Blog | July 20, 2018

Kleptocrats Anonymous

Already in the first year of Donald Trump’s term in office, we have shown the former businessman’s penchant for putting his and his buddies’ interests ahead of the country’s; in other words, his actions suggest that the U.S. is creeping towards a kleptocracy

Global Witness has investigated high level corruption from Angola to Kazakhstan and, in our expert opinion, the 45th President has what it takes to compete with some of the world’s most celebrated kleptocrats. A brief look at Trump’s presidency so far shows him:

  • Using his presidency for profit – for example, using his Mar-a-Lago resort as a base for political meetings, or making millions from political groups, lobbyists and foreign diplomats staying at his hotel in DC

Trump shrugs it off

Credit: Jeff J Mitchel /Getty

Recent allegations that Trump misused his charitable foundation for personal gain and to curry political favour bear similarities with those made against the global class of kleptocrats – including the family of former Indonesian leader Suharto who were embroiled in nepotism and greed and a case of money laundering and embezzlement. 

While the Trump case is still being considered and the president has vowed not to settle, the lawsuit brought against him bears a number of similarities to the allegations made in the Suharto case. So, let’s play a quick game of Trump vs. Suharto: Who Dunnit?

Below are a few statements from coverage of both Trump and Suharto. See if you can guess which of these kleptocrats – or aspiring kleptocrats – each passage applies to. 

“The ___ brought a suit against the ___, charging that they misused the ___ Foundations' funds. Instead of using the funds for its intended purpose of providing scholarships… the ___ were found to have funnelled foundation's funds to businesses… owned by… the… president.”

Answer: Although this statement looks like a direct lift from a report on the Trump Foundation, it is actually from coverage of the Suharto family’s wrongdoings. The former, and now dead, leader’s family allegedly used their Supersemar Foundation to embezzle funds and benefit businesses and banks owned by friends and associates. Intended to provide scholarships to underprivileged children, the foundation itself is almost as identical to Trump’s as is the controversy surrounding it.

“____’s charity foundation funnelled $100,000 in donations meant for [a children’s hospital] into revenue for ____ by using his son's charity”

Answer: Though this accusation may sound like the kind levelled at the of a classic despot, it is actually aimed at Donald Trump and his family. Seeing the potential in his son Eric’s annual charity golf competition, Trump allegedly funnelled hundreds of thousands of dollars back into his golf courses via his son’s charity. What kind of person diverts money intended for a children’s hospital?  

‘____ Threatens to Sue The Times Over Article on ___’

Answer: Aside from financial corruption, Suharto, like many other despots, was also known for a hatred of press freedom, banning a number of publications in his own country while also pursuing a libel claim against Time Magazine during his time in office. In this instance, however, this headline refers to Trump, a man also fond of attacking and attempting to censor the press. In 2016, Trump threatened to sue the New York Times for including two victims’ accounts of the president’s alleged sexual assaults and regularly criticizes the press through his public statements on social media and at events.

‘The ___ have an influential presence in most spheres of ___ life; a son-in-law is a ____, a daughter is _____.’

“____ handed control of state-run monopolies to family members and friends, who in turn kicked back millions in tribute payments.”

Answer: Nepotism is a hallmark of unaccountable regimes and, given the fact that Trump appointed his daughter and son-in-law to political positions in the White House, has also become a prominent feature of US politics. With this in mind, you’d be forgiven for thinking the above double whammy was a description of the 45th President’s proclivity for affording friends and family political power. The quotes, however, actually refer to Suharto – his son was a general, while his daughter was the chairwoman of the leading party - drawing an even sharper line of comparison between the two leaders. Someone may want to check Trump’s bookshelves for a copy of Suharto’s biography. 

So, how did you do? Far from an easy challenge, the above fill-in-the-blanks show just how hard it can be at times to distinguish the current US president from one of the most infamously corrupt dictators of the last century. Whether it’s attacking the press or giving family and friends influential political positions, Trump seems to be learning the tricks of the kleptocrat trade from the best.


  • Edward John

    Communications Intern


  • General/out of hours media enquiries

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