A Baneful Foe: Foreign Influence in the White House
In a matter of weeks, either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will be elected president of the United States. (That’s the extent of my electoral-prognostication abilities.) They are different in many ways—in temperament, political philosophy, personal and vocational background, foreign-policy outlook, the list goes on—but they are similar in one important and indeed troubling way: Both have left themselves exposed to charges of being influenced by foreign powers. This is something that concerned Americans from the very beginning of the Republic—and should concern us today.
In his discussion of qualifications for serving in the Senate, James Madison argued in Federalist #62 that the Constitution should require prospective candidates for the upper chamber to have “a longer period of citizenship” in order to avoid creating “a channel for foreign influence on the national councils.”
Likewise, in discussing the means of electing the president, Alexander Hamilton argued in Federalist #68 that given “the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils,” the Constitution should erect “every practicable obstacle” to prevent such “intrigue and corruption.”
And then there’s George Washington’s thundering admonishments against “foreign influence and corruption” in his farewell address. He warned about the “insidious wiles of foreign influence,” the “mischiefs of foreign intrigue” and “avenues to foreign influence.” In fact, he used the words “foreign” and “world” 17 times in his valedictory—almost all of them in a negative light.
These words and this speech have served as the rally cry for American isolationists. However, neither Washington nor the nascent American Republic was isolationist. Washington called America “an infant empire”—a clear indication that he viewed his country as an emerging global power. Plus, as historian Marion Smith details, the United States conducted at least 41 treaty negotiations between 1783 and 1800, and the number of U.S. consular posts jumped from 10 in 1790 to 52 by 1800. In 1785, Thomas Jefferson proposed a U.S.-European coalition to combat piracy in the Mediterranean. The Congressional Research Service notes that between 1798 and 1810, the U.S. landed Marines in the Dominican Republic, waged war on the Barbary States of Africa, invaded Spanish holdings in Mexico, and sent troops to occupy parts of Spanish Florida. By 1803, Jefferson made a deal with Napoleon for the vast Louisiana Territory, opening the door to countless new foreign entanglements. By 1823, James Monroe unveiled a doctrine that, with the help of the British navy, made the United States a hemispheric hegemon.
Simply put, these are not the actions of some isolationist hermit republic.
Far from opposing international engagement and a forward-leaning foreign policy, Washington was concerned about foreign influence on America’s political process and political institutions.
“History and experience prove that foreign influence is one of the most baneful foes of republican government,” he observed, urging his countrymen “to be constantly awake” to such dangers. He worried that “attachments” to foreign powers could lead Americans “to betray or sacrifice the interests of their own country.”
Indeed, Washington’s worries stem from his focus on U.S. interests. He and the other Founders were men of the Enlightenment; they were liberal minded and open; they were anything but xenophobic or insular. But they had the good sense to recognize that nations, like individuals, tend to look out for themselves. “Europe has a set of primary interests which to us have none, or a very remote relation,” Washington observed. Thus, Washington urged his countrymen, his successors, future generations of Americans, to guard against the influence and intrigues of the Old World.
Regrettably, Trump and Clinton have not heeded Washington’s warnings.
As The New York Times reports, Paul Manafort, who served as Trump’s campaign chairman, received millions in cash payments from Ukraine’s pro-Russian political party. In addition, offshore corporations helped raise capital for a deal “to sell Ukrainian cable television assets to a partnership put together by Mr. Manafort and a Russian oligarch, Oleg Deripaska, a close ally of President Vladimir V. Putin.” Before joining Trump’s campaign, Manafort’s most prominent client was Viktor Yanukovych, the pro-Putin president of Ukraine deposed in 2014.
Trump himself boasted that an event he held in Moscow included “almost all of the oligarchs” in Russia. “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets,” Trump’s son has been quoted as saying, as The Washington Post reports. “We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.”
Newsweek adds that Trump’s business enterprise has “deep ties to global financiers [and] foreign politicians.” The Trump Organization has, or has had, business connections in Russia, India, South Korea, Turkey, UAE, Libya, and Azerbaijan.
Pre-existing connections and friendships with other parts of the world are not, in and of themselves, dangerous or detrimental to the national interest; indeed, they can be very helpful in conducting U.S. foreign policy, as the presidencies of Theodore Roosevelt and George H.W. Bush underscore. Likewise, there’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, for a businessman to do business with other businessmen, whether that’s in Manhattan, Moscow, or Mumbai. As long as it doesn’t violate the Ten Commandments, business is a good and necessary human activity. But Trump is no longer a businessman. Trump is a step away from the presidency of the United States, and that makes an enormous difference.
“Any government wanting to seek future influence with President Trump could do so by arranging for a partnership with the Trump Organization, feeding money directly to the family or simply stashing it away inside the company for their use once Trump is out of the White House,” as Newsweek observes, adding: “Never before has an American candidate for president had so many financial ties with American allies and enemies.”
Perhaps with one exception: “The Clinton Foundation,” according to a Washington Post analysis, “accepted millions of dollars from seven foreign governments during Hillary Rodham Clinton’s tenure as secretary of State,” including Kuwait, Qatar, Oman, Australia, Norway, and the Dominican Republic. The UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Germany began giving after Clinton left the State Department. Algeria and Qatar also donated to the foundation.
“Foreign governments and individuals are prohibited from giving money to U.S. political candidates, to prevent outside influence over national leaders. But the foundation has given donors a way to potentially gain favor with the Clintons outside the traditional political limits,” according to the Post. “Foreign sources, including governments, made up a third of those who have given the foundation more than $1 million.”
“While Clinton was secretary of State,” Salon reports, “her department approved $165 billion worth of commercial arms sales to Clinton Foundation donors. That figure from Clinton’s three full fiscal years in office is almost double the value of arms sales to those countries during the same period of President George W. Bush’s second term.” In addition, during Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State, the State Department “authorized $151 billion of separate Pentagon-brokered deals for 16 of the countries that gave to the Clinton Foundation. That was a 143-percent increase in completed sales to those nations over the same time frame during the Bush administration.”
Echoing Newsweek’s conclusion about Trump, the Post observes of Clinton, “Rarely, if ever, has a potential commander-in-chief been so closely associated with an organization that has solicited financial support from foreign governments.”
There’s nothing wrong, in and of itself, for a former cabinet official or First Lady to raise money, especially for worthy causes like many of those promoted by the Clinton Foundation and Clinton Global Initiative. But Clinton is no longer just a retired cabinet official, no longer just a former First Lady. Clinton is step away from the presidency of the United States, and that makes an enormous difference.
I believe Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton love their country. Running for president is a sacrifice too few of our leading figures in business, civil society, and government are willing to make. Both of these Americans are in the arena, as TR put it, “marred by dust and sweat.” Trump, who has seen firsthand the amazing power of the American free-enterprise system, truly wants to “make America great again.” Clinton, who has served our country as secretary of State and senator, truly believes, “We are still Lincoln’s last, best hope of Earth. We’re still Reagan’s shining city on a hill. We’re still Robert Kennedy’s great, unselfish, compassionate country.”
However, the impression that they could parley the presidency into some type of economic windfall remains, and it’s not good for them—or our Republic. It doesn’t have to be this way. As Derek Leebaert reminds us in his essential history of the Cold War, The Fifty Year Wound, after Gen. George Marshall ended his career of military and public service, he “joined no corporate board…gave no paid speeches” and refused a million-dollar book deal, the equivalent of more than $9 million today. Marshall’s response to the offer: “The people of the United States have paid me for my services.”
More worrisome than the impression of corruption is the risk of foreign influence. The good news is that both campaigns seem to have recognized the problem. Trump dismissed Manafort. The Clinton Foundation has pledged to cease accepting foreign money if Clinton is elected.
But more must be done going forward to safeguard America’s interests, protect America’s sovereignty, shield America’s foreign policy, and preserve the integrity of America’s institutions.
Congress could (and should) rise to the occasion and play a real oversight role in the years ahead. Congressional leaders should announce before the November elections that they plan to form a select joint committee of seasoned members of the House and Senate to monitor, investigate, report, and block any attempts on the part of foreign entities to exploit nefarious connections with the new administration or seek quid pro quos with the new administration. Such a course of action would help the new administration escape any shadow of doubt, while protecting America from the “insidious wiles of foreign influence.”
To be sure, Congress is deeply divided, which reflects divisions across the electorate. But surely the American people and their elected representatives can come together to address this challenge. As Washington put it, we must “be constantly awake.”
Alan Dowd is a contributor to Providence and a senior fellow with the Sagamore Institute.
Photo Credit: By Amanjeev, via Flickr.