Robert Reich: Foreign Cash Is Hijacking American Democracy

“Without a border, we just don’t have a country,” Donald Trump says repeatedly. For him, the biggest threats to American sovereignty are three-dimensional items that cross our borders, such as unwanted imports and undocumented immigrants.


He’s wrong. The biggest threats to American sovereignty are invisible digital dollars wired into U.S. election campaigns from abroad.

Yet Trump seems to welcome foreign influence over our democracy.

Sovereignty is mainly about a government’s capacity to govern. A government not fully accountable to its citizens won’t pass laws that benefit and protect those citizens—not just laws about trade and immigration but about national security, the environment, labor standards, the economy, and all else.

To state it another way: Without a functioning democracy, we just don’t have a country.

Trump’s recent public request that hackers connected to the Russian government sabotage his opponent Hillary Clinton is the tip of a Trumpian iceberg of foreign influence.

He’s also been actively soliciting campaign funds from officials of foreign governments—in the United Kingdom, Iceland, Australia, and elsewhere.

Terri Butler, a member of the Australian parliament member was surprised to receive fundraising solicitations from Trump at her official government email address, asking her to make a “generous contribution” to the Trump campaign.

Bob Blackman, a member of Britain’s House of Commons, who has also received fundraising requests from the Trump campaign, says "I did not sign up, these are sent unsolicited.”

Another member of the U.K. parliament, Peter Bottomley, has received three such solicitations. "Neither [Trump’s] sons nor anyone else has answered my questions about how they acquired my email nor why they were asking for financial support that I suppose to be illegal for [Trump] to accept,” he says,

In Iceland, Katrin Jakobsdottir, chair of the Left-Green Movement, a democratic socialist party, has “no idea” how she got on Trump’s fundraising list.

Someone should let Trump know it’s illegal for candidates for federal office to solicit foreign money, regardless of whether the donations ever materialize. In addition, foreign individuals, corporations and governments are barred from either giving money directly to U.S. candidates or spending on advertising to influence U.S. elections. 

Why hasn’t Trump been held accountable? Because the Federal Election Commission, charged with enforcing the law, is gridlocked by its Republican appointees. 

So we’re left with a presidential candidate screaming about threats to American sovereignty from trade and immigration, who’s simultaneously urging officials of foreign governments to compromise American sovereignty.

The hypocrisy doesn’t end there. Leading Trump supporters like Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions, a senior member of the Senate Judiciary committee, is quick to blame global American corporations for disregarding American borders.

“There just seems to be this view, particularly in much of our business community—they’ve already transitioned to a trans-national status,” Sessions says. “They just see the world differently.  Borders are just impediments to them.”

Yes, but the only way Americans have a fighting chance of getting trade deals that are in our interest—or, for that matter, any other kind of legislation that helps the vast majority—is by restricting the flow of global corporate money into American politics.

Yet Sessions is one of the staunchest defenders of the Supreme Court’s “Citizens United” ruling, which held that corporations are people under the First Amendment and can therefore contribute to election campaigns. (He’s even favorably comparedCitizens United” to “Brown v. Board of Education.”)

Not incidentally, “Citizens United” opened a back door for global corporations to influence American elections.

Just last week “The Intercept” reported on two Chinese citizens living in Singapore who own a U.S.-based firm called American Pacific International Capital, on whose board Neil Bush (Jeb’s brother) serves. Last year, the corporation donated $1.3 million to the Jeb Bush super PAC.

There’s reason to believe a lot more foreign money is being funneled into American election campaigns, either through tax–exempt entities that don’t have to reveal the identities of their donors, or via super PACs. So far in the 2016 election there’s been a surge of contributions to super PACs by so-called “ghost corporations” whose ownership remains unknown.

The underlying problem is even larger, because almost all large publicly-traded American companies have some foreign ownership. The Treasury Department estimates that about a quarter of the total market value of public U.S. corporations is owned by foreign nationals.

So whenever these corporations make campaign donations they in effect funnel some of their foreign shareholders’ assets into American politics.

That wouldn’t matter so much if these global corporations cared about America. But they don’t. They care only about their global bottom lines. As an Apple executive told The New York Times, “We don’t have an obligation to solve America’s problems.”

Donald Trump is right to worry about American sovereignty. But the real threat to our sovereignty isn’t imports or immigrants. It’s global money influencing our politics.  

Protecting our democracy requires two steps that Trump and his leading supporters oppose: First, enforce our laws against soliciting or receiving foreign money in our election campaigns.

Second, reverse “Citizens United.”

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