David J Black: A failure of nerve
See how the cookie crumbles: David J Black recounts a time when politicians, given the chance to practise what they preach, decided to just preach some more.
Has the Great Orange Cookie Monster finally had his day, what with the FBI raiding his Mar-a-Lago sock drawer, former compadres thinking of plea bargaining deals to get them off the hook, and the 228-page lawsuit dropped on his desk by New York Attorney General Letitia James. For ex-President Trump September 21st was a bit of a bad hair day (but is there such a thing as a good hair day for this man? Ed). Indeed, it was a coiffure catastrophe for the Trump family in general when the AG filed her civil suit in state court and sent a criminal referral to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, as well as a potentially explosive tax fraud referral to the Internal Revenue Service.
But let’s not overlook the odd little fact that Cookie’s sworn adversaries have, from time to time, unwittingly aided his interests. For starters, it can be argued that there would have been no President Trump in 2016 had it not been for Bill Clinton signing the 1996 Telecommunications Act into law, thereby opening the floodgates for such loopy-right conservative radio talk show hosts as Glenn Beck, Tucker Carlson, and Bill Riley, plus all these whacky local shock jocks, conspiracy cranks, and Tea Party blowhards backed by sinister interest groups. Then there was Hillary’s moment of madness when she described undecided working-class voters who were losing faith in her party as “a basket of deplorables”. Goodbye, West Virginia. Not smart, lady! For our purposes, however, we should consider how a cowardly Scottish Parliament once helped Cookie out big time.
This Caledonian divertissement concerns an especially peculiar grudge match going back to that fateful night in Edinburgh’s Prestonfield House Hotel, an old haunt of Ben Franklin’s, when farmer Michael Forbes (whose offences against Cookie included flying a Mexican flag on the family farm at Balmedie which he was refusing to be bullied out of) was declared “Glenfiddich Scot of the year”. This did not go down well in Trump Towers. So incensed was the Commander-in-Chief that he ordered a total clearance of the Glenfiddich brand from all Trump points of sale across the world. This may not have had the desired effect, in that a liquor store in liberal Greenwich Village which I knew (only too) well at the time reported a surge in sales of that very brand.
There followed a peevish act of vengeance in the form of a 25 per cent punitive levy inflicted on the Scottish whisky industry as a whole, though it was cunningly disguised as Cookie’s carefully crafted reaction to the state-aid feather-bedding of Airbus, from which Scotland derives little benefit, other than 100 or so jobs at Prestwick making spoilers for wings. Perversely, Scottish Enterprise had granted that particular enterprise an R&D grant of £2.1 million in 2018, but – and here you should take a deep breath – the recipient of that generous taxpayer’s gift was Spirit Aero Systems of Wichita, Kansas, a $7 billion global company which manufactures military drones and unmanned fighter jets and happens to own that particular Prestwick-based workshop. In other words Uncle Sam was punishing poor Scotia for a state subsidy which was winging its way to – err – Wichita, Kansas.
Now, despite the truly sobering fact that around 70 per cent of fair Scotia’s whisky industry is owned by companies furth of our great devolved realm, it still brings in a hefty £5 billion per annum, give or take, and employs close to 11,000 lieges. Moreover, a fastidious scientific survey at the University of Cowdenbeath (I think it was) usefully calculated that if each annually exported bottle of our national moonshine was laid end to end in a straight line it would end up at around 350,000 kilometres – almost enough to reach the moon. (Aye, put that in your pipe, Elon Musk!)
Still and all, it might have helped to focus the presidential mind if Scotland’s politicians had had the guts to ask their lord advocate to look into the possibility of issuing an Unexplained Wealth Order (UWO) so that some rudimentary investigation might have been made into the seemingly Byzantine funding arrangements adopted by the Trump Organization in the case of the Turnberry and Menie Estate golfing ventures.
Apart from anything else this might have assisted the probe into the Cookie’s arcane financial affairs by New York’s attorney general, your scrivener having helpfully tried to make her aware of the general Scottish background in September 2021. She is no doubt currently perplexed and disappointed at the abysmal failure of Scotland’s political and legal establishment to even raise the in abstracto question that the old marmalade pussycat might, just might, have been engaging in nefarious financial dealings by, prima facie, unlawfully bigging up the valuations of these holdings, allegedly with a view to extracting massive bank loans.
In February 2021 the Green Party’s Patrick Harvie, shortly afterwards a Scottish government junior minister, called for a UWO amid questions about how Cookie’s company had managed to raise money for his loss-making Scottish golf courses. His motion was defeated by 89 votes to 32, despite suspicions that many of Trump’s transactions involved “locations highly conducive to money laundering such as Panama and the former Soviet Union”, according to the US-based human rights group AVAAZ, which would later inform Lord Sandison in a judicial review that Holyrood was mistaken in failing to order a UWO “McMafia probe” into the mighty golfer’s dealings, as reported in this parish.
His lordship ruled that the ministers had no obligation to do so, and it was really an issue for Lord Advocate, The Rt Hon Dorothy Bain KC, who is both a member of the Scottish Parliament and the Crown’s chief legal officer (separation of powers? What’s that?). Our politicians were thus perfectly entitled to deny themselves the power to question Cookie about where the money used to purchase these particular holdings came from, or make any public declarations, as in the CIA’s notorious “Glomar response” of neither confirming nor denying anything. Had they been unsatisfied with his responses they could have seized the property using the civil recovery process.
Given Boris Johnson’s soft spot for Cookie one can understand why the Scottish Conservatives were reluctant to proceed with such a course of action, but why on earth did the SNP make common cause with them? This handed the Trump Organization a ready-baked victory and earned such stateside headlines for our craven nation as “Judge Rules Scottish Officials can Keep Being Sketchy About Trump” (Daily Beast). Too right! As far as then-Justice Secretary Humza Yousaf was concerned the pursuit of an UWO would have constituted an “abuse of power” that would “fatally undermine our justice system”. The lord advocate went on to remain obligingly schtum.
The motion proposed by Patrick Harvie MSP would appear to have been perfectly well grounded. An amendment to section 396 of the Proceeds of Crime Act as incorporated in the Criminal Finances Act of 2017 clearly states: “The Court of Session may, on an application made by the Scottish Ministers, make an unexplained wealth order in respect of any property if the court is satisfied that each of the requirements for the making of the order is fulfilled.” Moreover, it isn’t as if there wasn’t a juicy precedent. The first UK McMafia Order was used in 2018 against the wife of the jailed ex-boss of the International Bank of Azerbaijan after a £16m Harrod’s shopping spree.
The reluctance of Scottish ministers to investigate Trump’s financial affairs was, we are assured, technically compliant with legal process, and could in no way whatever be described as an unlawful interference with the proper administration of justice, but on the other hand what if Attorney General Letitia James court action reveals all sorts of nastiness and dodginess in relation to the funding of The Cookie Monster’s grossly over-valued, and sensationally loss-making, Scottish golf courses?
Won’t that leave Scotland’s political and legal reputation looking just a wee bit shabby?