You can read this series from the beginning here.
I had spent that morning making a list of every interesting fact that there was about Martin O’Malley. Unfortunately, there didn’t seem to be any interesting facts about Martin O’Malley. I was stumped.
"You look bored," Aunt Joan said.
I whirled around in my swivel chair to see Aunt Joan–who I think I have explained is not my aunt–standing in the opening in my cubicle with her arms folded.
"I am bored," I said. "O’Malley oppo research. I’m having a hard time getting a handle on him because he’s so boring."
"That he is," Aunt Joan said. "Worse than Kerry, and that’s saying something."
"O’Malley makes John Kerry look interesting. At least Kerry knew how to windsurf. He went to Vietnam and did anti-war protests. All O’Malley does is play the banjo."
"So you wouldn’t mind helping me out on a couple of meetings," she said. It wasn’t a question.
"Of course. What do I need to do?"
"I can do that," I said.
"You need to pay attention to this," Aunt Joan said. "I would rather not bring you in on these meetings. Linda is supposed to sit in on these, but her daughter has an ear infection and she has to stay home today. Linda knows how to sit there and say nothing, no matter what happens. Do you have that kind of discipline?"
"Well, I think so," I said. I’d sat through a gender-studies symposium at Amherst without saying anything, after all.
"And then, there’s the other kind of discipline, which lies in not saying anything to journalists or investigators or the FEC or the IRS or the State Department. Do you understand what I mean?"
"I do," I said. "Whatever it is, I’m Ready."
"It’s not enough just to be Ready," she said. "You have to be discreet. Because if you aren’t discreet, there are real-world consequences for that."
"Consequences?" I asked. It may have come out a little squeaky.
"There are lines that you cannot cross. Do you understand? You absolutely cannot cross them. But, if you know where the lines are, and if you’re very careful, you can get very close to them. That’s what we’re doing today. Are you in?"
I could feel my pulse racing. I could feel the Hostess Fried Pie I’d eaten for breakfast turning to ashes in my stomach. I could hear the blood rushing to my brain. This was as close as I’d ever been to raw political power, and it was intoxicating. "I’m in," I said.
"All right then. Get a legal pad and a couple of pens and meet me upstairs in the executive conference room. And not a word to anyone, ever. Got it?"
I got it.
There were two men waiting for us, and they might have been twins. They were both tall, impossibly Nordic, with fair hair and power ties. "Good afternoon, Mr. Harri," Aunt Joan said to the taller one. "And Mr. Olva, how prompt of you. If you don’t mind waiting while I talk to Mr. Harri for a short while?" Again, it wasn’t a question.
"We don’t have all that much time before our flight back to Helsinki," the shorter one said. "If we could wrap this up in one meeting, that would be preferable."
"We have two very different agenda items," Aunt Joan said. "And they are not related to each other in any way. It’s so much simpler if one of you discusses the trade issues, and then we have a separate, unrelated conversation about the domestic policy issues. Do you concur?"
"As long as everyone understands what the stakes are," the taller Finn said.
"I understand exactly what the stakes are," Aunt Joan said. "I don’t know that you do. Again, Mr. Olva, I must ask you to wait outside for a brief moment."
Mr. Harri opened the door for Aunt Joan and we all walked into the conference room and closed the door. Aunt Joan sat at the head of the table, and I sat on her left, brandishing my Bic Stics and trying to look important. "What is your concern?" she asked.
"We went to the Clinton Foundation, and they told us to come here. That is not what we expected to happen."
"The Clinton Foundation is a charitable organization, not specifically devoted to trade policy. However, our organization has some interest in the topic. What is your specific policy concern?" Aunt Joan asked.
"I represent a technology concern which is building a new electronics fabrication plant in Mexico. Unfortunately, many of the raw materials to make our new devices have to be imported from outside the country. Our geology consultant has found a large reserve of the minerals that we need in British Columbia. All we are looking to do is to move the minerals from Canada through the United States to Mexico by truck."
"I fail to see the problem," Aunt Joan said.
"We’ve been having the devil’s own time trying to get an export license," the taller Finn said. "The Canadians are no problem. But the State Department seems to prefer that we process the minerals in the U.S. rather than in Mexico. They’ve found an obscure NAFTA provision and they’ve interpreted it so that we can’t move the minerals through American territory without paying a tariff, which would seriously impact our profit margin."
"I completely understand," Aunt Joan said. "Is there some way that you could turn this into a positive? By creating jobs in a competitive swing state, perhaps?"
"We’ve done the analysis, and the environmental regulations are simply too onerous," the Finn said. "We’d be running afoul of the Clean Air Act just by crushing the minerals. It is much less costly to do all the processing in Mexico. If only the State Department would be reasonable. The way that it was when Hillary Clinton was Secretary."
"You understand that she is not the Secretary any longer?" Aunt Joan said.
"I have spoken to my colleagues in Sweden and Russia. They told me that a donation to the Clinton Foundation was very helpful…"
"Very helpful for charitable reasons," Aunt Joan interrupted. "Because no one wants to imply that there was ever a quid pro quo between any Clinton Foundation donation and any action taken or not taken by the Secretary of State. Understood? Make sure you write that down, Justin."
"Of course," he said. "Charitable reasons. But I understand that the Clinton Foundation isn’t taking any foreign charitable donations. They sent us here."
"And you’ve explained your policy concerns," Aunt Joan said. "And I appreciate that. Do your policy concerns have to be implemented before January 2017?"
"Oh, no," the Finn said. "They can wait at least that long. Until after the election."
"After the election," Aunt Joan said, "I will make sure that your concerns are noted, and the incoming Secretary of State is notified of them."
"Thank you," the Finn said.
"Of course, this is simply due to our interest in good government and smart diplomacy. As well as the environmental concerns. Not for any other reason."
"I understand. Thank you again."
"If you wouldn’t mind sending Mr. Olva in, "Aunt Joan said, "I would appreciate it."
I sat there silently, noting everything that had been said. The taller Finn gave the shorter one the thumbs-up when he left the room, and the shorter Finn’s expression changed to relief.
"Good afternoon, Mr. Olva," Aunt Joan said. "Sorry to keep you waiting. I understand that the Finnish economic development agency wants to make a donation to our efforts."
Some hours later, I slipped into a booth at a quiet Washington steakhouse. Emma was sitting across from me. "How was your day?" she asked.
"I made a difference," I said. I couldn’t say what kind, of course.