Trump’s dirty money

Opinion: Timothy K Kuhner follows the dirty money in this edited extract from his latest book, Tyranny of Greed: Trump, Corruption, and the Revolution to Come.

Associate Professor Timothy Kuhner

By the end of 2018, the US federal government was holding nearly 15,000 migrant children in camps. In April of that year, the Trump regime announced its zero-tolerance approach to immigration, which included the policy of separating children from their parents at the border. But in truth, the regime began separating children a full year earlier.

When the House of Representatives forced the Trump administration to disclose the details, it learned that 2,648 children had been forcibly removed from their parents. Nine of them were less than one year old. Nine more were under the age of two. These 18 infants and toddlers were taken away for periods ranging from 20 days to six months.

In 2019, the Trump regime went to federal court to establish the legality of its vicious cruelty. Justice Department lawyer Sarah Fabian argued that children could be deprived of sleep, blankets, toothbrushes, and soap without violating the legal requirement of “safe and sanitary” conditions at temporary detention facilities. After all, things could be worse. Inspectors had found nooses hanging from the air vents in 15 of the 20 adult cells they examined during an unannounced visit. Other exposés have documented adults - including the parents of the child detainees - held in such overcrowded conditions that they apparently couldn’t sit or lie down for a week at a time.

True to form, Trump detains these children and their parents at considerable profit.

A network of temporary detention camps holding migrant children has charged taxpayers $775 per child per night. The detention of migrant children is a $1 billion dollar industry, with one player, Southwest Key Programs, obtaining $458 million in government contracts in 2018. Its chief executive, Juan Sánchez, made $1.5 million in 2016 - or, in the currency of immigration hard-liners, the daily cost of two thousand children’s anguish.

Many of his policies show a determination to sacrifice the innocent, the vulnerable, and the future for private gain

Another player, private prison firm GEO Group, provides insight into Trump’s policy-making process. When Obama announced the end of private prison contracts in 2016, GEO’s stock fell. The next day it gave $100,000 to a Trump super PAC; later, another $125,000; then $250,000 to Trump’s presidential inauguration; and finally, over $3 million to lobbying firms, including the firm owned by Brian Ballard, Trump’s campaign finance chairman in Florida. In February of 2017, Jeff Sessions reversed Obama’s decision. Two months later, Trump gave GEO a 10-year, $110 million contract to build and run a detention center, which is chump change compared to the $440 million in revenue that GEO expects the facility to earn. In total, its contracts with Immigration and Customs Enforcement total nearly $500 million, and its stock has risen about 60% since Trump was elected.

Under a kleptocratic regime, it’s predictable that migrant detention and child separation would be parts of a private industry that runs on taxpayer dollars doled out by a president who came to power through the industry’s own generous assistance. And while those migrants and their children endure gruesome conditions and suffer the psychological trauma of forced separation, the wardens and prison executives eat Trump steaks and play golf at Trump’s resort at taxpayers’ expense.


Many of his other policies show that same determination to sacrifice the innocent, the vulnerable, and the future for private gain.

Bringing in $107 million in private funding, Trump’s presidential inauguration raised twice as much money as any before it. FEC filings show that “48 people or corporations gave $1 million or more,” with the fossil fuels and extractive industries providing a disproportionate share of those funds. Those industries now benefit from Trump’s “aggressive efforts to weaken federal rules aimed at limiting pollution in streams and wetlands, cutting back on greenhouse gases and closing coal-burning power plants.” They also benefit from Trump’s decision to scrub climate change mitigation from the policy agenda and withdraw from the Paris Agreement.

Trump first appointed Scott Pruitt, a climate change denier, to head the Environmental Protection Agency. Immediately upon assuming control, Pruitt acted to the benefit of Dow Chemical. Dow’s chairman and CEO, Andrew Liveris, contributed $1 million to Trump’s inauguration and was then tapped by Trump to lead his Manufacturing Jobs Initiative.

Trump's Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has has diverted Coronavirus relief funds intended for poor students to benefit wealthy private schools

Next comes Gary Cohn, the former president and CEO of Goldman Sachs who was retooled as Trump’s chief economic adviser and director of the National Economic Council. On the campaign trail, Trump took a stance against the financial regulations passed after the 2008-2009 crisis. In the first month after his election, Goldman’s stock rose by 34%. Cohn owned roughly $210 million in Goldman stock at the time.

Trump has also leaned the way of Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos by proposing to cut $7-10 billion from education spending. DeVos’ family has funded right-wing think tanks that would privatize education--including the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the Heartland Institute, and the Acton Institute. They wish to route people’s money for education into a marketplace of freely competing private providers, thus creating a larger arena for private profit. To fuel this agenda, DeVos has even diverted Coronavirus relief funds intended for poor students to benefit wealthy private schools.

As part of what Stephen Bannon called “the deconstruction of the administrative state,” Congress and federal agencies under Trump derailed over 90 regulations in his first one and a half months in office. These actions have benefited the usual suspects, including Wall Street banks, gun sellers, telecommunications companies, and polluters.

One particularly egregious move came less than two months into his first term, when Trump signed a bill to repeal a rule under the Dodd-Frank financial reform law that required oil and mining companies to disclose their payments to foreign governments. A crucial transparency and integrity measure, the rule aimed to prevent the corruption of foreign governments and to publicize the transfer of consumers’ and investors’ money by multinationals to foreign oligarchs. Its repeal occurred while former Exxon Mobil CEO Rex Tillerson was serving as Trump’s secretary of state. Tillerson had opposed transparency measures and his (former) company is a major beneficiary of the change.

Could anything be more treacherous than selling out children, the environment, posterity, and financial stability for personal gain? Only one kind of treachery harms the political community more deeply: treason.

An edited extract from Tyranny of Greed: Trump, Corruption, and the Revolution to Come by Timothy K. Kuhner (Stanford University Press) ©2020 by the Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. All Rights Reserved

Associate Professor Timothy K. Kuhner is from the Faculty of Law.

This article reflects the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of the University of Auckland.

Used with permission from Newsroom Trump’s dirty money 28 September 2020.

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