White House eyes backward steps on anti-bribery laws

It's amazing that Trump seems eager to make foreign bribes easier, but it's the larger political context that makes the story all the more extraordinary.
Larry Kudlow
Inn this June 6, 2018, photo, Senior White House economic adviser Larry Kudlow speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington.Susan Walsh / AP
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By Steve Benen

It's called the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA), and its purpose is simple: as part of the United States' effort to combat global corruption, federal law prevents American businesses from paying bribes to foreign officials.

Donald Trump has made no effort to hide his contempt for this law.

In fact, NBC News' Richard Engel appeared on The Rachel Maddow Show a couple of years ago and highlighted a 2012 quote from Trump, in which the future president said, in reference to FCPA, "Now, every other country goes into these places, and they do what they have to do. It's a horrible law and it should be changed. I mean, we're like the policeman for the world. It's ridiculous."

The New York Republican didn't forget about his opposition to the law after taking office. A new book from the Washington Post's Philip Rucker and Carol Leonnig reports that Trump clashed with then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson in early 2017 because the new president wanted to get rid of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. "It's just so unfair that American companies aren't allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas," Trump reportedly said at the time.

The same book added that Trump directed Stephen Miller to draft an executive action to repeal the law. (Executive actions cannot simply repeal federal laws, though the president apparently didn't care.)

Nearly three years later, Team Trump hasn't lost sight of the president's interest in this.

The Trump administration is "looking at" making changes to a decades-old global anti-bribery law, White House economic advisor Larry Kudlow told reporters on Friday.

"We are looking at it, and we have heard some complaints from our companies," Kudlow said, responding to a question about the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. The law generally prohibits American companies from paying bribes to secure contracts overseas. "I don't want to say anything definitive policy-wise, but we are looking at it," Kudlow added.

It's amazing on its face that Trump and his team are eager to make foreign bribes easier, but it's the larger political context that makes the story all the more extraordinary.

Republicans seem eager to tell the public that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine, not as part of an extortion scheme, but because of the president's deep and abiding concerns about foreign corruption. The increasingly absurd talking point has been discredited by evidence, but there was Sen. David Perdue (R-Ga.) on NBC's Meet the Press yesterday, once again asking people to believe Trump was committed to "rooting out corruption."

Except we know this wasn't the case in Ukraine, and it now doesn't appear to be true more broadly, either.

As New York's Jon Chait explained, "Trump actually approves of corruption.... [T]he truth is that Trump has focused on corruption. He wishes there was more of it. It's astonishing that, even as Trump's impeachment defense hinges upon his supposed hatred for foreign corruption, his administration isn't even hiding its desire to weaken the country's most powerful law against overseas corruption."

MORE: Today's Maddowblog