Lanny Davis's Caribbean Adventure
What is the Clintons’ longtime consigliere doing hawking passports to tiny island nations? Inside the exotic, paranoid world of the rich and powerful.
Lanny Davis, the longtime D.C. fixer, lawyer, lobbyist, crisis-manager, influence-peddler, and professional friend-of-the-Clintons, would like to present to you his dear friend Timothy Harris, the prime minister of St. Kitts & Nevis.
“The government of St. Kitts has asked me, as an attorney, for assistance,” says Davis, a slightly wizened 69-year-old in a dark suit and red tie. We are on the fourth floor of a Washington office building, at a public-relations firm decorated in sleek, modern red and white, with glassed-in conference rooms along the halls and tall tables laid with tealights and hors d’oeuvres.
“And we are hopeful,” Davis continues, “in getting this great little democracy—and a beautiful island that I’ve had an opportunity to visit—a chance to develop jobs, deliver health care, improve the quality of life of the people of this wonderful, beautiful paradise in the Caribbean.”
We are here, that is, to talk about the purchase of citizenship.
For a variable fee, beginning at just $250,000, you, too, can become a citizen of St. Kitts & Nevis. For even less you can buy your way into Grenada ($200,000) or Dominica ($100,000). We, the influencers of Washington—that is, a few dozen of Davis’s very important friends, plus a large contingent of befuddled media—have gathered over cocktails to learn about this prospect; to launch a “digital magazine” about Caribbean second-citizenship programs, called Belong; and to dispel any pesky misconceptions people might have.
We are not here to talk about Davis’s other favorite subject, his very close friend Hillary Clinton, but that doesn’t mean he can avoid alluding to her in the course of introducing the prime minister. “I think everybody here knows I’m absolutely, sometimes, irritating, always talking about a certain presidential candidate,” he says with a grin. Davis’s gleaming teeth seem somehow to be younger than the rest of him. “We can save that for another time.”
Perhaps the idea of buying yourself a new passport sounds, on its face, a little exotic—sleazy, even. That’s OK! We are here to educate.
Allow Prime Minister Harris, a large, 50-year-old black man with glasses and a lilting accent, to explain. “Try as we might to pursue traditional paths of development, trade and so on, there is always the disadvantage of smallness,” he says, gesturing with the hand not holding the wireless microphone. “Small countries are faced with the challenge of being much more structured, much more creative about pursuing certain parts of development.” The two islands of St. Kitts and Nevis comprise just over 100 square miles, with a population of 55,000.
Last year, the U.S. Treasury Department issued an advisory to financial institutions warning about the risk that investor-purchased St. Kitts passports might be “used to facilitate financial crime.” But that was before Harris was elected, and he assures us he has cleaned house.
“We are a responsible government, and we take our responsibility seriously,” he says. “We are a respectable member of the international community.” As of a couple of weeks ago, for example, Syrians are no longer eligible for the citizenship program, due to “issues emerging with the proliferation of Syrian passports around the world.”
With that put to rest, the mingling begins. I approach Davis, curious to hear his thoughts on his recent star turn as perhaps the most prolific and proficient suck-up featured in the public releases of Hillary Clinton’s privately hosted email during her tenure as secretary of state.
This, mind you, was a very competitive category; in the absence, to the right’s chagrin, of any major Benghazi-related revelations, perhaps the most disturbing thing to be gleaned from the emails has been the overwhelming level of sycophancy Clinton either encouraged or tolerated from virtually everyone around her. Yet Davis—he has appeared 43 times in the emails released to date—outdoes all the other Clinton hangers-on.
There is one email in particular, from May 21, 2012, that stands out. Apropos of nothing really, Davis has drafted a list, for her eyes only, of Clinton’s most impressive qualities, to wit:
1. She is a hard worker - and people appreciate hard work.
2. She is fact-driven - and people appreciate someone who sticks to the facts.
3. She is sensitive to the perspective of others - she doesn't impugn motives and respects the interests of others - as was said about Atticus Finch in "To Kill A Mockingbird": "she can walk in other people's shoes and see the world through their eyes."
4. She is a gracious person - the most important quality for a successful diplomat….
So proud of you, Hillary - when President Clinton and I talked about my PBS column (I think I mentioned he called me, which was a great thing!), we both reflected on how great a Secretary of State - and person - you are.
There are so many things to appreciate in this missive: its comprehensiveness, its brazenness, its literary flair (Atticus Finch!), the gratuitous presidential name-drop snuck in under the wire. It is a tour de force of obsequiousness, a masterclass in ego-massaging administered to one of the most powerful people in the world—the Beethoven’s Fifth of brown-nosing.
I ask Davis if it has been odd to have his personal messages exposed in this way. “It’s like if a stranger is listening in on your conversations with a very close friend,” he says. Then he affects nonchalance: “We’ve been close friends since her last name was Rodham,” he says. “So I didn’t mind.” Did you know Lanny Davis attended Yale Law School with Bill and Hillary Clinton?
In the years since Davis served as a special counsel to President Bill Clinton (1996-98), he has done a lot of things. He has worked for several law firms and opened his own. He has helped the Washington Redskins defend the team’s embattled name. He has been retained by unsavory regimes in the Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea, work he defended as “advocating democracy.”
He has published three books, including 2013’s Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping With Crises in Business, Politics, and Life. (Its promotional copy calls him “America’s premier political spin doctor” and notes his work with Martha Stewart and Congressman Charles Rangel.) He writes a regular column that appears on The Hill’s website and FoxNews.com; sample headlines include “The PBS Clinton Series' Lack of Proportionality” and “Farewell to Secretary Clinton - Public Servant and Friend.” During Clinton’s tenure, the emails show, he faithfully sent the columns to her, and she invariably forwarded them to an aide: “Pls print.”
Atop one compliment-laden Davis forward of a Foreign Policy article praising her, Clinton wrote to the aide, “Pls just print the article and not Lanny’s email.” Ouch.
The evening’s specialty cocktail is light blue and has rum in it. It is sprinkled with freshly ground nutmeg from Grenada. Caribbean music plays softly from speakers at the front of the room.
The motto on the wall of the PR firm says, “COMMUNICATING TRUST.”
Let us now clear some things up. Perhaps, for example, you are under the misimpression that purchasing St. Kitts citizenship is some sort of tax-avoidance scheme. Nope! As an American, you still have to pay U.S. taxes. Another name for the programs is “citizenship by investment.”
The money goes to the island’s infrastructure fund or to the purchase of real estate. You do not have to live in St. Kitts or even have ever visited. These fees account for 20 percent of the nation’s GDP. Though St. Kitts pioneered the idea of selling citizenship, similar programs now exist in such countries as Portugal, Cyprus, Malta, and the U.S.
Why would an American buy a Caribbean passport, if not to evade taxes? It is somewhat difficult to get an explanation for this. One theme that keeps coming up, in subtle, euphemistic ways, is the idea of “security.” Davis’s colleague Olga DeMetri explains, “People look at it like an insurance policy—you have this flexibility as a wealthy person. High-net-worth people are always working with their accountants and lawyers to plan for the future.”
In other words, if the U.S. should suddenly come under foreign attack, or President Obama were to impose martial law, or a marauding mob of 99-percenters were suddenly to take after said high-net-worth individuals with flaming torches and pitchforks—your St. Kitts passport would give you somewhere to go. The weather in St. Kitts, by the way, is terrific year-round, and the last hurricane season was quite mild.
“What is belonging about?” asks Micha-Rose Emmett, a striking, green-eyed South African. She is group managing director of CS Global Partners, the company that has retained Davis; the firm’s website describes it as “Leaders in Citizenship by Investment & International Residence Solutions.” “It’s about being part of something,” she continues. “It’s about the future. It’s about safety. It’s about security. And I think this is what we get up every morning to do.”
Davis’s old friend Tom Siebert, who went to Georgetown with Bill Clinton and did a stint as his ambassador to Sweden, is here with his wife, Debbie. “I had the privilege of sitting with the prime minister at lunch today, and we had a great talk about a lot of things,” he says.
Debbie Siebert recalls campaigning for Hillary in New Hampshire in 2008. It was very cold. “There were six of us, all ambassadors and their wives, and we put on sweatshirts and took out our earrings,” she says, gesturing at the pearls on her earlobes. “And we went around talking to people about the issues, for Hillary!”
I meet a man named Sal Russo, who once worked for Ronald Reagan and has more recently advised Tea Party groups. He, too, has known Davis forever. “In the old days, it was easier to have friendships across the aisle,” he laments.
I meet the ambassador from Dominica, Hubert John Charles, who is late because he got caught in traffic. Dominica was devastated by a tropical storm a few months ago, and Davis’s firm helped the tiny nation revamp its website in order to solicit donations to rebuild. “Pro bono,” Charles notes.
The prime minister of St. Kitts is hunched over a table, picking the grapes out of the cheese tray.
I ask him about Davis, whom he says he has come to know well. “Lanny brings a wide range of skills—the skill set of an attorney, the experience of one who has been in government, an ability to work with people on different sides of the aisle in Congress,” he says in his booming, accented bass. “So we believe that those relationships will put us in a good position to reach out to influential decision-makers in Congress and in government to ensure the continued success of our program.”
Outside the tall, shiny windows of the PR firm, D.C. is dark and cold and jammed with traffic. Inside, the people in suits and pearls go back to the bar for another drink on their old friend Lanny. If this doesn’t seem normal to you, it is only because you don’t understand.