‘The Smell of Corruption Emanating From the Clinton Machine’

Former U.S. President George H. W. Bush, First Lady Laura Bush, U.S. President George W. Bush, former U.S. President Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, and Senator and former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton stand together following the dedication ceremony for the William J. Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock, Arkansas, on November 18, 2004. (Jason Reed / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

So far we’ve heard from two Trump voters in great detail: Alan, who’s most animated by identity politics, and our Southern reader who wants to take a “wrecking ball” to Washington. But both readers also had major qualms with the Trump candidacy. Another reluctant Trump voter, Marco, describes his deep aversion to establishmentarianism and dynastic politics—and he doesn’t spare the Republicans one bit:

We shouldn’t be asking what happened with Trump. What happened to The Atlantic? I’ve been a reader for years, after abandoning Time and Newsweek because of their People-like superficiality. The appearance of considered thoughts at The Atlantic is what kept me there. But since you decided to take sides in the presidential election, strident hysterical writing is all I find, especially on November 9.

That’s perhaps understandable The Day After, but, folks, the sky won’t fall. It won’t fall because the U.S. government’s institutions are designed to prevent irrational outcomes to a good degree. Trust the system a little, if you learned anything from history.

I probably do not feel the pain to the same degree as you do, though I am concerned, and on pins and needles. I admit it: I voted for Trump—at the limit of my tolerance for bad taste and unhinged statements. But I did so not because I am an undereducated, violent, intolerant, gun-waving xenophobe—as the press has made habit of defining Trump supporters. I have an MBA. I refuse violence and support gun control. And I’m an immigrant, now a citizen after obtaining green cards twice, all by the legal process.

I voted for Trump only because of the smell of corruption emanating from the Clinton Machine. That smell is well documented by Wikileaks and Podesta’s emails depicting the Clinton Foundation / State Department connections. To that you can add the past four decades of continuous scandals—why only them with so many? You get my picture.

Former President George Bush is hugged by his son Jeb at the formal opening of the George Bush Presidential Library and Museum on November 6, 1997. (Reuters)

But there is one more reason to fear their corruption: the history of ALL countries around the world, since WWII, where an immediate relative followed a president or PM (see my list below). In all cases, either the “succession” was made possible by endemic corruption, or advanced it as a result, or both. This is to be expected when the vested interests supporting one person get to take advantage of continued control of the government from behind the scenes by electing the relative.

By the way, the Bushes fit that pattern too. I objected to Jeb Bush on those grounds. Democratic institutions can control visible political activity (and will control Trump’s extremes), but they cannot control the invisible quid pro quo that corruption brings. Trump’s lack of institutional backers is the attractive part. If he can just push and deliver term limits and limits on lobbying, as he promised, he will have drained enough of the swamp. Beyond that the Congress can handcuff him as necessary.

So, perhaps the sky is not falling and a more reasoned discussion could help your readers, and recover the high editorial standards of The Atlantic. More importantly, you could help voters understand that women can and do make great leaders (Thatcher, Meir, Merkel), but we have to pick those that built their own career on their own ability, not those pushed along by private interests. Let’s hope for a better choice next time.

Here’s the list of dynastic world leaders that Marco compiled (I added #5-7):

  • Juan and Isabel Peron in Argentina in the ’70s (husband and wife)
Justin Trudeau / Wikimedia
  • Kirchners in Argentina in ’00s (husband and wife)
  • The Aquinos in the Philippines (husband would’ve been president if not assassinated; Corazon, the wife, became president, as did her son.)
  • Nehru and Gandhi in India (Indira Gandhi followed her father (Nehru), and her son Sanjay virtually ran the country under her administration)
  • Pierre Trudeau and Justin Trudeau in Canada (father and son both prime ministers, the son currently)
  • Lee Hsien Loong and Lee Kuan Yew in Singapore (father and son both prime ministers, the son currently)
  • Uhuru Kenyatta and Jomo Kenyatta in Kenya (father and son both prime ministers, the son currently)
  • Mandelas in South Africa (husband and wife controlled the ANC government). They raised corruption to a science.
Park Geun-hye / Wikimedia
  • Imelda Marcos (provincial governor while husband Ferdinand was president)
  • GHW Bush and GW Bush in the U.S. (father and son). The father’s Neocons gave us Iraq.
  • In 2016, the ultimate, Nicaragua’s Ortega is running for a third term with his wife on the ticket.
  • In recent weeks, corrupt practices by South Korea’s president Park Geu-hye were reported and admitted. She is daughter of the former president.

Did the Democratic Party make a mistake backing another Clinton? Can you relate to reader Marco’s sentiments? If so, does it matter when it comes to backing Trump? Drop us a note if you’d like to respond to Marco. Update from another reader, Rick: “This is the first pro-Trump argument that doesn’t scare me to death.” Then let reader Mark try:

I would like to point out the obvious: The Clinton dynasty is likely over whenever Hillary is done. The Bush dynasty still has some legs. But the Trump dynasty is just beginning. He gave his children large roles in his campaign and will either give them roles in his administration or will have them overseeing his business. To put it ungenerously, we now have our own Uday and Qusay.

But don’t discount the Clinton dynasty yet; there is widespread speculation that Chelsea is being groomed for a congressional run. Reader David, on the other hand, doesn’t see dynastic politics as necessarily a bad thing: “Well, I think we got pretty good stuff from the Roosevelt ‘dynasty’—Teddy and FDR!”

Circling back to Marco, here’s a reader rebuttal from Emily:

Thanks for your honesty, Marco. But are you having misgivings about President-elect Trump’s hiring of his three children for his transition team at the same time that they are in charge of a blind trust that will manage his businesses? Are you concerned that this doesn’t meet the legal standard for blind trusts, and that Trump’s banks of record and businesses will undoubtedly be affected by his relationships with other foreign leaders? He acknowledged throughout the campaign that his children would run this “trust”; it’s not a surprise. To me, this arrangement makes the issues around the Clinton Foundation look like running a lemonade stand.

Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Eric Trump, and Donald Trump, Jr. wait for the presidential debate at Washington University to begin on October 9, 2016, in St. Louis. (John Locher / AP)

Here’s reader Martha with a longer rebuttal:

I truly appreciate Marco’s thoughtfulness, but I can’t agree with his conclusions. I applaud his well-stated arguments for Mr. Trump and appreciate his observations about the Clintons. I thought both of our choices this election were awful.

Yet, a vote for Mr. Trump was a step too far.

First, to respond to the observations about the Clintons: I agree there is a whiff of something unpleasant about them and I believe they have a history of walking up to the line—and perhaps crossing it. However, I have to temper this observation with the years of their being pursued by a political paparazzi that, especially in the Internet age, states the most awful things about them as truth (murder anyone?).

A recent example is the furor over access of donors to the Clinton Foundation to the secretary of state, portrayed by certain Republicans and Clinton haters as pay-to-play. There may be something there, but if so, I haven’t seen it yet. As someone who spent more than 30 years in a large federal department, I know that top-level officials DO meet with individuals they know and do sometimes meet with people who may, or whose families may, have contributed to a campaign or cause dear to the official’s heart. This does not mean that such contacts are pay-to-play or inappropriate. I have not seen “results” stated that would demonstrate Secretary Clinton made inappropriate decisions based on these contacts.

I feel much of what has been written about the Clintons is not corruption. I do agree that some of it gives the “appearance” of questionable behavior. And I have been disturbed that the Clintons seem to demonstrate questionable lapses time and again. They don’t seem to learn. But I have not seen proof of criminality or intent to harm or corrupt.

Now, on to Mr. Trump: If I can see where Marco is coming from regarding the Clintons (though I don’t draw conclusions as harsh as his), then I ask he re-examine Mr. Trump and his potential corruption. Like the Clintons, there is no direct proof, but his business dealings raise questions about his ethics. Did he really let his investors take the hits during his bankruptcies through some fancy legal and tax footwork? Has he really borrowed from Russian banks and had contact with Russian officials during the campaign? Does he really stiff contractors, architects, purveyors, etc.? The list goes on.

So, I think neither candidate is free of questions concerning corruption, but they were the choices we had. Based on that, I selected Secretary Clinton for her foreign policy experience (even if too hawkish for my tastes), her support of climate change initiatives, her policy chops, her social agenda, her support of the environment, etc. And she conducts herself well. Mr. Trump’s language and behaviors are scary to me.

Here’s Dorothy with another strong rebuttal—directly addressing Marco here:

I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts about this since so many of us are trying to figure out why our fellow Americans think at Trump presidency could possibly be a good idea. And I really mean that; I’m not being snarky. Given some of the hateful things that have occurred since Election Night [my colleague Emma collected some in Philly], it gives me comfort to hear from good, reasonable people like yourself.

Nevertheless, I find some of what you have laid out puzzling, given how our system of government functions and the fact that one party is fully in charge of two of the three branches and in a position to shape the third for a generation. This statement, in particular, struck me:

Trump’s lack of institutional backers is the attractive part. If he can just push and deliver term limits and limits on lobbying, as he promised, he will have drained enough of the swamp. Beyond that the Congress can handcuff him as necessary.

I regret to inform you that he can do neither of those things without Congress, and a Congress finally out from under the yoke of a White House occupied by a different party is not going to take up either of those items. In fact, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell already dismissed that out of hand this week, not wasting more than 30 seconds on it.

And what incentive does Congress have to handcuff him? Except for the two things you would most like to see happen, they largely agree with Trump on the things that will be most hurtful to most Americans: repealing the ACA; gutting the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts (perhaps abolishing the EPA altogether); deregulating the financial industry so that they can get back to the tricks that brought on the Great Recession, etc. And for at least two years there will be nobody or no mechanism of government (particularly after they pack the court with loonies) to put a check on a radical right-wing Republican agenda.

I can also say that I have A LOT of sympathy for your opinion of dynasties. One of the many reasons I was a devoted supporter of Barack Obama in 2008 was that if Hillary Clinton had won the nomination and gone on to win the general election that year, the sitting president would have had the surname Bush or Clinton for my entire voting life, and I was 41 years old at the time. But Donald Trump has appointed three of his children (and his son-in-law) to his transition team while these same three children are running his business interests. His business dealings and his public office are already completely commingled. You find his lack of “institutional backers” attractive, but he has one institutional backer with unfettered access to the White House: THE TRUMP CORPORATION.

I hope you’re right and that the sky doesn’t fall, because if it does the one thing that will unite those of us who did and didn’t vote for Trump is how screwed we will be.