First things first, Donald Trump: Release. Your. Tax. Returns.
Second, if we have to have a cartoon character running for president, I would prefer Bart Simpson. He has better writers and a healthier sense of self-awareness.
Like Donald Trump, Bart clings to a life’s philosophy best summed up as, “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it, unless it’s something good, in which case I did do it, even if I didn’t do it.”
That said, while Bart rarely can discern right from wrong, he frowns on bad organization and a lack of finesse. Of the Trump campaign, he would look askance and dismissively pronounce, as he has of other fiascoes, “This is senseless destruction with none of my usual social commentary.”
Bart also has a finer comprehension than Trump of government and the US Constitution, a document he supports and understands, but about which he forthrightly declares, “I’m pretty sure the PATRIOT Act killed it to ensure our freedoms.”
But back to those tax returns. According to experts, the old “I’m being audited and can’t release them” argument does not hold water. For the umpteenth time, what is Trump hiding?
Of course, many have speculated for months that his obfuscating is because he has much less money than he claims; some have suggested that the returns would reveal that Trump is a complete chiseler when it comes to contributing to charity.
But like others, I believe that what’s in those documents would reveal how deeply in hock Trump is to overseas investors, especially the Russian oligarchs. How could we have a president with hundreds of millions of dollars in foreign debt? How effectively could Trump engage as a leader of the United States when he personally owes other countries’ financiers a fortune? This is almost as frightening as the prospect of Trump waking up in a cranky pants mood and eighty-sixing the planet. Almost.
The relationship among Trump, his advisors and Russia is deeply troubling and not because of Cold War-era paranoia about the Communist threat (although it is fascinating to see how the possible involvement of Russia in this election is both stirring up that nostalgic paranoia while at the same time opening old fissures on the left, as if we were back debating Khrushchev’s 1956 denunciation of Stalin and the cult of personality).
No, what’s truly disturbing is the prospect of Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, each an exemplar of thuggish ultra-nationalism, joining hands and merrily dragging the rest of us down the lane to a kleptocratic, even fascist hell. And in the end, it’s all about the money.
Bad enough that many intelligence and computer experts seem to agree that the recent cyberattacks against the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) and Hillary Clinton’s campaign are the handiwork of hackers in the employ of Russian security services. The long-suspected machinations of several DNC staffers against the Bernie Sanders campaign that were revealed by the hacks, while indeed worthy of condemnation, do not justify the act itself. Nor do the many past acts of interference by the United States in the electoral process of friends and enemies. But as many have noted, we once voted to impeach a president after a break-in at Democratic headquarters; this current breach should be taken no less seriously and is, in many important ways, worse.
Worrying, too, to see the recent interference, reportedly by Trump staffers, with the Republican Party platform plank calling for the protection of Ukraine’s security against Russia, as well as Trump’s own comments praising Putin and Russia while questioning America’s continuing role as the linchpin member of NATO. Not to mention a campaign manager, Paul Manafort, whose work as a political consultant to former Ukrainian president and Putin pal Viktor Yanukovych is deeply suspect and an advisor, Carter Page, who has ties to Gazprom, the Russian, state-controlled energy giant. In July, Page spoke at Moscow’s New Economic School and said that the chance for better relations with Russia has been diminished because, “Washington and other Western capitals have impeded potential progress through their often hypocritical focus on ideas such as democratization, inequality, corruption and regime change.”
As Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo wrote a couple of weeks ago, “Those associations might simply be unsavory if the candidate were an experienced political figure or surrounded by knowledgeable advisors. Neither is the case . . . My own concern is mainly that this kind of mix of ignorance, grifters, disorganization is the kind of seed bed where influence operations and malign influence tend to thrive and take root. We’ve seen more than enough to know this knot of connections requires deep scrutiny, extreme vetting as Trump might say. This is no joke.”
You don’t have to be a hawk on these issues or an hysteric on the dangers of Russia—and like Marshall, I’m neither—to be deeply concerned that outside influences could so easily manipulate a potential president.
But most important, follow the money. Trump denies that he has any investments in Russia, which as many have pointed out is not for lack of trying, and which essentially raises the question, what have the Russians invested in Trump? “There is a lot of Russian money flowing into Trump’s coffers,” Marshall wrote late last month, “and he is conspicuously solicitous of Russian foreign policy priorities.”
We know that Trump’s son, Donald Jr., told a real estate conference in 2008 that “Russians make up a pretty disproportionate cross-section of a lot of our assets . . . We see a lot of money pouring in from Russia.” The Guardian reports there are “several Russian billionaires tied to Trump” and notes Trump’s sale of a Palm Beach mansion for $95 million to Russian fertilizer billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, “who was reported in the Panama Papers leaks to have used offshore law firms to hid more than $2bn-worth of artworks, including pieces by Picasso, Van Gogh and Leonardo, from his wife in advance of their divorce.”
Perhaps most damning is The New York Times’ April account of accusations that arose from the building of Trump SoHo, a hotel and condo tower in downtown Manhattan, “one of several instances in which Mr. Trump’s boastfulness—a hallmark of his career and his campaign—has been accused of crossing the line into fraud.”
Times reporter Mike McIntire wrote that one of the associates at Bayrock, the development company behind the Trump project, “brokered a $50 million investment in Trump SoHo and three other Bayrock projects by an Icelandic firm preferred by wealthy Russians ‘in favor with’ President Vladimir V. Putin, according to a lawsuit against Bayrock by one of its former executives.” Another lawsuit “was filled with unflattering details of how Bayrock operated, including allegations that it had occasionally received unexplained infusions of cash from accounts in Kazakhstan and Russia.”
The aforementioned Josh Marshall has been taking all of this in and covering Trump’s Russia ties with the persistence and eagle eye of a superb investigative reporter. He writes:
“Trump has been blackballed by all major US banks with the exception of Deutschebank, which is of course a foreign bank with a major US presence. He has steadied and rebuilt his financial empire with a heavy reliance on capital from Russia. At a minimum the Trump organization is receiving lots of investment capital from people close to Vladimir Putin.
“ . . . Even if you draw no adverse conclusions, Trump’s financial empire is heavily leveraged and has a deep reliance on capital infusions from oligarchs and other sources of wealth aligned with Putin. That’s simply not something that can be waved off or ignored.”
Yes, the body of evidence, while large, is circumstantial. But where there’s smoke . . . which makes it all the more imperative that Trump let the press and public see his tax returns so we have a chance at piecing together the truth.
There is no sense in allowing a man with this potentially monstrous amount of foreign debt to be our president, especially when he is someone monumentally indifferent to understanding America’s place in the world, a fool whose entire worldview seems equivalent to that of the blowhard at the local tavern whose total knowledge comes from something he heard from a guy once.
Dump Trump, Republicans, and see if Bart Simpson will give you a tumble.
Michael Winship is the Emmy Award-winning senior writer of Moyers & Company and BillMoyers.com, and a former senior writing fellow at the policy and advocacy group Demos. Follow him on Twitter at @MichaelWinship.