Foreign Collusion Is as American as Apple Pie
Shady international influence over U.S. politics didn’t start, and won’t end, with Donald Trump.
Donald Trump’s presidential campaign was brazen in its willingness to cross legal lines surrounding foreign money and influence, as revealed in the felonious behavior of the U.S. president’s campaign manager Paul Manafort and personal attorney Michael Cohen. But Americans would do well to leaven their justified outrage with a history lesson. The use of foreign money to influence U.S. politics is not something that Trump invented. It’s been clear for at least 50 years that interested foreigners could purchase U.S. policy for the right price—with the price tag determined by candidates’ election campaigns. The question is whether anyone in American politics will ever see fit to do anything about it.
In a broader sense, the purchase of foreign influence is as old as U.S. politics itself. George Washington contended with French meddling from Edmond-Charles “Citizen” Genêt, Abraham Lincoln struggled to block British subsidies to the Confederacy, and 20th-century presidents policed foreign agents promoting their country’s goals to American audiences. But, prior to the mid-20th century, America’s elected leaders were on the other side of these influence operations and worked to limit the effects of money and influence from abroad.
Since the late 1960s, however, the availability of foreign money and influence in close elections has lured ambitious candidates to draw on resources from abroad. Candidates for elected office, desperate for large donations and sensing riches on offer from abroad, started to bend, and even break, campaign finance laws. Foreign leaders recognized these conditions, and started to exploit them.
The 1968 presidential election is an object lesson in the endemic temptations of foreign money in U.S. politics—and perhaps the clearest predecessor to Trump’s current travails. Running for president 50 years ago, Richard Nixon relied upon a wide range of consultants, handlers, and fixers. One of the most important was a Chinese-born American socialite, Anna Chennault, who funneled money from the government of Taiwan and its supporters to Republican candidates. She gave more than $200,000 to Nixon’s presidential campaign and, more important, she used her foreign contacts to help get Nixon elected to the White House.
In a tight presidential race with Hubert Humphrey, Chennault interfered to scuttle the outgoing Johnson administration’s efforts to negotiate an end to the Vietnam War. Nixon feared that if President Lyndon Johnson and Vice President Humphrey made progress at the negotiating table, they would win over many of the critics of the war. Two weeks before the election, Nixon ordered his campaign aide H.R. Haldeman to, “Keep Anna Chennault working on [South Vietnam].” He demanded all possible efforts to “monkey wrench” potential progress in White House negotiations.
Chennault worked with Henry Kissinger, then an advisor for both Johnson and Nixon, to convey the Republican message to the leaders of U.S.-allied South Vietnam. Chennault warned that the Johnson administration was selling Saigon out, and that South Vietnamese leaders would get stronger support if they resisted all negotiations until Nixon’s election. Chennault, Kissinger, and others sent a similar message to communist North Vietnam: Nixon would be able to negotiate a more enduring peace with longtime adversaries than the current discredited American president. Through Chennault, Nixon arranged for Taiwanese leader Chiang Kai-shek to spread the same advice.
Johnson learned of this meddling. He described it as “treason,” but did not share the information with the American public for a mix of reasons that resonate after the 2016 election. Johnson could not prove a direct connection between Chennault’s meddling and Nixon (he did not have Haldeman’s notes, released to the public in 2007), and he feared the appearance of partisanship on the eve of the election to decide his successor. Johnson was also convinced that Nixon might be more supportive of his policies after the election than Humphrey, who had grown more vocal in his criticisms of the war as Election Day approached.
On Nov. 3, 1968, just two days before the election, Nixon promised to help Johnson on Vietnam in a very duplicitous phone call: “if you felt, or the secretary of state felt, that anything would be useful that I could do, that I would do it. … And I really feel this—and I feel this very deeply—that I think you’ve gotten a bad rap on this thing.”
Nixon was covering for his collusion with Chennault and his efforts to undermine Johnson’s peace efforts. It worked. Nixon was elected president, and Chennault’s influence over U.S. policy continued to grow. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, she remained a funnel for foreign money into Republican campaigns. She had ties to Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, serving both as an emissary to East Asian leaders, especially Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
Paul Manafort is Donald Trump’s Anna Chennault. Manafort has been convicted on eight counts of tax and bank fraud, and much of the money behind these convictions came from foreign sources connected to Ukraine and Russia. Manafort will stand for a second trial in Washington, D.C., focused more deeply on the foreign money sources. As a campaign advisor and manager for Trump, Manafort attended at least one meeting with Russian representatives and high-level Trump campaign staff.
More important, he helped to formulate and promote Trump’s appeasing strategy toward Russian President Vladimir Putin. There’s reason to think Manafort and others implemented this strategy illegally during the presidential transition, often through Michael Flynn, the incoming national security advisor (who pled guilty to felony charges last year). The Russian appeasement strategy reached fruition in the two presidents’ fawning Helsinki press conference on July 16, and in Trump’s persistent refusal to respond to continued Russian interference in U.S. elections, despite warnings from every American intelligence agency.
There is, of course, still much more to learn about Manafort and the other characters around Trump with suspicious ties to Russian money and influence. The continuity with Nixon and Chennault is the ease in which shady figures can ally with foreign governments and simultaneously work for American politicians. Modern communications have surely facilitated this collusive behavior, and large quantities of available foreign money have incentivized it. Chennault was not prosecuted because Nixon won the election and covered it up. Manafort has been exposed because Trump is evidently not as skilled at hiding his transgressions.
The stakes for U.S. foreign policy are enormous. The nation cannot defend its interests if it cannot elect leaders uncorrupted by personal commitments to foreign sources of money and influence. That is a bedrock constitutional principle that is now frequently violated in presidential, Senate, congressional, and other elections. Like Nixon and Trump, too many candidates look far from their shores for the assistance they need to win.
The debate about campaign financing has generally focused on large donors within the United States, but the Chennault and Manafort cases show that the problem is really an international one. Putin is a worse violator and a greater threat than any big donor at home. And he is surely not alone. The future of American foreign policy requires quick and effective action to limit corrupting influences in U.S. elections. In addition to combatting hacking and social media propaganda, the United States must act to create more rigorous oversight of money flows and other influences during campaigns. Figures like Chennault and Manafort must be stopped, and information about their contacts and activities must be shared with the public.
People make policy. U.S. foreign policy has deteriorated due to the increasing distraction of those who make it, and those who oversee it, by other commitments. Limiting foreign influences on policymakers more rigorously is a necessary step in returning policy to the nation-centered internationalism that Washington, Lincoln, and most 20th-century presidents defended in their time.