President Trump says his request for Ukraine to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden was driven by his concerns about corruption.
“This is not about politics, this is about corruption,” Trump said last week. “If you look and you read our Constitution and many other things, I have an obligation to look at corruption.”
But anti-corruption advocates say his administration’s record of fighting corruption is weak and not in line with Trump’s rhetoric.
“That just doesn’t comport with anything that’s gone before in his administration,” said Alexandra Wrage, president of TRACE, an anti-bribery business association. “To claim that this is springing from some heartfelt concern about international corruption just doesn’t hold water.”
One of Trump’s very first actions as president was to sign a law that rescinded a Securities and Exchange Commission regulation that would have required oil and gas companies listed on U.S. stock exchanges to disclose any payments they made to governments around the world. Supporters of the regulation say it was aimed at deterring bribery.
Oil companies and Republican critics said the rule would have placed undue burdens on small businesses and hurt American jobs.
After that rule was rescinded, the Trump administration then pulled the U.S. out of an international effort to set a global standard for transparent management of oil and gas resources known as the Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative (EITI).
Bribery and corrupt practices have been a particular concern for oil, gas and mining companies, many of which operate in countries where the rule of law is weaker.
Without offering any evidence, Trump has accused Biden of corrupt conduct as vice president because Biden’s son Hunter was on the board of a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma, while Biden oversaw U.S. diplomacy with Ukraine.
While Trump has complained about corruption in Ukraine, the country is a member of EITI, which the group says has made meaningful progress toward meeting its transparency standards.
“It’s ironic to hear President Trump talk about his work fighting against corruption, because he essentially shut down these very clear-cut initiatives that have been endorsed the world over, that are not radical by any stretch of the imagination,” said Isabel Munilla of Oxfam America.
It’s not just Trump’s policy decisions that have worried some experts who work on corruption issues.
The blurring of boundaries between Trump’s official duties and his personal financial dealings has weakened U.S. standing on corruption, said Andy Spalding, a University of Richmond professor who specializes in international anti-corruption law.
“The president’s willingness to do this, plus the United States public’s willingness to tolerate this, is the greatest harm that’s coming out of this administration,” Spalding said. “That’s the loudest and clearest signal that we’re sending to the world right now.”
Trump broke with decades of precedent when he declined to divest from his sprawling business investments or to place them in a blind trust. He’s also broken with long-standing custom and hasn’t released his tax returns to the public.
To address ethics concerns, Trump gave control of his business to his sons and pledged not to discuss the company with them. He also said that his company would not enter into any new overseas deals while he was president.
But as president, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law work in the West Wing of the White House and he has consistently stayed and dined at his commercial properties. Over the summer, the Air Force confirmed that some of its personnel had stayed at a Trump resort in Scotland. Recently, he talked about potentially holding next year’s G-7 summit at his Florida golf resort.
“Historically, the United States has driven the multinational anti-corruption agreements that are most important today,” Spalding said. “But I would imagine that now we have far less credibility to do that.”
Trump has defended his ownership of his business as president, saying that he doesn’t make money from his office and that he has lost out on financial opportunities.
Spalding said there is one area where the Trump administration has kept up the pressure on corrupt activity: enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.
That law prohibits U.S. companies from bribing foreign governments, and Spalding says enforcement of the FCPA hasn’t been curtailed.
There are still big enforcement cases happening during the Trump administration, including a $282 million settlement with Walmart announced in June over FCPA violations.
But major international corruption cases take a long time to pull together and some of these investigations may have started under the Obama administration, said Wrage of TRACE. She’s concerned that the Trump administration may not be initiating as many investigations, which means there will eventually be less enforcement.