E.J. Dionne: Dark money and the art of the shady deal in America
E.J. Dionne: The task of the impeachment inquiry is to use his Ukrainian misadventure to bring home the breadth of the president's venality and self-dealing. The goal should be not only to rid the country of a dangerous leader but also to show how desperately our system needs repair.
WASHINGTON — There's understandable delight over the name of a company run by one of Rudy Giuliani's Ukraine-connected buddies arrested last week for allegedly laundering money into Donald Trump's political efforts. It's called "Fraud Guarantee." This will provide an excellent title for a book on the Trump era, deceitfulness being the one Trump trait we can rely on.
And if there's one thing guaranteed in our election campaigns now, it's the danger that they'll be influenced by foreign donors.
In the 2010 Citizens United decision and other rulings, Supreme Court conservatives pooh-poohed the dangers of corruption and created many new openings through which dark money — including cash from Ukraine, Russia and anywhere else in the world — can infect our politics. Rebuilding protections against the now virtually unlimited opportunities for influence-buying must be a priority once Trump is out of power.
The indictment of Giuliani's associates is well worth reading as a roadmap to how the system can be gamed. It illustrates, said veteran campaign reformer Fred Wertheimer, how Citizens United "created a clear path for unlimited amounts of foreign money to enter our political system."
The arrests also make clear that Trump's July 25 phone call seeking help from Ukraine's president to smear Joe Biden was part of a larger structure of corruption that is the hallmark of his presidency. Like many demagogues, Trump demonizes minorities and his political enemies to hide his devotion to the art of the shady deal.
We might never have known about the shenanigans of Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, U.S. citizens born respectively in Ukraine and Belarus, absent a complaint to the Federal Election Commission from the intrepid watchdogs at the Campaign Legal Center in July 2018 and reporting by The Daily Beast.
Trevor Potter, the center's president, said in an interview that his group noticed a May 17, 2018, contribution of $325,000 from a limited liability corporation, Global Energy Producers to America First Action, Inc., a pro-Trump super PAC. GEP seemed to have no real business purpose and Potter and his colleagues suspected it was a shell company, which is what it turned out to be. The indictment charges that Parnas, Fruman and two other defendants used GEP to make political donations funded by an unidentified Russian businessman.
"It's a fluke they were caught," said Potter, a Republican and former chair of the FEC. "The dark money system makes it almost impossible to find this stuff."
Potter argued that in Citizens United and related rulings, the Supreme Court made "a terrible mistake" in "minimizing the definition of corruption." He added: "The court fundamentally misunderstood how politics works and the dangers of corruption from unlimited and secret campaign spending. The chickens are coming home to roost in this indictment."
By bringing roosting chickens to public attention, big scandals build pressure for reform. One important effect of Watergate was passage of campaign finance laws that worked well for a generation. These laws needed updating even before the Supreme Court gutted protections against influence buying. The Trump Bazaar, populated by a variety of seedy characters, brings home the urgency of taking this task seriously.
The indictment, said Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., the lead sponsor of H.R. 1, the comprehensive reform bill approved earlier this year by the House, "is a glimpse into the broad culture of corruption and ethical blindness that has infected our politics, particularly in the area of campaign finance."
His use of the word "culture" is important. Legal limits on unsavory practices outlaw socially destructive actions but also signal what kinds of public behavior are morally unacceptable. Bad laws encourage bad habits.
"People cross these lines with impunity," Sarbanes told me, "and if they can't even see the lines, they start thinking they can get away with anything."
Which brings it all back to a man whose words and actions suggest he really does believe he can get away with anything. It is a supreme irony that Trump triumphed by exploiting public disaffection with a political system so many Americans see as infested with sleaze and controlled by forces operating entirely for their own benefit.
Rather than being the cure for such maladies, he is their apotheosis, the culmination of all that has gone wrong in our politics. The task of the impeachment inquiry is to use his Ukrainian misadventure to bring home the breadth of the president's venality and self-dealing. The goal should be not only to rid the country of a dangerous leader but also to show how desperately our system needs repair.
E.J. Dionne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .