What We Do Is Secret

Trumpism as a private-capital scam

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Money is money, the saying goes. The adage implies that money acquired by various means all has the same value: a dollar is a dollar is a dollar. But some dollars are different, because of how their owners obtain them and move them about. These are the dark dollars of private companies, dollars slithery in their expert avoidance of taxes, their paths rendered invisible by the absence of footprints.

Critics of the Trump White House point to the obscene levels of wealth that you find among the inner circle of President Trump’s appointees and associates. Just as striking, though, is the provenance of all this loose cash: Trump’s trusted advisers have come into much of this wealth through private companies, whose financial balance sheets and so much more are shielded from public view. At least ten of Trump’s close political associates, including some of his cabinet picks, hail from the carefully shrouded world of private capital.

Private companies play by a different set of rules than those governing firms that trade their shares on stock exchanges. Unlike their publicly traded counterparts, private companies don’t have to worry about facing irate shareholders. That’s because a private company’s principals have chosen those shareholders, who are often drawn from a founder’s family. No proxy fights or hostile takeovers to worry about; no bending to the will of big institutional investors.

This is not to say that there are no big donors to Democrats who don’t also get their dough from private companies. For example, Democrats have long enjoyed the largesse of the Pritzker family, who took their Hyatt Corporation public only in 2009. Until then, it was a closely held private company. But no Democratic administration was ever dominated by the owners of privately held entities, and no administration of either party has ever represented so much wealth derived from such secretive entities.

Little in the way of financial disclosure is required of privately held companies. When it comes to financial regulation, these companies reap the benefit of the government’s failure to call them to account. The same is true of private companies as large as the Koch Industries conglomerate or as adorably tiny as a startup founded by a lone millennial in a stocking cap.

Sanctums of Privilege

This is not a screed against private companies. As a red-blooded American, I revel in tales of heroic entrepreneurship—of hatched-in-the-garage ideas that yield their underdog executors an unlikely pot of gold. This is, rather, a scream, the wail of a blues tune sung to my fellow red-blooded Americans: Your government is in the hands of super-rich people who never had to show anything to anybody! And you can bet they plan to run the country the same way they have run their companies: using shell games and pyramid schemes, fraud and shakedown, answerable to virtually no one.

Your government is in the hands of super-rich people who never had to show anything to anybody!

These are people who have thrived in a culture of unaccountability and self-dealing. They are also people who have convinced themselves that the accrual of wealth to themselves is a boon to the nation at large. They like to think of themselves as job creators, dynamic players in shaping the global economy. Because their magnificence exists to benefit us all, the reasoning goes, they need not show us the methods by which they perform their magic. And indeed we do all stand, mouths agape, at the show, dazzled by the 22,000-square-foot mansion (with a 6,200-square-foot guest house) that serves as the home address of secretary of education Betsy DeVos, or the 203-foot yacht (with an elevator inside) owned by Robert Mercer, the Trump donor and patron of chief White House strategist Stephen K. Bannon. (Mercer’s daughter, Rebekah, is said to have great influence in the West Wing.)

The source of Mercer’s wealth is Renaissance Technologies LLC, a privately owned firm known as a hedge-fund sponsor, which was built by scientists who learned how to run algorithms that identify signals emanating from great masses of data in order to generate profitable financial trades. After Renaissance founder and math wizard James Simons, a big donor to Democratic candidates and political action committees, retired and kicked himself upstairs to serve as the company’s chairman, Mercer became co-CEO with Peter Brown, his longtime research partner.

At the Renaissance office in East Setauket on New York’s Long Island, no sign is visible from the road to tell you you’ve arrived at the headquarters of a rare kind of casino—one that moves billions of dollars around the world. Thick plantings of trees obscure any view of the low-slung Renaissance building from the public side of the security gate.

Renaissance is spectacularly successful—Investopedia named Renaissance Institutional Equities, the LLC’s largest entity, the top-performing hedge fund of 2016, after it yielded investors a return of 20 percent for the year. Mercer’s genius as a data and systems geek is part of the super-secret sauce of this “quant fund” that turned other people’s assets-minus-liabilities into riches for his investors. It’s like a very complicated version of counting cards at the blackjack table. But the best-performing fund at Renaissance is one that only its employees can join—and indeed they must in order to actualize their full compensation package. Bloomberg’s Katherine Burton described the employee-only Medallion fund as “finance’s blackest box.”

The wealth of Betsy DeVos, by contrast, comes from a simpler operation: the marketing of what some have called a pyramid scheme that goes by the brand name Amway. Founded by her father-in-law in 1959, Amway distributes home products like dish soap and cosmetics through a network of home-based sellers who are pressured to recruit more sellers in order to earn a bonus on the amount of product the distributor would then sell wholesale to the recruit. That recruit would also be a distributor, looking for recruits of his or her own, in order to sell more products wholesale in order to get that bonus. Note the emphasis on recruitment and bonuses rather than the direct-selling to retail customers, who, in the end, were the ones for whom Amway products were ostensibly intended.

In the business press, Amway is often described as a “multilevel marketing company.” In the 1970s, the Federal Trade Commission described its business model as an “inherent fraud,” as historian Rick Perlstein reported in The Nation, and tried to shut the company down. The FTC failed in that effort, but did issue orders in 1979 slapping Amway for price-fixing and misrepresenting the kind of money distributors could expect to make. In fact, Amway was made to tell distributors that they could wind up losing money.

Three decades later, in 2010, a class action lawsuit by former sellers (um, “distributors”) alleging Amway’s engagement in an “illegal scheme” was settled out of court. According to USA Today,

Amway agreed to pay $55 million to former distributors, closely oversee high-level distributors who run training businesses, strengthen refund policies and make other changes estimated to cost an additional $100 million.

In Forbes’ 2016 listing of “America’s Largest Private Companies,” Amway clocks in at number twenty-nine.

The education secretary, née Elisabeth Prince, did not come into the DeVos family empty-handed. Her own family of origin, while not as wealthy as her husband’s, was quite well-to-do through her father’s enterprise, Prince Corporation, itself a privately held company until Johnson Controls bought it for $1.3 billion in cash in 1996. Founder Edgar Prince, seeking to change the political culture to more closely resemble his own heartless Calvinism, donated, according to Zack Stanton of Politico, “millions in seed funding to launch the Family Research Council,” the right-wing organization that represents and organizes politically conservative evangelical Christians, and was famously designated an anti-LGBT hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. Prince’s son, Erik, used his windfall to found Blackwater, the military contractor that went on to infamy when, in 2007, its mercenaries gunned down civilians in a Baghdad city square. Four Blackwater contractors were convicted in 2014 of killing fourteen unarmed Iraqis “in what prosecutors called a wartime atrocity,” according to the New York Times. Blackwater, since sold and renamed Academi, was also privately held. It enjoyed more than $1 billion in government contracts. In 2010, according to the Washington Post, Prince moved to the United Arab Emirates “amid mounting legal problems for his American business.”

You Get What You Pay For

Both the Mercers and the DeVoses pour millions into the political system. According to The New Yorker’s Jane Mayer, Robert Mercer “gave $22.5 million in disclosed donations to Republican candidates and to political-action committees” to influence the outcome of the 2016 presidential election. And that doesn’t include possible donations to nonprofit advocacy groups, now allowed, since the 2010 Supreme Court decision in Citizens United v. FEC, to conduct advertising for and against political candidates. But unlike PACs, these nonprofits—classified as “social welfare” groups—are not required to disclose their donors.

You can bet they plan to run the country the same way they have run their companies: using shell games and pyramid schemes, fraud and shakedown.

Politico’s Stanton reports that Betsy and Dick DeVos pretty much own Michigan politics, having spent “at least $100 million on political campaigns and causes over the past 20 years.” The DeVoses used political giving and influence to cut funding to public schools and pave the way for a large influx of charter schools, and to see Michigan, home to the once-mighty United Auto Workers, turned into a so-called right-to-work state, an anti-union designation that translates into greater workplace control for business bosses, but few rights for the bossed.

Different though they be, the Mercers and the DeVoses share another common trait: both families are part of the right-wing political donor network built by Charles and David Koch, principals in Koch Industries, the second-largest privately held company in the United States, according to Forbes. Yet each power-donor family has also built its own assemblage of political organizations and entities. Most of these are nonprofit organizations, but a few, such as the Koch-controlled data firm i360—a platform for collecting and processing voter data that is poised to gain operational control over the Republican Party—are privately held, for-profit companies.

This makes the Kochs much more than an outsize example of the destructive force of “corporate money” in the political system; rather, their efforts exemplify the rapid cartelization of our public life under a network of private wealth. The Koch donor network is, by and large, a confluence of capital collected by privately held companies.

In essence, the money that flows through the Koch network of interlocking political entities isn’t just “dark money”—it’s money double-dipped in darkness, first through the rules governing the companies from whence it came, and again as it flows into a political system clogged with equally opaque nonprofit political operations that exist outside of the political party structure.

Mercer money is often double-dark, as well. It’s said that the father-and-daughter team would like to build a constellation of their own institutions to challenge the Kochs’ sprawling collection of nonprofit think tanks, advocacy groups, and the occasional for-profit political venture. Witness Robert Mercer’s investment in a for-profit voter data startup that the Ted Cruz campaign subcontracted to use in the 2016 election cycle. (Both Mercers backed Cruz during the GOP primary.)

Since Mitt Romney’s loss in the 2012 election, the Mercers have drifted ever further out of the orbit of Planet Koch, building up their own entities, including Breitbart News, Cambridge Analytica (the data startup), and the ironically named Government Accountability Institute, all of them featuring Steve Bannon, the self-described economic nationalist, in top slots—until he joined the White House. Cambridge Analytica, on whose board Bannon served, and Breitbart, where he was the chief executive, are private companies. GAI, which produced the campaign-season book Clinton Cash: The Untold Story of How and Why Foreign Governments and Businesses Helped Make Bill and Hillary Rich, by Peter Schweizer, is a nonprofit organization.

Schweizer’s book, together with an accompanying movie executive-produced by Rebekah Mercer, was designed to sully the reputation of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton. It was part of a Bannon-crafted strategy to steer the sort of smears that usually bubble up from the right-wing fever swamps directly into the mainstream media. It worked; in 2015 the New York Times and the Washington Post both made exclusive agreements with the GAI to report on advance excerpts of Clinton Cash.

Bannon was wealthy before he met up with the Mercers, first through his work as a banker for Goldman Sachs back when it was a privately held company, and then through his own privately held ventures in movie-making and consulting. Though Bannon’s wealth, when compared to that of Betsy DeVos, makes him a pipsqueak in the Trump money universe (assets worth between $12 million and $54 million, according to the New York Times), it nonetheless derives primarily from privately held entities.

Others in the Trump inner circle who made their fortunes via privately held ventures include treasury secretary Steven T. Mnuchin, who got a great deal during the financial crisis on IndyMac, a mortgage lending bank, thanks to our government’s penchant for the socialization of risk and privatization of profit when entities considered “too big to fail” go into a state of distress. Mnuchin and his fellow investors, a group that included liberal donor and hedge-fund honcho George Soros, changed the company name to OneWest and began to aggressively foreclose on homeowners. The bank earned Mnuchin and his partners a profit of $1.6 billion in its first year of operation, even as the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation was preparing to take a hit of nearly $11 billion “on bad loans that the Pasadena institution made before it was sold last March and renamed OneWest Bank,” according to E. Scott Reckard of the Los Angeles Times.

Then there’s commerce secretary Wilbur Ross, worth $2.5 billion according to Forbes, who started a second career in 2000 with the creation of his eponymous investment company, which he later sold to Invesco for a reported $375 million. Reed Cordish, special assistant to the president for intragovernmental and technology initiatives, is a scion of the family that owns privately held Cordish Companies, involved in gaming and entertainment. He’s said to be tight with Jared Kushner. Sonny Perdue, Trump’s secretary of agriculture, founded the private company Perdue Inc., a trucking outfit, with his wife, Mary, who was reported in 2005 to be the company’s sole shareholder. (An official at Perdue Inc. declined to confirm to The Baffler whether this is still the case.)

And, while not a rich guy himself, CIA director Mike Pompeo founded a private company called Thayer Aerospace in the late 1990s with help from Koch Venture Capital, an arm of Koch Industries. A Pompeo aide told the Washington Post that the Koch investment amounted to only 2 percent, but there’s no way to really know, since the transaction took place between two privately held companies. He later became president of Sentry International, another private company, before his 2010 run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, which he won, again with an assist from the Koch brothers. He’s also a climate-change denier—an appealing trait in a public official if you’re a fossil fuels magnate looking to buy one.

Island Getaways

You may note that I have, so far, avoided examination of private-company holdings of the president and his family, because any such attempt would cause a great pain in my head. Consider this thicket of companies and partnerships and shell companies for tax avoidance described by Wall Street Journal reporters Jean Eaglesham, Mark Maremont, and Lisa Schwartz in a December 8 article:

President-elect Donald Trump owns a helicopter in Scotland.

To be more precise, he has a revocable trust that owns 99% of a Delaware limited liability company that owns 99% of another Delaware LLC that owns a Scottish limited company that owns another Scottish company that owns the 26-year-old Sikorsky S-76B helicopter, emblazoned with a red “TRUMP” on the side of its fuselage.

Nearly all of Trump’s assets, they write, are encased in similar webs comprising Trump’s many privately held entities.

So-called shell companies, such as Trump’s Delaware LLCs, exist for no other reason than the receipt and movement of money; both publicly traded and privately held companies make free use of such protections, but when used by private entities, the effect is not simply to avoid taxes, but to obscure the sources of capital used by a company that is already exempt from making the most basic disclosures.

Similarly, the foreign countries supplying the corporate nameplates for U.S.-based firms seeking tax inversions grant wide latitude to private firms seeking optimal business environments. Or you can stay closer to home: Delaware, Nebraska, and Wyoming are likewise regarded as “secrecy jurisdictions”—i.e., states that will ask no questions about the source of a company’s money or who its owner is. The FACT Coalition, a watchdog group, contends that because of the financial secrecy laws in these states, the United States is now “the second easiest place in the world—after Kenya—for a criminal or terrorist to open an anonymous shell company to launder their money.” It’s easier to set up a shell company in some jurisdictions here, U.S. senator Sheldon Whitehouse says, than getting a library card: “A library may actually require you to show up in person and sign for your card.”

Secrecy begets secrecy. In January, a very special two-day meeting was set up by officials of the United Arab Emirates between a Russian contact said to be close to Vladimir Putin and Erik Prince, who was reportedly acting as “an unofficial envoy” for Trump, in the Seychelles Islands, another “secrecy jurisdiction”—and one in which the UAE wields a great deal of influence. (A spokesperson for Prince denied that he acted on Trump’s behalf, and White House press secretary Sean Spicer said that Prince had nothing to do with the Trump transition team.) The Washington Post reports that the meeting took place about ten days before Trump’s inauguration. Prince was a big donor to the Trump campaign, coughing up $250,000 for pro-Trump organizations during the election—among them a political action committee helmed by Rebekah Mercer.

In keeping with its role as a hider of rich people’s money, Barry Faure, the Seychelles secretary of state for foreign affairs, told the Post that it’s a great place to have a secret assignation away from the media’s prying eyes; in fact, it’s a selling point in the tourist board’s promotional materials, he said.

Calamities of Exile

One needn’t be an ardent conspiracy theorist to behold the larger currents of moneyed impunity directing American affairs of state in the Trump era. The underlying dynamic is simple: when the state does so little to regulate the flows of capital, they are encouraged to flow into relationships with people in bad places, or simply into bad relationships with people in countries other than the United States. If you maintain your business and lifestyle through these kinds of arrangements and you’re the president of the United States, you may find yourself someday doing diplomacy with a government that is also a business partner. And the great part is, the American people may never know for sure.

The money that flows through the Koch network of interlocking political entities isn’t just “dark money”—it’s money double-dipped in darkness.

So say, just for example, you’re doing business with oligarchs from Russia. Nobody gets to be an oligarch without the blessing of Putin, who controls virtually the entire apparatus of the Russian state, including who reaps the wealth of companies either formerly or presently owned by the state. This is the reason some are beginning to suggest—though we may never know with certainty—that the Trump Organization may function as a money laundering organization for Russian oligarchs and organized crime figures, as well as agents of corruption elsewhere in the world.

Just imagine that ethos applied to a $1 trillion government infrastructure project such as that proposed by Trump as a “public-private partnership.” Somebody, you can bet, is going to get rich on that, and it won’t be you.

And we know that the privately held companies of the Trump Organization, from which the president has not removed himself, do business all over the world, as do the businesses held by the president’s daughter and son-in-law. Jared Kushner presides over his own family’s privately held real estate empire, drawing in capital from entities in places as far flung as Israel, Germany, and France. Just a week after the election, Kushner was in talks with the Chinese conglomerate Anbang regarding a potential deal for a redevelopment of Kushner’s 666 Fifth Avenue building in New York. (The talks broke off without a deal in March, when opponents challenged the ethics of the union.)

Describing the Kushner Companies’ investments in a January 7 story about the Anbang talks, New York Times reporters Susanne CraigJo Becker, and Jesse Drucker wrote that the developer “has participated in roughly $7 billion in acquisitions in the last decade, many of them backed by opaque foreign money.”

On April 26, the Times’ Drucker reported on Kushner’s investment partnership with Raz Steinmetz, nephew of Beny Steinmetz, who is under investigation by four governments—including the U.S. Department of Justice—for allegedly bribing the wife of Guinea’s then-dictator for a piece of an iron ore mine. Together with Raz Steinmetz, in 2012, Kushner’s company spent about $188 million for apartment buildings in Manhattan and New Jersey. Writes Drucker:

The deals came amid an unprecedented flow of overseas cash into American properties, much of it through opaque corporations and limited liability companies that make the funds difficult to trace.

The giant world-economy private-company scam that enables characters such as Trump and Kushner is not simply a game that the principals play for their personal benefit. It is, rather, a transnational syndicate that continually leverages the opaque capital flowing from authoritarian state actors, with the potential for laundering that money through legal shell companies and leveraging it back. This system effectively overweights the value of dollars gleaned in this way, as opposed to those earned, borrowed, and spent through the means that publicly traded companies typically employ.

Shell Games

Rarely do private companies find themselves punished for using shell companies to move capital and avoid taxes. The fine accountants at Ernst & Young cooked up a complicated scheme in 2008 for a restructuring of Koch Industries via shell entities in Luxembourg, a notorious tax haven, with the reasonable expectation that the ruse would never be revealed. But then someone leaked a raft of private documents from Mossack Fonseca, a law firm in Panama that specializes in the creation of shell companies. The info dump became known as the Panama Papers, and among its many revelations was Koch Industries’ bid to reinvent parts of the company, on paper, as tax-avoidant Luxembourg shell companies. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the essence of the Koch Industries deal was to “reorder the ownership of many subsidiaries and centralize them under Luxembourg companies that are all served by internal corporate finance companies, akin to a company’s own bank.”

Maybe that’s where the Koch siblings got the idea to get behind DonorsTrust—a sort of house bank for the array of political entities and think tanks they fund. Of course, as with all of the organizations funded by Koch, they’re not in it alone. Betsy and Dick DeVos helped fund DonorsTrust, according to Mother Jones.

And then there are the many Koch-network “pass-through” groups, such as Freedom Partners and the Center to Protect Patient Rights, which function much the way that shell companies do in the world of private capital: they add layers of obfuscation over the provenance of the dollars flowing from one right-wing organization or institution to the next.

For instance, there’s the Wellspring Committee, a pass-through funded in part via the Koch network, whose director, Ann Corkery, also sat for six years on the board of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, a pro-bono law firm, according to tax filings. With its portfolio of so-called religious freedom cases, the Becket Fund gained notice as the firm representing the principals of the Hobby Lobby company in a 2014 Supreme Court challenge to a mandate in the Affordable Care Act for employer-based health insurance to cover, without a co-pay, the costs of prescription contraception.

One type of private company is the “closely held” variety, which may occasionally trade stock publicly, but has only a few shareholders. The Supreme Court’s decision in favor of Hobby Lobby (number 106 on the 2016 Forbes list of the nation’s top private companies) specifically cited its “closely held” status as a qualification for its exemption from the ACA contraceptive mandate.

Swallowing the Money

If this is the richest administration in history, it is also likely the one that will move in strictest concert with the needs and desires of people who keep their companies off the exchanges specifically to maintain their secrets. Even those in the Trump administration who are not wealthy likely owe their political success to the dons of the private company syndicate. The Kochs’ nonprofit advocacy group Americans for Prosperity all but invented vice president Mike Pence’s career as a leading light of the small-government right. AFP has for years featured Pence as a speaker at its events and held up his record as Indiana governor as an example for others to follow. Many in the Republican majority in Congress owe their seats to the help they received from Koch-linked groups, including those partially funded by the current secretary of education. DeVos, under questioning by senator Bernie Sanders during her confirmation hearing, said it was possible that her family had contributed $200 million to the Republican Party “over the years.”

And while the Kochs don’t much care for Trump, and the Mercers occasionally butt heads with the Kochs, I’m betting they’ll always find a way to work together. It’s in all of their best interests, so long as the aim is the unfettered flow of the darkest of dark money to an increasingly small number of people.

The entry to the seemingly endless driveway at Owl’s Nest, Robert Mercer’s estate in Head of the Harbor on Long Island, is planted with sunny yellow daffodils marked by a white picket gate suspended between two stone pillars. Atop each pillar sits a large bronze statue of an owl, wings extended, as if ready to swoop down on unwitting prey.

Consider yourself warned.

Adele M. Stan is a weekly columnist at The American Prospect and winner of the 2017 Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis.

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