President Trump has perfected the art of corruption

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The impeachment investigation and corruption of President Donald Trump has reached the dramatic proportions of a reality TV series, says Dr Kim Sawyer.

YOU SENSE that it has been scripted. It is not The Art of the Deal, it is The Art of Corruption. In The Apprentice, he played understudy to the role he now plays. In The Apprentice, he practised firing people, but it was only reality TV. As President, he has fired FBI Director James Comey, wanted to fire the independent prosecutor and now wants to fire the whistleblower. Henrik Ibsen could have written this script, but it may have been too much even for him.

In The Master Builder, Ibsen wrote of a builder who built one tower too many. On climbing his highest tower, the builder fell. In An Enemy of the People, Ibsen wrote of the doctor who spoke the truth others would not speak. The doctor was the ancestor of the whistleblower. With Trump, the stories have merged. A whistleblower has blown the whistle on the master builder, but the whistleblower is not the enemy. The whistleblower is of and for the people. Ibsen would have had the prescience to understand.

Corruption has never been fully scripted. Corruption is underscored by unwritten principles the corrupt know but never write down. Whistleblowers understand because they have to. The corrupt want to rewrite accepted principles. They want a lie to be not a lie, a bribe not a bribe, a quid pro quo not a quid pro quo. They want new principles.

Their first principle of the corrupt is to network their corruption. Corruption is not a singular activity. The corrupt establish a network as an insurance policy. The inner network will never be sacrificed; the fall guys will always be in the outer network. Michael Cohen knows. 

The second principle is not to disclose what you don’t have to. The Trump Presidency is like a Ponzi scheme. Trump trades on ignorance. The first red flag was the most important. All we needed to know was his tax returns.

The third principle is to project onto others what they know of themselves, but never reveal. Trump projects. It began with lock her up; now the whistleblower is projected as a spy. Projectionists want us to look over there, not here. Don’t ask me; ask the President of Finland.

There are other principles. Lying to the media is never a lie and lying to a prosecutor is only a lie if it can be proved. It is the same for a quid pro quo. A quid pro quo is only a quid pro quo if it is stated to be. To infer Ukraine would get aid only if they investigated Joe Biden is not a quid pro quo, for it was not stated. Inference is not enough, except when they have to infer. The principle of corruption is to invert all we have come to accept.

Trump is now doubling down. He is making his corruption transparent. He has been emboldened by indifference — the indifference of Congress and the indifference of voters. Indifference underwrites corruption. In a speech in Washington in 1999, Elie Wiesel spoke of the perils of indifference.

Wiesel noted that:

“Indifference is, after all, more dangerous than anger and hatred. [It] is not only a sin, it is a punishment.”

John Stuart Mill probably said it best in 1867, in his inaugural address to incoming University of Saint Andrews students:

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name.”

Whistleblowers know of the perils of indifference. They know the cost. They bear the cost.

The Ukraine whistleblowing complaint is more pivotal than most whistleblowing disclosures. It is not just that it sparked an impeachment inquiry, it changed the equation in other ways. Former FBI Director Robert Mueller testified before Congress on 24 July. The complaint was based on the call to President Zelensky on 25 July. The juxtaposition is not just coincidental. It is revealing.

Mueller wrote a 400-page report that took two years to complete, with hundreds of sources. The whistleblower wrote a nine-page complaint that took two weeks with very few sources. The Mueller report is complex, but was not read or understood by many. The whistleblower complaint is simple and, on the contrary, has been read and understood by many. Multiple whistleblowers are now emerging.

The complaint shows the power of whistleblowing. We are in an age where the most precise information has the power to shift the equation of corruption. Whistleblowers are independent regulators. They are not enemies of the people.

Ibsen would understand.

Dr Kim Sawyer is a senior fellow in the School of Historical and Philosophical Studies at the University of Melbourne.

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