Trump tried to kill anti-bribery rule he deemed 'unfair,' new book alleges

President Donald Trump told then secretary of state Rex Tillerson that he wanted his help in scrapping the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 2017.
President Donald Trump told then secretary of state Rex Tillerson that he wanted his help in scrapping the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act in 2017.PHOTO: NYTIMES

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - President Donald Trump wanted to strike down a law that prohibits companies from bribing foreign officials, calling the ban "so unfair" to American companies, two Washington Post reporters recount in a new book.

In the spring of 2017, Mr Trump was at a briefing with Mr Rex Tillerson, then the secretary of state, and aides in the Oval Office. At the mention of a bribery allegation, Mr Trump "perked up" and told Mr Tillerson that he wanted his help in scrapping the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act, the authors write.

That law, enacted in 1977 and heavily enforced since around 2005, prohibits companies that operate in the United States from bribing foreign officials to obtain or retain business. It has become a major factor in corporate decision-making about operations abroad.

Mr Trump said that it was "just so unfair that American companies aren't allowed to pay bribes to get business overseas", according to the book, A Very Stable Genius, by Mr Philip Rucker and Ms Carol Leonnig.

"I need you to get rid of that law," Mr Trump told Mr Tillerson.

Mr Tillerson explained to the president that he could not simply repeal the legislation, according to Mr Rucker and Ms Leonnig. He pointed out that Congress would need to be involved in any effort to strike it down.

Undeterred, Mr Trump told Mr Stephen Miller, a senior policy adviser, to draft an executive action to repeal the law. Mr Tillerson, the authors write, later caught up with Mr Miller in the hallway, where Mr Miller said he had some scepticism about whether that plan for unilateral executive action could work.

The Securities and Exchange Commission and Justice Department began enforcing the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act more concertedly about 15 years ago. It has led to huge fines for companies, including engineering conglomerate Siemens and Brazil's state-owned energy company, Petrobras.

Sceptics of the law have included Mr Jay Clayton, the chairman of the SEC, whom Mr Trump nominated to the position in early 2017. Clayton was an author of a 2011 paper that argued that America's anti-bribery policies tended to hurt American competitiveness.

 
 

Despite such criticisms, top administration officials have pledged to uphold the law.

"We will continue to strongly enforce" anti-corruption laws, Mr Jeff Sessions, the attorney general at the time, said in a speech in April 2017.

And under the current attorney general, Mr William Barr, enforcement actions have continued to roll in.