Fighting Corruption Just Got Harder because of Trump
By Maria Bucur
Many viewed Romania in the 1990s as one of the slowest to reform and least liberal post-communist countries. Yet, in the past few years, this country has emerged as a more important player in EU and NATO politics. The fall of the Social Democrats (PSD) from government in October 2019 and the re-election of President Klaus Iohannis in November have shown Romania willing to move away from the populism that animated its politics in the first two decades of post-communism. Corruption was rife at all levels of government, but after 2013, an independent anti-corruption prosecutor, Laura Codruta Kovesi, successfully tried thousands of cases, some of them leaders of the most prominent parties. Two new pro-EU political parties working as an alliance (PLUS and USR), won substantial representation in the May 2019 EU elections (22%, the same percentage as the PSD, at that time the ruling party). In a show of appreciation for these changes, the new President of the EU Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, appointed Kovesi as the first EU special prosecutor in the fight against corruption. And Emmanuel Macron supported appointing the leader of the newly elected PLUS party to the position of Chair of the Renew Group (Macron’s En Marche party is in that group in the European Parliament). In short, Romania seems to have found a way to confront corruption and is doing so by increasingly embracing centrist liberal options through both electoral and street action, in stark contrast to some of its neighbors, such as Poland.
The big unknown for Romania moving into 2020 is its relationship with the United States. Though Romanians have become more anti-American in the last few years, they are still the second most pro-American post-socialist state in Europe (Poland is in first place). Since 1990, the U.S. ambassador has played a prominent role, providing symbolic and sometimes substantial material support for some important matters. Placing NATO bases in Romania has reassured most people that a Russian invasion was unlikely into the future. Since historically Romania has been vulnerable to Russian occupations a number of times, most recently in 1945, this is no small matter. The support of the US Embassy for specific reforms, such as the anti-corruption campaign and recent measures for improving public health (Romania has the highest incidence of tuberculosis in the EU), has been essential in enabling local actors to pursue their programs and find allies and further financial support.
Over the past year, though, a dubious relationship between the Trump administration and the PSD has emerged via Trump’s personal lawyer, Rudy Giuliani. On August 22, 2018, he sent a letter to the Romanian President charging that Kovesi was abusing her position in the anti-corruption fight, leveling the same charges against her as those of the PSD. Coincidence? Not likely. The letter went on to demand that those who had been purportedly unfairly convicted through these supposed abusive actions should be set free (“Amnesty should be given”). Among them is Liviu Dragnea, not named in the letter but behind the very similar arguments the PSD had made in ousting Kovesi just a month earlier. Giuliani charged without any evidence that foreign investment in Romania was being hurt by the special prosecutor’s pursuit of corruption.
In the letter, Giuliani did not identify himself as Trump’s lawyer, though everyone was aware he had been retained by the President in April 2018. Instead, he represented himself as someone who as a lawyer, had himself successfully prosecuted many prominent corruption cases. On this task, he identified the lobby firm Freeh Group International Solutions as the party paying his fee. A possible indication of the multiple interests Giuliani was representing at that time comes from a small slippage in his language. Most of the letter is written in the singular “I.” But towards the bottom of the first page, he states that “we have been saddened” about abuses of the anti-corruption office. Who is the “we” here? The Freeh Group? Giuliani and Trump? The lack of clarity allows for the sort of threatening confusion that Trump has been known to favor as a tactic against his opponents. But I can’t prove that with the available evidence.
We don’t know yet, and we may never know the full story, but it seems that Giuliani was attempting to push specific business interests in Romania and to get a convicted Romanian real-estate business magnate amnestied. Giuliani’s letter became public and Iohannis never replied to him. Giuliani’s client, George “Puiu” Popoviciu, fled to London and is currently fighting extradition to Romania, while his assets have been frozen by the Romanian government. Popoviciu has been the object of increasing scrutiny in the international media , because in the initial stages of fighting against corruption charges he had hired none other than Hunter Biden, at a time when Vice-President Joe Biden was discussing the need for continuing the anti-corruption fight in that country.
To his credit, President Iohannis ignored Giuliani’s letter. He made no public comments acknowledging it, continued to support the anti-corruption fight, and offered strong public support for Kovesi’s appointment to the EU anti-corruption prosecutor post. The U.S. Embassy also ignored this letter that directly contradicted the U.S. government’s official support for the anti-corruption fight.
U.S. ambassador to Bucharest Hans Klemm has very openly and clearly stated in public, on the Embassy’s webpage, in person, and through various actions at the Embassy that he supports Kovesi, the person vilified and accused of abuses in Giuliani’s letter. Every year, the 4th of July party is a moment for taking stock of relations between specific groups in Romanian politics and the U.S. Who is there and who chooses not to be there are equally visible, because since 1990 the 4th of July party at the US Embassy in Bucharest has been the place to be. In July 2018, Kovesi was going after the PSD and their leader, Liviu Dragnea. In January 2017 Dragnea had been one of the few Romanian politicians to attend the Trump inauguration and schmoozed with Trump. Klemm invited Kovesi to the party, and she, along with the Romanian President and many other people from the Romanian political, business, cultural and academic elite, were present. They all saw that, although on the invitation list, Liviu Dragnea and Viorica Dancila, the leaders of PSD, the latter Romania’s prime minister at that time, were absent.
Five days later Klemm made a public statement of great support for continuing the anti-corruption work done under Kovesi and upholding the rule of law, indirectly criticizing PSD, just as President Iohannis announced he was firing Kovesi under pressure from the Constitutional Court:
The US Embassy reaffirms its continued, long-term commitment to support Romania’s fight against corruption. Romania is a regional model with regard to anti-corruption work. We appeal to Romania to maintain and support it strong institutions of fighting corruption.
Interestingly, this quote can be found only on Romanian sites that reported on that extraordinarily outspoken statement of commitment to anti-corruption. I personally remember it, because I read it when it came out. The statement has disappeared from the U.S. Embassy’s Press Release web page (there is an entry for June 28 and one for September 6, but not for July 9).
At the beginning of July 2018, there was full clarity on the part of anyone living in Romania or engaging with the country that the U.S. government supported the anti-corruption fight in Romania, and Kovesi’s role in it. It was very clear that the U.S. government welcomed dialogue with the PSD leadership; but the social democrats, by snubbing the 4th of July party at this moment of tension, made it clear they were not interested in the perspective of the U.S.
A year later Kovesi was again invited to the 4th of July party at the US Embassy. The PSD had worked hard to discredit her, but the new EU President indicated she wanted to appoint Kovesi as the first EU special anti-corruption prosecutor. Together with the Romanian President and many others, Kovesi made the rounds at the Embassy, congratulated by many, including the ambassador, for this promotion. Cowered by the May EU elections, where PSD lost big, while the new PLUS/USR alliance became a powerful contender, Dancila showed up. Her PSD colleague Dragnea couldn’t make it to the party because he was in jail, put there by Kovesi’s efforts. For many in Romania, this was a beautiful moment of putting things in order and moving from the dirty politics of PSD to a better, if more volatile landscape, where commitment to the rule of law would be paramount. In his speech to the guests, Klemm stated clearly: “The commitment of the Romanian people to democracy, the rule of law and the fight against corruption, demonstrated so clearly in the May elections, inspires us.” Since the PSD was the big looser in those elections, this elegant and above board statement also provided a boost to opposition parties who ran against the ruling government.
What happens in the U.S. over the next few months is anyone’s guess, but there is a great likelihood that Trump will be impeached but not be convicted of high crimes and misdemeanors. The future of the Trump presidency and 2020 candidacy might become more directly connected to Romania’s own fight against corruption. The current ambassador to Bucharest is set to retire, and Adrian Zuckerman, Trump’s hand-picked nominee for the next ambassador, has just been approved in the Senate. And Gordon Sondland’s cozy relationship with Romanian politicians in the PSD has recently become the focus of publicity , after part of Fiona Hill’s closed door testimony before the impeachment inquiry committee was leaked. In addition, Giuliani recently made an ominous claim on Fox News: “We haven’t moved to Romania yet. Wait ‘til we get to Romania.” As with many previous statements by Giuliani, this one reveals nothing and promises a lot.
Zuckerman, who is a real estate lawyer for the superrich in New York, replaces an impeccable career diplomat. Zuckerman has been a donor to both Trump and Giuliani. His nomination in 2018 was stalled in committee and then for a full vote in the Senate because of a review of a past accusation of sexual harassment. In 2008, Jamie Ferraiuola, who worked as a secretary for Zuckerman, filed a sexual harassment suit that was subsequently settled. Her allegations included:
After she was hired at Lowenstein to work as Zuckerman’s secretary, he frequently asked if she wanted to meet him for dinner and would invite her to have drinks with him during working hours. According to the suit, he would force her to have closed-door meetings, where he would show her pictures and screen savers of semi-nude women and update her on his love life. She alleged he spoke about his sex life in graphic detail and asked for dating advice. She also claims she was humiliated by remarks that Zuckerman made to others in the office, including that she “was bearing Zuckerman’s child.” Her suit references a vulgar term that Zuckerman allegedly made toward Ferrauiola and claims Zuckerman “frequently made sexual gestures” when referring to women in the office and spoke about “big breasted women.”
There is little reason to dispute the claims of the secretary, first because they are so common and reflect widespread behavior in certain male-dominated professional office environments. On top of that, since Zuckerman settled, it seems unlikely he was innocent of all the forms of sexual harassment he stood accused of. Interestingly, just as private companies are becoming more willing to punish such actions, the U.S. government doesn’t seem concerned with the possibility that this type of action might be repeated in the future. Placing one of Trump’s loyal buddies in the ambassador position, instead of a career diplomat, seems to be par for the course. The Senate vote to confirm Zuckerman was nearly entirely along party lines, with Republican Senators like Joni Ernst, a self-described survivor of sexual assault, voting to confirm him.
Zuckerman claims he is committed to supporting Romania’s fight against corruption. At the moment, one of the most egregious cases of corruption involves a deep network of law enforcement officials trafficking underage girls. A horrendous case of an abducted, raped, and subsequently murdered fifteen-year-old girl has brought this problem to the surface. Many hope that the new liberal government and a new mandate for Iohannis will help in getting to the bottom of this massive problem. Will someone who settled in a sexual harassment suit and has had to suffer no consequences other than a financial slap on the wrist be the person to assert the moral authority and provide the necessary pressure to make sure reform of law enforcement in Romania is being accomplished? Or will Zuckerman be the real estate lawyer that he has been for decades and push for business easements that will benefit his own clients and other Trump friendly investors? I fear that the answer to these questions are sadly obvious. Zuckerman was hand-picked by Trump. His biggest asset seems to be the fact that he originally comes from Romania, speaks Romanian, and has a soft spot for the country. So long as those emotional ties do not hide corrupt intentions, it all sounds lovely. But there is little in his professional background and that of Trump’s actions in foreign policy to suggest that a real interest in fighting corruption animates Zuckerman’s nomination. Unfortunately, unless President Pelosi decides to appoint a different ambassador to Bucharest, in 2020 Romanians will have to fight corruption on their own and wait for the U.S. to get its house in order.