Donald Trump’s decision this week to pardon several Americans convicted of fraud or corruption has garnered condemnation from many in the political establishment. The pardons were shocking to some, but to me they were eerily familiar—straight out of the kleptocratic playbook I’ve experienced and studied in a dozen other countries.
I was immediately reminded, for instance, of an episode from August 2010. I had been living and working in Afghanistan for the better part of a decade, and was participating in an effort to push anti-corruption toward the center of the U.S. mission there. A long, carefully designed, and meticulously executed investigation culminated in the arrest of a palace aide on charges of extorting a bribe. But the man did not spend a single night in jail. Afghan President Hamid Karzai made a call; the aide was released; and the case was dropped.
Karzai later bragged about interfering, in terms akin to the “horribles” and “unfairs” we now hear emanating from the White House. He likened the operation to the way people under Soviet rule were wrenched from their homes.
Corruption, I realized with a start, is not simply a matter of individual greed. It is more like a sophisticated operating system, employed by networks whose objective is to maximize their members’ riches. And a bargain holds that system together: Money and favors flow upward (from aides to presidents, for instance) and downward in return.