Right after Barack Obama’s election in 2008, I flew off to Australia and New Zealand to attend a conference and take some vacation time. At the end of the long flight, when I got to Sydney, I picked up one of the local newspapers and read that the president-elect had chosen Rahm Emanuel, poster boy for corporate Democrats and the status quo, to be his chief of staff.
Uh-oh, I thought. If Obama was choosing him to guide his administration, we probably could say goodbye to any dreams of a New Deal-style, aggressive agenda to cure the ills of our country. Emanuel was less the type to Keep Hope Alive and more the guy who holds Hope at arm’s length with a blackjack threatening in the other hand.
You will know our presidents and presidential candidates by the company they keep. Just as Obama had Rahm and a gaggle of Wall Street Democrats advising him how to step away from the fiscal crisis without putting any of the guilty banksters in jail, so, too, have all our chief executives and nominees had their coteries. Andrew Jackson had his kitchen cabinet, FDR his Brain Trust, JFK and LBJ their Best and Brightest, Nixon his Palace Guard – even Warren Harding had his poker pals, although that den of thieves reportedly led him to complain to the famous newspaper editor William Allen White, “I can take care of my enemies all right. But my damn friends, my goddamned friends, White, they’re the ones who keep me walking the floor nights!”
And now, here comes Donald Trump, presumptive Republican presidential nominee and thug-in-a-nice-suit. If for some reason you aren’t already appalled by the specter of a con artist occupying the Oval Office, a man who would lie about what he had for breakfast, look to those with whom he has chosen to surround himself. Start with political dirty trickster and sleaze merchant Roger Stone, the man first introduced to Trump by Joe McCarthy acolyte Roy Cohn. Stone has had a thirty-year, on-again, off-again relationship with the candidate and was publicly fired from Trump’s campaign staff last summer but still seems to be an unofficial advisor and mouthpiece.
Then there’s the abrasive campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, best known for that March incident with now former Breitbart reporter Michelle Fields who said he roughly grabbed her when she tried to ask Trump a question. A charge of simple battery was dismissed.
But Stone and Lewandowski are small potatoes compared to some of the new hires Trump has brought aboard since he clinched the nomination and expressed the desire to appear more presidential.
Let’s start with Steven Mnuchin, now national finance chairman, chief fundraiser for a man who used to claim his campaign was totally self-financed and that he would not need money from outsiders. Mnuchin is a banker and chief executive of the Dune Capital Management hedge fund – remember, Trump has lashed out at hedge funds, calling them “guys that shift paper around and they get lucky.” He’s also a former Goldman Sachs employee and Trump has gone after Goldman, too, including Hillary Clinton’s association with it.
Among his other accomplishments, The Wall Street Journal reported, with its characteristic wonder at such financial legerdemain, “Mr. Mnuchin turned one of the biggest bank failures ever, IndyMac Bank, into a very lucrative investment for himself and a consortium that included some of the billboard names on Wall Street, including [George] Soros, hedge-fund manager John Paulson, and J. Christopher Flowers. IndyMac Bank, based in Pasadena, Calif., collapsed in the summer of 2008 as customers grew concerned about its souring mortgages and withdrew deposits. It was the third-largest bank failure in U.S. history at the time. The group bought IndyMac from the government for about $1.5 billion in early 2009 and eventually sold it to a larger bank for a more than $3 billion gain.”
But at The Nation magazine, Peter Dreier says there’s more to the story: “The FDIC was so desperate to unload IndyMac that Mnuchin and his colleagues were able to obtain, as part of the purchase deal, a so-called ‘shared loss’ agreement from the FDIC which reimbursed these billionaires for much of their costs for foreclosing on people unlucky enough to have mortgages from IndyMac.Within a year, the group that the Los Angeles Times called a ‘billionaires’ club of private financiers’ had paid themselves dividends of $1.57 billion. In other words, the FDIC took much of the risk by subsidizing the bank’s troubled assets, while Mnuchin and his colleagues pocketed the profits.”
Dreier notes, “Both Trump and Mnuchin have run businesses accused of widespread racial discrimination, and they both represent the excessive wealth and greed of the billionaire developer and banker class.”
But Mnuchin’s deeds pale compared to Trump’s new campaign chairman and chief strategist Paul Manafort, a longtime veteran of Republican politics, and a poobah of the lobbying industry that has helped make Washington the swell, dysfunctional place it is. Roger Stone was one of his partners in the lobby biz (and it was Roy Cohn who introduced Manafort to Trump, too). So was the late, infamous Lee Atwater, the brutal, take-no-prisoners GOP strategist who gave the world the Willie Horton ads attacking Michael Dukakis and slickly dragged the smear and whispering campaign to new lows. (He repented on his deathbed.)
Their company, as described by Franklin Foer at Slate, was “a new style of firm, what K Street would come to call a double-breasted operation. One wing of the shop managed campaigns, electing a generation of Republicans, from Phil Gramm to Arlen Specter. The other wing lobbied the officials they helped to victory on behalf of its corporate clients. Over the course of their early years, they amassed a raft of blue-chip benefactors, including Salomon Brothers and Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp.” And Donald Trump.
Manafort and his cronies got into trouble during the Reagan years, when, as Foer explains, the firm “hired alumni of the Department of Housing and Urban Development then used those connections to win $43 million in ‘moderate rehabilitation funds’ for a renovation project in Upper Deerfield, New Jersey. Local officials had no interest in the grants, as they considered the shamble of cinder blocks long past the point of repair. The money flowed from HUD regardless, and developers paid Manafort’s firm a $326,000 fee for its handiwork. He later bought a 20 percent share in the project. Two years later, rents doubled without any sign of improvement. Conditions remained, in [Washington Post columnist] Mary McGrory’s words, ‘strictly Third World.’ It was such an outrageous scam that congressmen flocked to make a spectacle of it. Manafort calmly took his flaying. ‘You might call it influence-peddling. I call it lobbying,’ he explained in one hearing. ‘That’s a definitional debate.’” You know, potato, potahto…
The scandal barely left a scratch and Manafort’s ambition soon stretched far beyond America’s shores. Steven Rosenfeld at AlterNet notes a new report from the American Bridge 21st Century PAC, funded by Democratic donors and founded by David Brock of Media Matters. It states that Manafort “was responsible for representing some of the world’s most unsavory clients on behalf of what the press called the ‘Torturers’ Lobby.’”
Among those he billed were Lebanese-born arms dealer Abdul Rahman El-Assir, Zaire’s dictator Mobutu Sese Seko, Nigeria’s Sani Abacha, Kenya’s Daniel arap Moi, Somalia’s Said Barre, and Angolan guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi. “Savimbi and his UNITA army engaged in a decades-long civil war that terrorized and murdered hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians,” the American Bridge report states, “with UNITA engaging in bodily mutilations, sexual slavery, child kidnapping, and witch burning. Savimbi funded his role in the gruesome civil war with proceeds of smuggled diamonds, aid from apartheid South Africa, and aid from the United States.”
Especially cozy was Manafort’s relationship with former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukoyvch. “Some in the West felt Yanukovych could be an ally,” The Washington Post reported, “but ultimately he pursued ties to Russia and fled Ukraine amid violent clashes.”
Manafort was a political and media adviser to Yanukoyvch (as was Bernie Sanders consultant Tad Devine) and set about gilding the image of a man another consultant described as “a kleptocratic goon, a pig who wouldn’t take lipstick.” According to Franklin Foer in Slate, Manafort had the Ukrainian leader rail against NATO to gain political advantage, and when told by US Ambassador William Taylor that what he was doing flew in the face of official American policy “bluntly announced that he wouldn’t ask Yanukoyvch to dial back the rhetoric. It polled too well.”
Clearly, this is the perfect man for Donald Trump. But wait, there’s more. Manafort has brought along some of his other buddies, Ken Vogel and Isaac Arnsdorf of Politico report, “including several whose lobbying histories seem to epitomize the special-interest influence against which the candidate rails.” Among them are Laurance Gay, “who worked with Manafort on an effort to obtain a federal grant that one congressman called a ‘very smelly, sleazy business,’” – that was the aforementioned HUD deal. There’s also Doug Davenport, “whose firm’s lobbying for an oppressive Southeast Asian regime became a liability for John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign.” And don’t forget a “former Manafort lobbying partner named Rick Gates, who was identified as an agent of a Ukrainian oligarch in a 2011 racketeering lawsuit that also named Manafort.”
These guys shouldn’t be running a campaign, they should be bumping off jewelry stores or appearing in yet another remake of Oceans 11. They’re much better suited to a heist movie. If you needed further proof of Trump’s hypocrisy when it comes to Wall Street and government, money and politics, look no further than this gang of wheeler-dealers, flim-flam consultants and Washington insiders, the Goodfellas of American politics.
With friends like these…
This post originally appeared at BillMoyers.com. It was reprinted here with permission.