BY JOE CONASON
Long before Donald Trump Jr. claimed “attorney-client privilege” last week to avoid answering Congressional inquiries, that same claim was tested and wisely rejected by Congress. Junior isn’t even the first real estate executive asked to testify about suspected connections to a foreign dictator who tried that gambit to avoid questions in a Capitol Hill hot seat.
Appearing on Dec. 6 before the House Intelligence Committee, the president’s eldest son specifically declined to answer questions about a crucial conversation with his father. That chat occurred last July, when the two Dons discussed how they might cope with the release of a series of emails that showed Junior had met with Russians offering “dirt” on Hillary Clinton during the 2016 campaign.
When that question came up, Junior informed the committee that he didn’t have to answer because a lawyer had been present in the room when father and son met, thus cloaking him in privilege. But it isn’t a claim that many legal experts consider credible – and some regard it as a desperate attempt to deflect investigation of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
The last time someone deployed a dubious privilege claim to cover up for an overseas despot was in 1986. The House Foreign Relations Committee had called in Joseph Bernstein, a New York lawyer and real estate executive, and his brother Ralph, after William Bastone and I published a front-page story in The Village Voice naming the Bernsteins as straw investors concealing the true ownership of several big Manhattan buildings – including 40 Wall Street, now owned by the Trump Organization, and the Crown Building at 57th Street and Fifth Avenue – as well as an eight-acre waterfront estate on Long Island.
The secret owners of those properties, worth billions of dollars today, were Ferdinand Marcos, the late Philippine dictator, and his wife, Imelda [who also had a notorious collection of shoes]. Public outrage over those revelations of their “hidden wealth” prompted Marcos to call the “snap election” that ultimately led to his overthrow by the Filipino people and military. But in the meantime, they opted for the usual cover-up.
Rep. Stephen Solarz, who chaired the Asian and Pacific affairs subcommittee, suspected that the Marcoses had laundered American aid money into their real estate investments, much as Russians and other foreign crooks stash stolen funds today. First, Solarz had to prove that our report about their New York real estate holdings was true.
But at a public hearing in December 1985, Joseph Bernstein answered every question posed by Solarz with a single word: “Privileged.” Armed with a strong opinion from counsel that no such privilege claim would stand up in court, the House pressed a contempt citation against both brothers. Five months later, they changed their tune and began to sing – after Congress issued a contempt citation that could have sent them to prison for a year.
Not that the Marcoses, who bore a distinct resemblance to the Trumps, gave up easily. After that initial standoff with Solarz, the Bernstein brothers purchased a full-page advertisement in The New York Times, claiming that they were defending “one of the most fundamental guarantees of liberty in our society.” [The ad neglected to mention the murderous tyrant hiding behind that claim.]
They even got a Republican member of Congress, Marcos pal Gerald Solomon of New York, to sponsor legislation creating an attorney-client privilege for Congressional witnesses. That bill never even reached the House floor.
At last the truth emerged four months later when the Bernsteins, shorn of privilege, told the full story of how they had bought the Manhattan properties on the orders of Imelda Marcos, and then disguised their real ownership behind a scrim of Panamanian shell companies. The brothers avoided imprisonment, the dictator was ousted, and the Filipino people eventually recovered a substantial portion of the billions he and his wife had stolen.
Now Congress – alongside special counsel Robert Mueller – are engaged in a high-stakes search for facts whose outcome will be critical to the preservation of American democracy. Attempting to conceal those facts are the autocratic Trump administration and its friends in Moscow. When Donald Trump Jr. refuses to testify fully before that inquiry with a frivolous claim of privilege, the House needs to send him a subpoena.
And if Junior still refuses to testify, he should confront the full force of the law – just like the front men for Ferdinand Marcos.
– Joe Conason’s columns appear regularly in The Oklahoma Observer