment payment for passing along U.S. state secrets?
We can recall the way Trump diverted media attention in 2019 from the House Oversight Committee's investigation of Ivanka and Kushner's use of private email accounts for state business ("state business," likely including business for private profit, in the strongman tradition).
Trump called the majority-black Congressional district of the late Representative Elijah Cummings (D-MD), that committee’s chair, “a disgusting, rat and rodent-infested mess,” knowing the storm over his racism would allow the corruption of his family to continue undisturbed.
It would be fitting if Kushner were discovered to have been the mole who alerted the FBI to the existence and location of the documents at Mar-A-Lago. Mary Trump and Michael Cohen, who know Trump family dynamics from the inside, have both speculated that Kushner or another intimate is probably responsible.
Sons-in-law have a particular role in the stormy history of strongman governance. They reap the benefits of nepotism and family corruption, but sometimes pay the price of the leader's wrath if things go south for the family. Benito Mussolini made his son-in-law, Galeazzo Ciano, Foreign Minister in 1936 and then had him executed after Ciano voted in 1943 to remove Il Duce from power for incompetency.
Today's sons-in-law have fared better. As of 2020, Viktor Orbán’s son-in-law István Tiborcz, a businessman, had amassed a net worth of over 100 million euros, in part due to the government awarding his company large contracts without real competition. And Orbán’s government made sure that corruption probes initiated by the European Union against Tiborcz were dropped.
In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's son-in-law Berat Albayrak, accused by multiple foreign governments of illegal activities while serving as Energy Minister, was moved to a new job as Treasury and Finance Minister. After two years, with the Turkish economy in a downward spiral, Albayrak suddenly resigned from that position, saying he wanted to tend to his health and spend more time with his family. His portfolio included relations with the White House, due to his close relationship with...Ivanka and Kushner.
Those who spend time with strongmen know they are highly unpredictable creatures who in the end are loyal only to themselves. Pierre Janssen, son-in-law of kleptocrat Mobutu Sese Seko, made sure the Congolese tyrant was out of office before publishing a tell-all book about his corruption.
Strongmen believe that everyone has a price, and those who study their actions know that too. It's instructive to remember that national security experts were among the first Republicans to warn Americans about Trump.
Over 100 of them published an open letter in March 2016, citing Trump’s "dishonesty" and "admiration for foreign dictators such as Vladimir Putin" to dissuade their party from backing Trump during the Republican primaries. "[A]s president, he would use the authority of his office to make America less safe..." they concluded.
Another group of Republican national security experts, including former CIA and NSA director Michael Hayden, repeated the warning in August 2016, citing his "dangerous qualities" and reminding voters that Trump would have "command of the U.S. nuclear arsenal."
Six years later, another letter, this one written by House Oversight Chairwoman Carolyn B. Maloney (D-NY) and House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence Chairman Adam B. Schiff (D-CA) asks Avril Haines, the National Intelligence Director, for a review and damage assessment of the highly classified information found at Mar-A-Lago. “Former President Trump’s conduct has potentially put our national security at grave risk,” they write.
We will be sifting through the wreckage of Trump's authoritarian presidency for years. This episode may one day be clarified but others will undoubtedly come to light, because everything is for sale in the strongman's world.
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