The following is a conversation between Sarah Chayes, Author of On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.
Denver: The United States is showing signs similar to some of the most corrupt countries in the world, and this corruption is determining the shape of our government and affecting all levels of society. This is a topic of a brand-new book by prizewinning journalist Sarah Chayes titled On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake.
Welcome to The Business of Giving, Sarah!
Sarah Chayes: Thank you very much for having me.
Denver: You are an internationally recognized expert on corruption in government networks throughout the world. So when you began this book, Sarah, did you start with any kind of hypothesis?
Sarah Chayes: I certainly did. My last book is called Thieves of State. It really focuses on developing countries. Why Corruption Threatens Global Security was the subtitle of that one, so I’ve been at this for a while. But it ended with an epilogue. It was published in 2015, ended with an epilogue that says, in essence, “We are on this spectrum. This ain’t just developing countries, folks.” And in these developing countries that I looked at, it led to some pretty explosive cataclysms. So the implicit warning of that book, which was published in 2015, was “Watch out! We’re on this spectrum, and therefore, there are cataclysms potentially in our future.”
I didn’t quite expect that the cataclysm would hit as soon as it did. What I’m referring to there is the election of 2016, which no matter where you fall on the political spectrum, was a kind of upending event. It really did upend American politics. And two guys — and I’m not comparing them — but two guys who nobody expected had any reason to do well in 2016 both did very well–Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. And If you take the votes for the two of them, you really get the bulk of the American electorate. And they both made corruption central to their campaigns.
And so, in a sense, I include, if you will, Maverick voting as the kind of extreme behavior that I was writing in Thieves of State, often results when there is systemic corruption, and its victims have no civic means of revolt. They go to extremes, and that can mean extreme voting. And that’s what I really think happened in 2016. But as I say, I didn’t expect it to quite hit us as soon as it did, and I felt like, “Wow! Sarah, you were behind the eight ball here.”
But I certainly knew, even before the election actually took place, I knew that it was time to turn a lens that I had, if you will, kind of ground by looking at countries such as Honduras, Nigeria, Afghanistan, where I spent a lot of time; Nepal, Lebanon, what have you. All of that thinking had arrived at a number of patterns. What I had discovered doing that work was that intimately knowing one systemically corrupt country gave me the tools I needed to quite rapidly analyze others, even if they were in completely different cultures, languages, geographies, and so on.
So by 2016, I was like, “OK, girl. It’s time to take this thing, this apparatus, and apply it to the United States,” and that’s what I’m doing in On Corruption in America.
We have a devastating rift in this country between the vast bulk of ordinary people who know a pile of corruption when the stink hits their nose, and the elites in this country across the political spectrum, who are narrowing and narrowing and narrowing the technical definition of corruption to something that, frankly, you have to be a real boob, be so dumb as to commit at this point. In other words, they have legalized it.
… the United States is more in danger of the fight against corruption than it is from corruption itself.
Denver: You opened the book with the corruption case of Senator McDonnell of Virginia and his wife, and there’s really nothing special about that case. But what was noteworthy is that the conviction on corruption charges was overturned by the Supreme Court by unanimous vote. What did that say to you?
Sarah Chayes: You hit it. The issue for me was not so much that McDonnell’s conviction was overturned. I thought that was perfectly possible. What blew me away was that the vote was 8-to-0. And not just that. I was listening to a report on the ending of the Supreme Court session on radio, of which I am a veteran. I used to be a radio reporter, and so it’s a medium I use a lot. And the shows I listen to make an effort to include panelists across the political spectrum. And this one had three or four — I can’t remember now — chosen to span the political spectrum. They also fell in line. 3-to-0 or 4-to-0.
Denver: Oh my goodness!
Sarah Chayes: And so, what that told me was we have a devastating rift in this country between the vast bulk of ordinary people who know a pile of corruption when the stink hits their nose, and the elites in this country across the political spectrum, who are narrowing and narrowing and narrowing the technical definition of corruption to something that, frankly, you have to be a real boob, be so dumb as to commit at this point. In other words, they have legalized it.
And what struck me also in this opinion that I think is really important is the wording that Justice Roberts used, and nobody wrote even a concurring opinion saying, “Hey. I disagree with the tone here,” or “Hey. I had to vote this way, but it’s a real danger to the United States.” Instead, what they all agreed with, all eight of them, was the idea that it’s not the place of this court to worry about tawdry, little details like a Rolex watch or a Ferrari. The real worry here is the terrible overreach of prosecutors in trying to reign this in. That is to say the United States is more in danger of the fight against corruption than it is from corruption itself. That is about the most dangerous conclusion I could possibly imagine. And it was hearing that when I realized, “Girl, get off your duff and write this book.”
Denver: That’s the second time you’ve said that! “We’ve got to get moving!”
Sarah Chayes: Right. Exactly. But I’m saying that was the moment that I knew, “OK. You can’t delay another second to get this work underway.” Again, not to say that my 300-pages is going to change the country or the world, but it’s something that I felt was within my gift to contribute to the effort of American citizens to regain control of their country.
Denver: You did a superb job of it. And it is interesting how when you talk about the technical definition of corruption, it’s the guys who were protecting themselves who are writing the laws. It’s very much along the same lines of health insurance. Federal employees, they don’t have the same health insurance. They don’t have the same Social Security system.
And the thing that struck me the other day was this defamation suit against President Trump and Bill Barr coming out to say, by invoking the Department of Justice, he said, “That’s been done before. It’s been done by other presidents and it’s done by other congressmen and stuff,” which may be true. But what he’s saying…well, I’m just saying, but what he’s saying is because it’s been done before, it’s been normalized; therefore, it must be OK. And you’re like, “No, it’s not okay. Whether it’s been done before or not done before.” And that’s all part of the same pattern I think you’re talking about.
Sarah Chayes: Absolutely. I’m glad that you put your finger on that particular case or that particular issue because it brings me to — and we’ll get back to this — but it brings me to one of the key things that corrupt networks always do. What they do is they insert some of their members into public office. The role of those members is to bend and twist the agencies and institutions that they are in charge of to serve not the public, but the network. And the function that they always have to get their hands on for a variety of reasons is the justice function.
And so you just gave a perfect example of how the current kleptocratic network is bending and twisting the justice function of the United States to serve the purposes of the network, rather than the purposes of the American public for which it was designed.
Myths are deeply true. Real myths are deeply true. And why I chose to weave so many sacred stories through this narrative is because I feel that in turning our backs on myths and sacred stories, our society has suffered a tremendous loss of wisdom. And as a result, in a way, we’re being forced to live our myths in the flesh.
Denver: Exactly. I want to speak to you about Midas in a minute. But first I want to ask you about mythology and sacred stories and why you find them so important and instructive when almost everybody else doesn’t want to bother with them or doesn’t have the time to.
Sarah Chayes: Thank you, Denver, for that question because it really is central to this book. And I think it’s something that gives On Corruption in America a depth, that we can’t pretend that folks out there aren’t being just assailed by a welter of books and articles and television shows and documentaries on overlapping elements of these issues. But myth, especially today, it’s almost an insult. We have come to use the word myth to basically mean something that’s not true.
Denver: Right. Not a positive connotation.
Sarah Chayes: That’s completely wrong. Myths are deeply true. Real myths are deeply true. And why I chose to weave so many sacred stories through this narrative is because I feel that in turning our backs on myths and sacred stories, our society has suffered a tremendous loss of wisdom. And as a result, in a way, we’re being forced to live our myths in the flesh.
Take a look at who’s striding across the stage, if you will, of our public life. These are such exaggerated figures that they could have walked straight out of Greek mythology. That’s why I thought it was terribly important to go back and examine even some myths that I thought I understood.
And so, what I did was actually intersect the sacred story with some of the more modern elements of science understood broadly, meaning archeology, paleontology, anthropology, and history. And I found these sacred stories illuminated and gaining a depth through that inquiry that was incredibly helpful to me in further understanding the phenomenon that we’re trying to live through.
Denver: It really does set the book apart. There is no question about it. And at the heart of corruption is the unbridled desire for money and infinite wealth. Enter Midas who actually did exist right around the time money was created. Tell us about him and the lessons therein.
Sarah Chayes: So, you know the sacred story, right? Midas is this legendary king who does a favor to a god who offers him a single gift, anything he wants. Midas asks that everything he touches turn to gold. Now, what’s interesting in the story is the god is disappointed. Really critical here. The god is disappointed and yet fulfills his promise because gods don’t break their word.
So this happens to Midas who, it takes probably 17 seconds for him to figure out what a devastating thing he just asked for because what he does is reach for an apple. Now, an apple is food, so the first obvious thing is that he is going to starve to death because the apple turns to gold; he can’t eat it. I would say more deeply — what’s an apple? An apple is crunchy, tart, juicy. It’s the flavor of fall. If you go to…
Denver: You’re making me hungry, you know that?
Sarah Chayes: Right! And if you go to another sacred story, an apple is also wisdom. He’s suddenly converted all of that, which is irreplaceable, into a piece of metal. Nataniel Hawthorne tells the story for children, gives Midas a daughter. The daughter, seeing his distress, comes running towards him. She’s the next thing he loves most after gold. He bends to kiss her forehead…that irreplaceable child, that human relationship, that sparkle has just turned to metal.
What I gained from that, and then as you said, what I discovered was that Midas was in fact, a real person, and he was King in Phrygia, which is just about where and when money was invented. Now, money is different from having a lot of apple trees or a lot of flocks of sheep. That has a limit. You just cannot tend an infinite number of sheep. Whereas money… that’s what’s different about money.
Once money becomes the mark of your social standing, that is, once you are infected with the Midas disease — it’s a little bit different from greed — it’s not that you want more stuff; you’re not even buying stuff with the money. You’re putting it in your bank account. So you’re not even converting your precious daughter to gold anymore. You’re converting her to zeroes. Zeroes…
Denver: You’re keeping score is what you’re doing.
Sarah Chayes: You’re keeping score. You’re keeping score. And that means, “Hey, Denver, you clocked $237 million? Well, I better make it $300-, $330.” And then you come back and then we get to this ridiculous place where the Commerce Secretary of the United States of America is lying to Forbes Magazine about how many zeroes he’s got. How absurd is this?
Denver: How did we get here?
Sarah Chayes: And we can laugh at it. We can laugh at it and say, “It’s ridiculous.” However, those zeroes are the result of converting our most sacred values, our daughters, our land, what’s on the land, what’s under the land, the apple and everything that an apple represents — these things that are irreplaceable. We are crunching them down into slag and extracting from them: zeroes. That’s what the Midas disease does.
And the Midas disease is in such pandemic in the United States of America that…have you asked around reasonably what people think when you say the words “The Midas Touch?”
Denver: I think it probably has a pretty good connotation. In other words, this guy can turn money out of nothing, and it’s not– it’s “Hey, I like that!” You know what I mean? I think that’s the way people respond.
Sarah Chayes: You got it. That means we completely have misunderstood this myth. This myth is telling us as strongly as it can that the Midas touch is not a blessing. It is a devastating curse that will turn your whole society to zeroes and slag if you don’t bring it into check. That’s why I put the Midas story in there.
What the Midas disease almost inevitably leads to when it is so widespread, when it is pandemic, is the coalescing of those who can accumulate wealth into corrupt networks.
Denver: Let’s fast forward a few centuries here, many centuries, to the Gilded Age. And that would be maybe from the late 1870s or somewhere in there, to the 1930s. And I think this is a timeframe period where people only have a really vague notion, and you have done a masterful job, Sarah, in dissecting this. Give us a flavor of what was happening and the forces that were at play then.
Sarah Chayes: Thank you for that again. Now, there, again, this book was full of surprises for me. I thought,” Oh, I’m just going to take my little contraption that I had built for a decade on Nigeria and Serbia, and I was going to just take it and apply it to the United States and it was going to be fairly straightforward.” I’m actually a historian by training, but I was like a real historian meaning Medieval Islam was my specialty. So the 19th century, that’s journalism. I never really worked on the 19th century, and so it was a big discovery for me, too.
What I found applying my contraption to what I was discovering about the Gilded Age was that it applied perfectly. That means that the society was in the grip of — excuse me for using wonky language — of integrated corrupt networks. And by that, I mean all those divisions that Americans often use to categorize our society, like private sector and public sector, or even criminal sector; members of the network or networks wove skillfully back and forth and in and out among these different sectors. That meant that the networks disposed of all of the powers and capabilities that those different sectors excel in.
So they put their people into positions of political power. They had people as captains of industry who were then consolidating the industries. They had instruments of force, both formal and informal, meaning they could use the National Guard and even the Army at times. But they also had kind of informal thugs who might’ve been former police officers who could come in the middle of the night and lynch people, or the lynch mobs who were actually part of this apparatus.
And this is exactly what I have found and documented in places as far-flung again as South Korea and Honduras. And so here I found that very same thing happening in the United States with the results very similar to what you see around the world today, meaning you had massive exploitation of the land.
So we had — I’m speaking to you from West Virginia — the woods on my land are young. They’re young because my hillsides were clear-cut during the Industrial Revolution, during the Gilded Age for charcoal to run steam engines, to run factories. And all of the industrialization was being done at grievous cost to the land because the next thing that then happens — I’m not in a coal vein here — but then the next thing, of course, that happens is coal, and all of the both human and environmental suffering that has ensued.
You also have basically the attempted genocide of Native Americans. You have the re-enslavement, for all intents and purposes, of Black and African-Americans. You have desperate exploitation of labor. You have essentially the reduction of our farming communities into feudalism, where they owed their crop to the general store. So, it was the Midas disease in full force. What the Midas disease almost inevitably leads to when it is so widespread, when it is pandemic, is the coalescing of those who can accumulate wealth into corrupt networks, and that’s exactly what we had in the Gilded Age.
And the last thing I’d like to say… two more things I’d like to say about that period that were very instructive to me about today. One is that, lo and behold, not only was neither political party in the United States immune to this syndrome– this Gilded Age syndrome of kleptocratic networks– but no system of government was inherently immune. We had it spreading across the entire industrialized world in very similar forms, from Imperial Germany through the French Third Republic, the British constitutional monarchy, and the United States. That means that nothing is inherently — neither a political party nor a political system, neither unionized labor nor unbridled private enterprise — is inherently immune to corrupt networks forming.
We must pay attention to how we, as the ordinary citizens of any of these structures, first of all, how we are able collectively to reign in the inevitable desire of the most among us to join together into a kleptocratic coalition and rig the system in their favor. We also need institutions, laws, and the enforcement of those laws that are skewed in such a way as to work for the benefit of the ordinary people and to put guardrails around these wealth maximizers among us.
Denver: Let me ask you about the ordinary people during the Gilded Age because there were some robust and innovative reform movements, particularly in rural America, and they went on for, I don’t know, six-, seven decades, but they hardly made a dent. Why was that the case?
Sarah Chayes: And that’s the terrifying teaching. But before I get there, I just want to go back to the second thing I think is incredibly important that I learned about the Gilded Age, and then let’s talk about the protest movements.
That second thing is that it led– this Gilded Age syndrome of corrupt networks running the system– led to repeated financial and social collapses. I knew about the Great Depression before doing this work. What I didn’t know is there was an almost Great Depression every 8 to 10 years, between 1873 and 1929, just as today. We have seen the same kind of series of meltdowns.
So those are the two parallels. One is that it was across systems of government just like today, transnational just like today, and then that it was leading to these repeated disasters… just like today.
Denver: Just like today.
Sarah Chayes: Exactly. Therefore, the next thing I want to do and say, “Oh my God. How did we get out of it last time?” Because we did for about 40 years. And so, what I looked at is exactly what you just drew my attention to, which is these really vibrant protest movements, and On Corruption in America looks at three of them. But let’s focus on the one you mentioned, which is the rural one because that’s kind of surprising. Then as now, snooty, urban Americans. And hey, I grew up in the Boston area, I’m now living in West Virginia, but I count my upbringing anyway as being one of those. Snooty, urban Americans kind of tend to look down on our rural cousins. We eat the food that they produce, but we don’t think very highly of them, and we kind of think of them as common. There is a sort of systemic “classism.” Would that be the way to talk about it?
Denver: I think that would sum it up, yes. Absolutely. Flyover country, whatever you want to call it.
Sarah Chayes: In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially the late 19th century, it was the rural Americans who were really mounting the most sophisticated, the most imaginative, the most persistent in a lot of ways ….a counter-effort challenge to the Gilded Age syndrome of systemic corruption. They were doing that without internet, without social media. They were riding their wagons to the local schoolhouse and having meetings with traveling lecturers where they would learn about some interesting farming techniques.
And then they would also learn about monetary supply, like they would learn about the impacts of the monetary system. These folks, often without even a high school education, were more sophisticated about the monetary system than I would say 90% of Americans, including myself until I looked into it, are today. And they realized that we really need a flexible monetary supply. We need paper money. That’s what they were in favor of. They also said: “Why is it that our state legislatures are naming our US senators? Let’s have a direct election of senators.”
They came up with so many really brilliant solutions to the problems they were confronted with. And what I also found really inspiring was that when they mounted one idea and got kicked in the teeth, they didn’t go home yelping with their tail between their legs or just sit around. They modified the idea, and they kept doing that repeatedly until they really did get fundamentally smashed. And then a couple of decades later, not all, but the majority of their main suggestions got adopted as part of the New Deal.
So I found tremendous inspiration from that and from other things that we can talk about in those decades and decades of protest. But boy, you put your finger on what I found most sobering and distressing about that discovery or that examination. It didn’t work. 70 years of this. And really, in spite of all that lots of people would like to say about Teddy Roosevelt and trust-busting and the Progressive Era — Balderdash! A lot of good laws got passed, but then when you dig into it, there might’ve been one or two splashy cases, but fundamentally, those laws, including the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution got bent–
Denver: To their purposes.
Sarah Chayes: –by the corrupt network to help the network instead of the people it was designed to serve. So I discovered that a study from 1902 found that the Equal Protection Clause, which was designed to serve freed slaves and provide them with equal protection of the laws of the United States of America with their white compatriots, that it had really never been used to protect freed slaves.
In fact, the half dozen times that a case involving a freed slave would come to a court, they had lost. The former enslaved person had lost, whereas the thing had been applied a couple of hundred times to corporations, to one –which one, let’s not use personal pronouns for corporations. I’m happy to have us get all mushy about our personal pronouns for human beings, but a corporation is a which, not a who.
So that was a downer. I’m not sure I can answer your question, which is why? I think the answer may be because kleptocratic networks are incredibly effective, incredibly resilient. What I did come up with a hypothesis about is how the syndrome was brought to an end temporarily.
Denver: And that’s even more depressing in terms of how it finally ended the Gilded Age. Just tell us about that.
Sarah Chayes: Thank you. So, as I just said a few minutes ago, the Gilded Age syndrome led this country in the world into a series of calamities, and those calamities kind of got worse, each time. What I found was this syndrome drove us into a raft of real cataclysms: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Let’s think about what that adds up to.
Denver: And the Spanish flu, too. You can throw that in as well.
Sarah Chayes: I’m getting there. Two World Wars. That’s two genocides, the Spanish flu as you just said, which was a pandemic that really puts the current one to shame. What was it? 5 million dead worldwide, at least. The nuclear bomb and a generation-crippling economic meltdown. That’s what it took to bring this syndrome to an end.
Why and how? Well, have you… you’re in New York, right?
Sarah Chayes: Did you live through Sandy?
Sarah Chayes: What did you experience in New York in the wake of, or during, and in the aftermath of Sandy?
Denver: I guess it was a pretty wide range of things. It was cataclysmic in a lot of ways. There were also a lot of people coming together. In very many inspiring ways, working together. It was almost like a mutual aid society where despite all the formal 501(c)(3)s, I saw neighbors helping neighbors.
Sarah Chayes: That’s exactly right. And that is a phenomenon that now has gotten quite a bit of study. Rebecca Solnit wrote a book about it, but she’s not the only one. And I picked up on some of this research; my old friend, Sebastian Junger touched on it in his book Tribe.
Denver: An old, old friend.
Sarah Chayes: A very old friend, yes. 50 years. No, 55 years at this point. We’re getting old.
And it is really consistent that widespread disasters spark exactly what you’re talking about — a sudden solidarity impulse. All of a sudden, colors disappear, political affiliations disappear, class disappears. You’re not asking for the political… you’re not asking who the lady up on her roof voted for last presidential election. You ride your boat up to her roof, and you pull her off that roof and you give her some water to drink. That happens repeatedly, including the elites. They get swept up in it. Suddenly, the elites are helping their neighbors, too, if they get hit by this disaster.
What the four or five worldwide calamities that we’re talking about did to the expansive Gilded Age was transfigure enough of our elites, and I feel like Winston Churchill and Franklin Delano Roosevelt are great examples. They were members of the Gilded Age, kleptocratic class, if you will, and yet they were transfigured by that experience. And therefore, they became the leaders that brought that impulse out in our countries.
Now, I’m not saying that what then happened was suddenly 40 years of egalitarianism. No. It was a fight. It was a fight to get the New Deal legislation and enforcement of that legislation through the United States. It was a heck of a fight to get the Civil Rights Movement off the ground. And then you had a movement for increased gender equality, and then you had the trees outside and the four-leggeds and the fin friends of ours. They don’t really have anybody in Congress, so we better fight on their behalf, too.
And that starts to happen in the 1970s, partly because it’s human health and, oh by the way, product safety and all of those things. I’m not saying none of those were fights. What I was saying is that allowed the fights to start to win, but that period only lasted 40 years. And that’s terrifying. Look at the cost for just one generation of relative egalitarianism.
Denver: It built the entire middle class of this country. It was equality. There was a perfect tension, so it seems, between management and labor; all boats were lifted, and it really lasted probably through the 1980s. And we’ve been on another road ever since that time for the last 40 years.
You make a really good point in the book that when people think about corruption, we’re thinking about these bad, greedy, dishonest individuals. But that’s not it. It’s this complex network that you have described. How would you describe the current administration, the Trump brand? What are some of its unique characteristics and its distinctive traits?
Sarah Chayes: So… none. None! That’s what’s so shocking. I wrote an article in December of 2016 — I don’t want to toot my horn here. It’s nothing to do with me being an intelligent person. It’s that I rolled around in systemically corrupt countries for the past 15 years.
Denver: You know it.
Sarah Chayes: Therefore, I saw the patterns, and in December of 2016, I said, “Here’s what this administration is going to look like.” It’s almost uncanny the degree to which I predicted what was going to go down. So, that’s the first answer. It’s that this administration is almost a caricature of the playbook of kleptocratic networks that I have seen, again, in places from Azerbaijan to Honduras, passing through Afghanistan and Nigeria.
What that means is the corrupt network includes members of the public sector and the private sector. That is to say, business magnates wound together with public officials… or serving as public officials, and then it flirts on the edges of out and out criminality. There is enough corporate crime in this gang to keep a court busy for the next decade. Seriously. That there’s absolutely documented corporate crime that has often been plea-bargained away. But everything from stiffing suppliers and workers, to fraud on insurance and tax declarations, to systemic fraud in unlawful fees and fines of tenants. It absolutely runs the gamut.
So you’ve got that, but you also have the flirtation with informal instruments of force, which is an absolute standard. In Nigeria, it’s called the “area boys.” In Honduras, what launched my work on Honduras was the pre-dawn assassination of a wonderful environmental activist from an indigenous community by what turns out to have been a hit squad of a thug and a couple of retired army officers.
And so, that’s how I see President Trump’s flirtation with “violent supporters.” A lot of people have talked about his base as though this has to do with votes. And I’m like, “It doesn’t have anything to do with votes. It has to do with cultivating a potential, uncontrollable violent wing to your kleptocratic network.” And that is extremely chilling.
But the other point that I would like to make is that this network, like every other systemically corrupt network I have examined, crosses the identity divides. And in our country, one of the strongest identity divides right now is political affiliation. So let’s take a look at that. We keep seeing this in stark blue and red terms.
Denver: You’re absolutely right.
Sarah Chayes: And what is devastating is how significantly, not just the broader phenomenon of network corruption in contemporary America, but specifically the Trump administration, crosses the political divide.
So let’s take a look at a couple of examples. One is Steven Mnuchin. Who is he in business with?
Denver: He’s a George Soros guy, wasn’t he, at one time?
Sarah Chayes: Yes, sir! Yes, sir. I think his business is still co-invested with Soros until incredibly recently. So he is deeply… Soros gave him his start for God’s sake. So you have that. If you think of the US Chamber of Commerce as being a kind of stalwart blue-chip supporter of a lot of this administration, you get Madeleine Albright in two clicks of the internet who has the president of the Chamber of Commerce on the advisory board of her consulting firm.
And then you have Alex Acosta. I picked him at random well before a man by the name of Jeffrey Epstein hit the front pages. And I hit on Alex Acosta at random. I wanted to just start examining some of the members of the network around President Trump at total random.
So, what’s random? The alphabet. Alex Acosta was No. 1 on the alphabet. You dig with Alex Acosta and first, what you get? You get a very politically-oriented network, but a remarkable one that I wasn’t expecting to find. You almost immediately run into Justice Gorsuch, Justice Kavanaugh, Justice Kennedy, who were all together in this very tightly intertwined network. And then Justice Gorsuch’s mother was the head of the EPA under President Reagan. So you get immediately into the whole Reagan network, and she was doing with the EPA exactly what is being done with and to the EPA today.
And then you also get that Justice Kennedy’s son was at — guess where? Goldman Sachs. And you get back to Steve Mnuchin through Justice Kennedy’s son. Sorry, not Goldman Sachs, Deutsche Bank. Deutsche Bank. He was at Deutsche Bank where I think he then, or maybe before or after Deutsche bank he worked for Steve Mnuchin, so you get back to Mnuchin there. But at Deutsche Bank, what was he doing? He was the loan officer for one Donald J. Trump.
So I never expected to scratch the surface of Alex Acosta and get all of that. Getting all of that, I also got Epstein. Now, who was the star defense attorney for Jeffrey Epstein, facing Alex Acosta? It was one Alan Dershowitz. Now, it would be hard to say what political party Alan Dershowitz ascribes to, but he’s from Harvard Law School, which for a while anyway was understood as being a sort of bastion of liberalism.
Denver: That’s right.
Sarah Chayes: But then let’s pick at this a little bit further. So the story about Alex Acosta is the guy who gave Jeffrey Epstein this ridiculously lenient sentence the first time he was investigated and prosecuted for sex trafficking. Now, when I happened on the story, which was before it broke again, I was like, “Oh my goodness. I can’t put that in my book. Like, people are going to think I’m stark raving mad if I scratched the surface of the Trump network and immediately land in sex trafficking. And that’s not going to go over at all. And then of course, when it blew, it was like, “Well, I have to put it in.” And so I do. It is. That story is in there as an example of just how these networks cross political boundaries, and what devastating victimization goes with them! That’s about as extreme as you can get.
And so, the story went that Alex Acosta gave this lenient sentence, agreed to this very lenient plea bargain because he was just wildly outmatched by the lawyers that Jeffrey Epstein could pay for… that it was a money thing.
It was a network thing. All of the lawyers on the opposite side of the table from Acosta were from this very tight network that he had grown up with. They had gone to school together. They had served together in the Justice Department or in the Supreme Court or in the White House or whatever. They were all tightly interlinked.
So we would be as though I and, not quite, but practically Sebastian Junger, were pretending to be opponents across the table in a legal case. Now maybe we would be professional enough to really fight our clients. I don’t know, man. I don’t know.
Denver: I got to tell you that here is…
Sarah Chayes: Maybe they could offer me a great… plea deal, and I could have that conviction on my record, but still cut his client a break. I don’t know. So that was a constant. But then you get to Epstein. From there, you get to Epstein. Epstein perfectly spans the spectrum. You can not find a political weighting to Epstein’s network.
And so that I think is a really critical feature that we American citizens have got to wrap our minds around. We are being manipulated by this red versus blue divide. Now, I’m not saying the two parties are identical. I am going to vote clearly for one candidate. I know who it is in this election. I’ve got strong views about voting for that candidate, but I am not blind to the fact that that candidate is a member of these networks.
What we have to do is hold the leaders of our political family to the same rigorous account that we hold the leaders of the opposing political party, because if we don’t, then we are factionalized, and it’s the networks that will win, and we will lose.
Denver: They’re all playing the same game, you know what I mean? Different colors and stuff like that.
Sarah Chayes: They are! The point is we have to be really careful. They are not identical. So we have to make a choice when the choice is presented. But then what we have to do is hold the leaders of our political family to the same rigorous account that we hold the leaders of the opposing political party, because if we don’t, then we are factionalized, and it’s the networks that will win, and we will lose.
But what I am finding is that today, we Americans are starting to have pretty good, close to 20-20 vision when we’re looking for corruption across the aisle. But, boy, our eyesight gets poor when we start looking on our side of the aisle.
Denver: The name of the book is On Corruption in America: And What Is at Stake. In my opinion, you’ll find no better book to understand current events. It really does help explain a lot. Thanks so much for being here, Sarah. It was an absolute delight to have you on the show.
Sarah Chayes: Thank you, Denver, for having me and for such great questions.
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