Long before Donald Trump, Jr. claimed “attorney-client privilege” to avoid answering questions before the House Intelligence Committee, that claim was tested and wisely rejected by Congress. Appropriately enough, that prior case also featured a real estate executive who was summoned to testify about suspected connections with a foreign dictator — and tried to avoid questions in a Congressional hot seat.
Appearing on December 6 before the 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 Donalds discussed how to 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 those questions 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 see it as a desperate attempt to deflect investigation of the Trump campaign’s collusion with Vladimir Putin’s Kremlin.
The last time someone deployed such a flimsy claim of privilege to shield an overseas despot was in December 1985, when the House Foreign Relations Committee brought in Joseph Bernstein, a New York lawyer and real estate executive, and his brother Ralph.
Several months earlier, William Bastone and I had published a front-page story in The Village Voice that named 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 the revelation of their “hidden wealth” prompted Marcos to call the “snap election” that ultimately led to his overthrow by the Filipino people and military.
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, however, Solarz had to prove that our report about their New York real estate holdings was true.
But at that first public hearing in December 1985, Joseph Bernstein answered every question posed by Solarz with a single word: “Privileged.” According to Bernstein, his attorney Alan Dershowitz (now an assiduous TV defender of everything Trump, including Junior’s dubious privilege claim) had instructed him to stonewall the committee, saying he shouldn’t even acknowledge ever meeting the Marcoses. Bernstein says this tactic was intended not only to protect their illicit real estate holdings, but to help Marcos win the presidential election on February 7, 1986.
The Marcoses, who bore a distinct resemblance to the Trumps, didn’t give 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 Times ad naturally neglected to mention the murderous tyrant hiding behind that claim.) They even got a Republican member of Congress, Marcos pal Gerald Solomon (R-NY), to sponsor legislation creating an attorney-client privilege for Congressional witnesses. But that bill never even reached the House floor.
With a strong opinion from counsel that no such claim would stand up in court, the House pressed a contempt citation against both brothers. U.S. Attorney Joseph diGenova prepared to indict the Bernsteins for criminal contempt; a conviction could have sent them both to prison for a year. Within weeks, after the Marcoses were overthrown, the brothers changed their tune and began to sing.
At last the truth emerged when Ralph and Joe Bernstein, shorn of privilege, told the full story of how they had bought the Manhattan properties on the orders of Imelda Marcos, and disguised their real ownership behind a scrim of Panamanian shell companies. The Bernsteins 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 — is 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, Congress should use the full force of law to compel him to tell the truth — just like the front men for Ferdinand Marcos.