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.
Subordinates owe fealty to their network higher-ups, and a cut of whatever revenue streams they manage to access. In Afghanistan and other notorious kleptocracies I’ve studied, such cash transfers might include a percentage of extorted bribes, or kickbacks on contracts for development projects. Many government jobs carry an explicit purchase price, payable in a lump sum or indefinite monthly installments.
The United States may not be Afghanistan, but examples of such an upward money flow include the use of Trump’s hotels and other facilities by government officials and their agencies, either on public business—so as to siphon taxpayer money from the U.S. Treasury into Trump’s coffers—or on a personal basis. Direct payments more typically take the form of campaign contributions, as were reportedly made by at least one beneficiary of the recent presidential pardons.
Abroad and at home, subordinates may owe in-kind services. Or submission to egregious and humiliating loyalty tests, such as piping up in defense of Trump’s assertion that the Kansas City Chiefs are based in the state of Kansas. And of course, underlings owe obedience on more substantive matters as well.
In return for this torrent of cash and favors and subservience, those at the top of kleptocratic networks owe something precious downwards. They owe their subordinates impunity from legal repercussions. That is the other half of the bargain, without which the whole system collapses.
That’s why moves like Trump’s have to be advertised. In Kabul, Western officials scratched their heads as to why Karzai would want to confess, in an interview with ABC’s Christiane Amanpour, to meddling in judicial affairs. The U.S. and other donor nations on which he depended for his very survival would certainly be displeased. So he must have a very good reason, I thought at the time. And then I realized that he was broadcasting a message to his network: Don’t worry. I stand by the deal.
Even a cursory look at the list of Trump’s February 19 beneficiaries suggests that his aim was not to right the wrong of prosecutorial overreach, but to send a similar message to his network—to reinforce and perhaps expand it. More than 2 million people are incarcerated across the United States. By a very rough estimate extrapolated from federal numbers (statistics of any kind on this topic are hard to find), well less than 7 percent of them were convicted of corruption or significant white-collar crimes. Yet no fewer than eight of Trump’s 11 boons went to perpetrators of this stripe: committers of tax fraud, of orchestrating a giant scheme to cheat Medicare, of multiple violations of securities law while creating a speculative bubble in junk bonds (which crashed in 1989 to widespread devastation), or of extorting a children’s hospital and trying to sell the Senate seat Barack Obama left vacant when he was elected president.
Another tell is that Trump’s clemency came not at the end of his time in office, as is sometimes the case with such favors bestowed on cronies and swindlers, but well before that—indeed, ahead of an election in which he is running. The gesture was not a guilty half-secret, but a promise. It was meant to show that the guarantee of impunity for choice members of America’s corrupt networks is an ongoing principle.
For this message to be delivered with the utmost clarity, the pardons and commutations had to be seen as the work of Trump himself. They could not result or even appear to result from a formal process carried out by the Department of Justice and the White House, as is normally the case. Pay attention is the point being driven home: The network and its chief are what count, not the government as an impartial institution.
Former Illinois Governor Rod Blagojevich’s reaction was the perfect “copy all” response to Trump’s coded message. “We want to express our most profound and everlasting gratitude,” he told a gaggle of press and gawkers less than 24 hours after his release from prison. “How do you properly thank someone who has given you back the freedom that was stolen from you? He didn’t have to do this. He’s a Republican president; I was a Democratic governor.”
Blagojevich’s case provides other insights into the workings of corrupt systems. As he pointed out, he was not a member of Trump’s political party. The kleptocratic networks I have examined weave across the bitter identity divides that pit their victims at one another’s throats, weakening opposition. And the crimes that sent the former governor to jail are hallmarks of kleptocracies everywhere: seeking to sell a public office; wielding the power of his own office to extort payments. By commuting Blagojevich’s sentence, Trump moved toward destigmatizing such behavior, normalizing it, even.
As egregious as Trump’s moves to bolster impunity for a certain type of criminality are, however, the phenomenon predates him, though in subtler guises. Prior presidential pardons have also disproportionately favored white-collar criminals. Thanks to a concerted campaign that lasted decades and several Supreme Court decisions (most unanimous), the definition of public corruption and bribery has been narrowed to the point that an official would almost have to make an effort to commit the infractions. Prosecutions of white-collar crime have been plummeting for decades.
Ongoing campaigns for sentencing reform may inadvertently add to this leniency in their rush to lift the burdens on nonviolent offenders. Reformers should beware of blurring the distinction between nonviolent crime that poses little broad danger and nonviolent crime, such as fraud and corruption, that menaces the very fundamentals of a democracy.
And if the hope of government by and for the people is to flourish in the U.S., the first order of business, whenever Trump is no longer president, is a surge of attention and resources devoted to the scrutiny and punishment of this malfeasance. That means converting what had been accepted norms into hard-edged law. That means creating new, prestigious investigative and prosecutorial units at the state and federal levels and conditioning career advancement on achieving arrests and convictions of dangerous white-collar offenders.
The U.S. is not Afghanistan, but that country’s system is not as foreign as Americans would like to think.