Michael A. Cohen

Happy birthday, America. Welcome to the Banana Republic

Trump Tower in New York.
Trump Tower in New York.ALBA VIGARAY/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock

Three weeks ago, New York state’s attorney general filed a lawsuit against the Trump Foundation, President Trump, and three of his kids for what she called “extensive and persistent violations of state and federal law.”

The Foundation’s illegal activities included “unlawful political coordination with the Trump presidential campaign, repeated and willful self-dealing transactions to benefit Mr. Trump’s personal and business interests, and violations of basic legal obligations for non-profit foundations,” according to the suit.

The attorney general’s office referred the matter to the Internal Revenue Service and Federal Election Commission for possible criminal investigation.

Four days later, Forbes magazine revealed that Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross lied in a sworn statement to the Office of Government Ethics in which he claimed to have divested from all of his financial holdings before taking office. Ross has maintained holdings that include “companies co-owned by the Chinese government, a shipping firm tied to Vladimir Putin’s inner circle, [and] a Cypriot bank reportedly caught up in the Robert Mueller investigation,” Forbes reported.

To add insult to injury, when news emerged last year that Ross had failed to fully divest, he shorted stock in the shipping firm Navigator Holdings, likely making a tidy profit in the process.


What do these stories have in common? A Yiddish word, bupkes, which literally means beans, but in practice means “nothing.” These stories of astonishing corruption by the president and his Cabinet members have received practically “bupkes” in the way of press attention.

This is not a criticism of the news media. There are only so many hours in the day — and only so much newspaper ink — to cover the daily outrages that emerge from this administration. It’s hard to focus on a lawsuit or allegations of insider trading when more than 2,000 children are still separated from their parents.


But this is what normalization of political corruption in the era of Trump looks like.

Even before these most recent stories emerged, there is the case of Scott Pruitt, who apparently tried to use his position as EPA administrator to get his wife a high-paying job, including an effort to finagle her a Chick-fil-A franchise.

He has also asked his aides to perform a host of personal errands for him, which is a violation of federal ethics rules. This is on top of the more than a dozen other scandals involving the EPA administrator. These have at least led to inspector general investigations and press scrutiny — though Pruitt still has his job.

If one wants to go further back, there is the president’s persistent and flagrant violations of the Emoluments Clause of the Constitution, which forbids a president from taking money from foreign governments. Multiple foreign governments have purchased apartments in Trump buildings. Rates at the Trump International Hotel in Washington have risen by almost 60 percent since Trump became president, as foreign diplomats have made the hotel their preferred place to stay in the nation’s capitol.

As CNBC’s John Harwood pointed out last week, the Trump organization pledged to donate all profits from foreign governments to the US Treasury. Last year the company made $40 million in hotel income and gave away $151,000.


The evidence is overwhelming that the president is leveraging his position as president to line his own pockets and those of his family. Yet it’s garnered a collective yawn in Washington. In a normal political environment, Congress would do something about all of these charges of corruption. It would be receiving daily news coverage and would be the defining scandal of this White House. But congressional Republicans have repeatedly made clear they have little interest in looking more closely at the Trump administration’s scandals. The result is that we have an executive branch and a president who are not, in any serious way, being held accountable for overtly unethical and illegal behavior.

Corruption, self-dealing, and routine abuses of power have, in Republican-controlled Washington, become completely normalized. New examples are merely thrown on the pile and barely receive attention. This is the stuff of banana republics.

If this were happening in any other country, we’d say political accountability is nonexistent, and democracy is in serious trouble. As we prepare to celebrate the nation’s 242nd birthday, we must grapple with the fact that America today is devoid of political accountability, and representative democracy in America is more an idea than a reality.

Michael A. Cohen’s column appears regularly in the Globe. Follow him on Twitter @speechboy71.