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On December 1, 2017, Lt. General Michael Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about conversations he had with the Russian Ambassador Sergei I. Kislyak a year earlier, prior to Trump’s inauguration. Flynn’s conversations took place after sanctions had been activated by President Obama in response to Russia’s interference in our presidential election. Flynn, then a member of Trump’s transition team, originally told the FBI that he had not discussed sanctions with the Russian diplomat. Mueller’s investigative team discovered this claim to be false, however, and Flynn resigned from his position as Trump’s National Security Advisor after only one month in office. If the claims of a recent anonymous whistleblower are accurate, additional revelations exposing Flynn’s political and business interests with Russia are forthcoming. Are these developments to be expected of the deal-making culture that Trump has now brought into the Oval Office, where government, business, and national security come together in a quid-pro-quo “get it now while the going is good”?
On December 6, 2017, Congressional Representative Elijah E. Cummings (D-MD) sent a letter to his Congressional colleague Trey Gowdy (R-SC), Chair of the Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. He outlined information he had received from a whistleblower who wished to remain anonymous. According to this whistleblower, Lt. General Flynn had sent an enthusiastic text message to Alex Copson of ACU Strategic Partners just a few minutes into Trump’s inauguration ceremony. The message allegedly stated that the proposed nuclear power project for the Middle East was “good to go” and that Copson should contact his business colleagues to “let them know to put things in place.” The implication was that with Trump now President, economic sanctions against Russia would be “ripped up,” paving the way for Flynn and Copson to develop their proposed US-Russia nuclear partnership. Copson reportedly told the whistleblower: “Mike has been putting everything in place for us. […] This is going to make a lot of very wealthy people.”
Regardless of the implications that this text message may have for the Mueller investigation, we should wonder how it is that the building of nuclear plants in the Middle East would “make a lot of very wealthy people.”
Who are these people? What kind of wealth? What are the political implications of this project? Was Flynn articulating a simple business opportunity, a policy initiative, or something else altogether? Were Flynn’s dealings with Russia from the White House influenced by his prior business alliances?
We have watched with eyes wide open as Trump’s private citizen business dealings and federal tax plan spill into one another. We have seen how this administration has normalized the conflict of interest posed by the wealth Trump stands to gain from Trump International Hotel and his planned tax cuts for the super rich. Trump the business dealer and Trump the politician are working together to create wealth for a particular sector of the economy, simultaneously generating ambiguity for those seeking to identify conflicts of interest. Yet the proposed business proposition that motivated Flynn’s text message takes this ambiguity to a new level. When discussing the green light with the whistle blower, Copson also justified this private-public partnership in terms of national security: “They will be better when we recolonize the Middle East.”
To understand this comment, I suggest that we turn to a recent nuclear corruption case in Brazil. The case, which I have been tracking over the past two years in my work as a cultural anthropologist, reveals some of the ways that the nuclear energy sector may function as an essential vehicle for ambiguity in collaborations between business and government. And, the case illustrates how a promise to build nuclear reactors can so easily collocate with a promise of wealth.
At the same time that ACU Strategic Partners was planning its strategy for building reactors in the Middle East (2015-2016), a man known as the “Father of Brazilian Nuclear Energy,” Vice-Admiral Othon Luiz Pinheiro da Silva, was arrested, tried, and found guilty of bribery, over-billing, and coordinating an elaborate kickback operation. This scheme made not just the Admiral wealthy but also a number of other entities, including individuals, political parties, and private construction companies bidding to build Brazil’s third nuclear power reactor, Angra 3. The Admiral had done all this while Director of Electronuclear, the Brazilian government entity in charge of the nuclear sector. Specifically, he had received bribes totaling 4.5 million Brazilian Reais, or 1.3 million US dollars, in exchange for state contracts. He had laundered this money, together with money for the entities named above, through his private consulting firm. In August of 2016, after a year in judicial process, Vice-Admiral Othon was sentenced to 43 years in prison. His daughter, the only other official employee at her father’s consulting firm, was sentenced to 14 years in prison.
The Brazilian case helps us understand that even the potentially legitimate maneuvers that come from the Trump White House may exemplify large-scale financial corruption. The Russia probe may not amount to something like treason, but it will certainly expose collaborations across government and business for the purposes of making perverse amounts of money.
These collaborations may hold even more potential for corruption when framed within the terms of national security. In Flynn’s case, it seems that military sectors see nuclear energy as a way to re-access parts of the globe that have been allergic to imperial interests but desire this technology.
The project to be implemented with Russia involved the building of 45 nuclear reactors in the Middle East, an exciting fantasy of nuclear consortiums the world over. Trump’s inaugural speech outlined the idea that every decision he would make as President would be crafted to benefit American workers and families. But Flynn knew better and could read the code. Trump’s campaign banter that he would work with Russia in Syria and might even consider lifting sanctions gave a green light to Flynn and Copson, who had been mounting this large-scale nuclear construction project throughout 2015 and 2016.
Flynn’s text message, sent precisely as Trump ascended to the presidency, speaks to a number of issues that require explanation. Specifically, it reveals a troubling cohabitation between government and business: Corporations throughout the world utilize large-scale nuclear projects to move hefty amounts of money out of the public sphere and into private hands. Quite simply, Flynn could not have proposed a project of this magnitude without dense support from the public sphere, especially given the instability of the region targeted for development. The nuclear energy industry desperately needs government investment, not only because reactor construction is expensive and takes years to complete, but also because the sensitivity of these projects with respect to national security requires government support. Analysts have suggested that the nuclear industry in the United States is at a critical junction, with events like the 2011 Fukushima accident creating a public relations setback. But even if nuclear energy may be disfavored in some long-standing nuclear nations, it has found new markets in places like Brazil (Goldstein 2015, 2017) and the Middle East (Cardwell 2017).
Flynn and Copson could not forge their communal deal with Russia and the Middle East without the support of Ukraine. Because sanctions against Russia were provoked not only by Russia’s meddling in our elections, but also earlier by Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its treatment of Ukraine, Copson and Flynn perhaps anticipated a certain resistance from Russia’s neighbor to the West. They therefore wrote Ukraine into their deal to receive nation-building loans from Gulf Arab countries (Copson, as portrayed in Cummings 2017). In order to understand Flynn’s text message, we have to know the political, economic, and investment aspirations involved in nuclear projects such as this. Only then can we ascertain what was precisely at stake in Flynn’s enthusiastic announcement.
Again I move away from the US context and return to the Brazilian case, which clearly demonstrates the corruption that may come from public-private consortiums in the nuclear energy sector. As Director of Eletronuclear, Othon had set up a shell consulting firm, Aratec Engenharia Consultoria & Representações, which received money for consulting work that he accomplished in the nuclear sector. The courts found this to be a conflict of interest, but also more. Eletronuclear was to head up the construction of the new nuclear plant, Angra 3. Aratec was paid on the basis of false contracts for services never realized. Othon charged the construction companies what have since been called “radioactive bribes”—bribes that totaled between one and five per cent of the full cost of the project. He also distributed money to the political parties that made the project possible and excluded contractors who did not belong to the scheme. Money was sucked out of public funds, only to be transferred to individuals and party operatives in the political system who were designated as interested players by Othon in the larger scheme.
These “pay for play” schemes have functioned for a long time in Brazil’s political landscape, but the Angra 3 scheme came to public light only after a series of corruption cases had rocked the country. What the Brazilian public is learning from these corruption cases is that the financial investment needed for large-scale construction projects such as nuclear energy reactors can also hide large amounts of money, redistribute that money to politically active members who pledge support, and benefit individuals interested in financial gain. Paper trails involving family members, politicians, and government entities are very difficult to unearth. We have special insight into Othon’s case only because the federal police found a flashdrive at the time of his arrest that contained detailed information about these money distributions.
Taking this back to Mueller’s investigation, let’s imagine how the tracking of pecuniary corruption would be made even more difficult if framed within the terms of national security. In Flynn’s case, the money involved in the building of 45 nuclear reactors in the Middle East would necessarily engage with governments, corporations, and individuals—corrupt or otherwise—in difficult-to-trace manners that would of course make some individuals very wealthy. But the project’s ideological aspirations to bring a new kind of security regime to the Middle East, as suggested by Copson in his framing of the deal as a recolonizing mission, would obscure any corruption that may result. Once the Trump administration “ripped up” the Russia sanctions, as Flynn allegedly put it, money would flow into the project and facilitate the largest nuclear energy deal in the history of the world. The United States would then be in the position of having to supply ongoing military support to defend these 45 installations. This situation would indeed create the recolonizing effect allegedly mentioned by Copson, and it would also make “a lot of very wealthy people” for decades to come.
While Flynn has pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI about his conversations with the Russian ambassador, he has not pleaded guilty to taking bribes or laundering money. If the whistleblower’s description of Flynn’s text message to Copson is accurate, it may hold the key to understanding why Flynn lied to the FBI. Perhaps it is the conjoined motivations of money and imperial power together that best explain the feckless general’s brazen enthusiasm on that inaugural day.
Cardwell, Diane. 2017. The Murky Future of Nuclear Power in the United States. New York Times, February 18, 2017. See, https://www.nytimes.com/2017/02/18/business/energy-environment/nuclear-power-westinghouse-toshiba.html.
Copson, Alex. 2016. Email exchange with Donald Gross, ACU Strategies. See, http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/TEST-TEST/010051ZP4H5/pdf-redacted.pdf.
Cummings, Elijah E. 2017. Letter to the Honorable Trey Gowdy, Chairman, Committee on Oversigh and Government Reform, December 6. See, http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/USA-TRUMP-RUSSIA-FLYNN/0100521Y4N7/2017-12-06 EEC to Gowdy.pdf
Goldstein, Donna M. 2015. The Nuclear Option: For Anthropologists Who Have Considered Humor When the Drive to Modernity is Not Enough. Savage Minds. See, http://savageminds.org/2015/04/06/the-nuclear-option-for-anthropologists-who-have-considered-humor-when-the-drive-to-modernity-is-not-enough/ – more-16651
Goldstein, Donna M. 2017 “Fukushima in Brazil: Undone Science, Technophilia, Epistemic Murk,” in Donna M. Goldstein, ed., Special Themed Issue titled, “Invisible Harm: Science, Subjectivity and the Things We Cannot See.” Culture, Theory and Critique (58(4), pp. 391-412.