Already branded by a survey of historians as America’s worst ever, the presidency of Donald Trump may also live in infamy as the most ironic. After all, the man who ran to “Make America Great Again” has already ceded global climate leadership to China and Europe, withdrawn from the Pacific trade partnership created by the United States, and angered American allies both by abandoning the P5+1 Iranian nuclear agreement and unilaterally triggering a trade war. The self-proclaimed “voice of the forgotten man” who promised “health insurance for everybody” has instead delivered a massive tax cut windfall for the wealthy and sabotaged health insurance coverage for millions. And a full 18 months after his election, Trump still rages against “Crooked Hillary” to rapturous cheers of “lock her up” from his ardent followers, even as special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation continues to produce a wave of indictments against his campaign team and administration.
But the ironies of Donald Trump’s White House tenure may not end there. After having been aided by Russian intervention in his ascent to power, there is a chance—albeit a small one—that Trump’s fall could result from foreign powers applying an international sanctions regime to him and his family’s businesses. And adding insult to injury, those punishments would be made possible by the Magnitsky Act originally introduced in the United States to combat the corruption and human rights abuses of the Putin government in Moscow.
The idea of personally sanctioning Trump arose on the eve of the American debacle at the recent G7 summit.
Even before he disgraced his country in Quebec, Trump had by the end of May “put more tariffs on longtime U.S. allies than he has on China, his supposed ‘bad guy’ on trade.” Despite having previously admitted to lying to Justin Trudeau’s face in March, Trump accused the Canadian prime minister of making “false statements” and “betraying” him. Trudeau had merely stated that Canada would respond “with regret” to Trump’s “insulting” steel and aluminum tariffs because Canadians “will not be pushed around.” After Trump economic advisers Larry Kudlow and Peter Navarro ratcheted up the incendiary rhetoric by respectively charging Trudeau had “stabbed us in the back” and so deserved “a special place in hell,” Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland had had enough from Canada’s closest ally:
“The national security pretext is absurd and frankly insulting to Canadians, the closest and strongest ally the United States has had. Canada does not believe that ad hominem attacks are a particularly appropriate or useful way to conduct our relations with other countries.”
And the appropriate way to conduct relations with Donald Trump’s America, Scott Gilmore wrote in Macleans, might be “sanctioning Trump himself.” Instead of taxing American goods, Gilmore suggested, “Canada and the western allies should collectively pressure the only pain point that matters to this President: his family and their assets.” Pointing out that French President Emmanuel Macron, UK Prime Minister Theresa May, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel had failed to budge Trump on the Paris Climate Agreement or the Iran nuclear deal, retaliatory trade penalties “like the diplomatic strategies before now, will not work.”
As I’ve pointed out before, the President can be successfully engaged, and countries like Ukraine, China, and Qatar have demonstrated this. When they want something from the United States, they skip the State Department, and even the White House staff. Instead of approaching their problem state-to-state, they go state-to-man. These countries focus on what Trump wants on a personal level – to enrich his family. So Beijing granted Ivanka trademarks, Qatar invested in one of Jared’s office towers, and Ukraine, with Slavic candor, simply wired half a million dollars to the President’s personal lawyer Michael Cohen…
I propose that instead of taxing the import of American serviettes, we tax Trump. In the spirit of the Magnitsky Act, Canada and the western allies come together to collectively pressure the only pain point that matters to this President: his family and their assets. This could take the form of special taxation on their current operations, freezing of assets, or even sanctions against senior staff. Canada could add a tax to Trump properties equal to any tariff unilaterally imposed by Washington. The European Union could revoke any travel visas for senior staff in the Trump organization. And the United Kingdom could temporarily close his golf course.
On its face, Gilmore’s column does indeed have “the stench of bad satire about it.” But when he admits “I am sane enough to know this proposal does not sound sane,” Gilmore may be selling himself short. Because Canada and the UK, among other countries, already have in place the legal framework to target the Trump Organization’s assets. And the Magnitsky Act—the mechanism to punish ruling elites for the corruption and human rights abuses they perpetrate in their own countries—was pioneered by the United States.
In December 2012, President Barack Obama signed the “Russia and Moldova Jackson-Vanik Repeal and Magnitsky Rule of Law Accountability Act.” The bill replaced outdated Cold War rules by granting “permanent normal trade relations” with Russia. But that’s not all the law did. The legislation enabled the United States to publicly “name and shame” human rights violators. As Reuters explained at the time:
It also directs Obama to bar Russian human rights violators from entering the United States and freeze any assets they have in U.S. banks. The provision is named in honor of Sergei Magnitsky, a Russian anti-corruption lawyer many U.S. lawmakers believe was beaten to death in a Russian jail in 2009.
The driving force behind the new law was American businessman Bill Browder, founder of London-based hedge fund Hermitage Capital. In 2007, a group from the Russian Interior Ministry defrauded Hermitage to the tune of $230 million. As Steve Coll reported in the New Yorker, that’s when Sergei Magnitsky got involved in the case:
Around this time, Sergei Magnitsky, then a thirty-five-year-old Russian lawyer for Hermitage who worked for an American firm, opened an investigation. In 2008, he testified to a Russian commission about the evidence of the conspiracy he had uncovered. He was thereafter arrested and accused of committing the massive fraud himself. In prison, he was kept in appalling conditions, fell ill, and was allegedly beaten with rubber truncheons. He died in custody on November 16, 2009.
Despite Obama’s concern that the Magnitsky Act could threaten Russia’s roles in helping to defuse the Iranian nuclear program and leaning on the Assad government in Syria, the president ultimately signed the bill. But soon, developments inside of Russia and out created pressure to extend the reach of the Magnitsky Act to despots around the world.
One factor fueling calls for a “Global Magnitsky Act” was the 2014 Russian incursion into Ukraine and Moscow’s subsequent annexation of the Crimea. But while corrupt leaders there and in Central Asia were increasingly in the spotlight, so, too, were the regimes in countries including oil-rich Venezuela and poverty-stricken Gambia. There, President Yahya Jammeh—labeled “the worst dictator you never heard of”—was imprisoning and killing political opponents while extracting millions of dollars from his desperately poor country. A bipartisan effort led by Democratic Sen. Ben Cardin of Maryland and Republicans can John McCain of Arizona led to the passage and signing of the Global Magnitsky Act in late 2016. As Sen. Cardin explained:
“With today’s passage of the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act, the United States has added a critical tool to our diplomatic toolbox, making clear that gross violators of human rights and those who engage in serious acts of corruption cannot escape the consequences of their actions even when their home country fails to act.”
But it’s not just the United States that has added a critical tool to its diplomatic toolbox. Last October, Canada unanimously passed its own version of Magnitsky legislation, the Justice for Victims of Corrupt Foreign Officials Act. As the CBC reported, “These laws target the property — the assets, the holdings, the wealth — of corrupt officials ‘who have committed gross violations of internationally recognized human rights.’” The next month, Ottawa issued its first list of Magnitsky sanctions targeting 52 human-rights violators in Russia, Venezuela, and South Sudan. As Foreign Minister Freeland explained:
“Canada is determined to protect human rights and combat corruption worldwide. Today’s announcement sends a clear message that Canada will take action against individuals who have profited from acts of significant corruption or who have been involved in gross violations of human rights.”
And when it comes to gross violations of human rights, the murders and attempted murders of Russian expatriates in England certainly fits the bill. Following the nerve agent attack on Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in London, Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Home Secretary Amber Rudd led the Conservative drive in Parliament to pass a UK Magnitsky Amendment as part of a larger sanctions bill. As Johnson explained, the amendment was not limited to Russia:
“These (provisions) will allow UK to act against those responsible for serious offences worldwide. UK stands up for human rights globally.”
And right now, according to the United Nations, serious human rights offenses are taking place along the border of the United States and Mexico.
In April, Americans learned the Trump administration had separated hundreds of children from their parents. These were not unaccompanied minors arriving at the border or merely undocumented families caught crossing into the United States. These were refugees seeking asylum. Fleeing violent gangs (including the MS 13 gang so vilified by President Trump), domestic violence or other threats to their safety, these asylum seekers are being treated as presumptive criminals in violation of U.S. and international law. Far from being sent into “foster care or whatever,” infants as young as four months old have been taken from their parents’ arms. Children are being warehoused in cages. When that capacity is exceeded, President Trump is planning to erect “tent cities.” As McClatchy reported:
The Trump administration is looking to build tent cities at military posts around Texas to shelter the increasing number of unaccompanied migrant children being held in detention.
The Department of Health and Human Services will visit Fort Bliss, a sprawling Army base near El Paso in the coming weeks to look at a parcel of land where the administration is considering building a tent city to hold between 1,000 and 5,000 children, according to U.S. officials and other sources familiar with the plans.
A growing coalition of immigration activists, religious leaders, political figures at all levels, and corporate CEOs is organizing to stop the barbaric practices of ICE and the border patrol. Meanwhile, the United Nations has already weighed in on what it sees as human rights abuses:
That practice “amounts to arbitrary and unlawful interference in family life, and is a serious violation of the rights of the child,” Ravina Shamdasani, a spokeswoman for the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, based in Geneva, told reporters…
“The U.S. should immediately halt this practice of separating families and stop criminalizing what should at most be an administrative offense — that of irregular entry or stay in the U.S.,” Ms. Shamdasani said.
Now, no American administration of either party would defer to the U.N. on border policy. Nikki Haley, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was no exception, declaring “Neither the United Nations nor anyone else will dictate how the United States upholds its borders.” But member nations who have embraced the Magnitsky framework, nations like Canada and the UK, can decide for themselves whether President Trump has committed serious human rights offenses. If so, his assets in those countries, assets like the Trump Tower licensing arrangement in Vancouver or that golf course in Scotland, could find themselves in a deep freeze.
It’s not difficult to imagine Magnitsky-style exposure for Donald Trump and his family across the wide range of political and business endeavors in which they engage. Trump’s new CIA director Gina Haspel, after all, oversaw detainee torture at a black site in Thailand and was involved in the destruction of torture tapes which recorded almost 100 interrogations. President Obama chose not to “look backwards” at the years when the Bush administration “tortured some folks”; other countries might not. And as the Mueller investigation, the federal probe into Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, and the web of money laundering associated with Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort proceed, the all-encompassing corruption of Donald, Donald Junior, Eric, Ivanka, and Jared Kushner may show ties between the Trump clan and some of the very people already on the Magnitsky sanctions list.
And that would be very ironic, indeed. After all, the Russian interference in the 2016 election confirmed by the American intelligence leadership had as its goal the rollback of the hard-line measures taken by the Obama administration in response to Putin’s Crimean invasion and incursion into Ukraine. And the subject of that June 9, 2016 Trump Tower meeting involving Don Jr., Paul Manafort, and Jared Kushner with Kremlin linked lawyer wasn’t about adoptions, but the Magnitsky Act.