As a first step in special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, the indictment of Paul Manafort did not come as much of a surprise. For once, the long-expected has actually come to pass.
Manafort’s unsavory dealings with Russian interests were being discussed long before last November’s election — even before last year’s Republican convention. Unsurprisingly, they led to his ouster from the Trump campaign after only a short tenure as its chairman. And a number of other potentially incriminating facts about Manafort have been reported about him in the time since.
Yet the information contained within Monday’s Manafort indictment still might come as a shock to anyone unfamiliar with the ways of Washington. And the most surprising story is one about the bipartisan chumminess among those taking money to help Russian President Vladimir Putin's cause — directly or indirectly — in Washington.
Long before Manafort or John Podesta could have known they would be heading rival presidential campaigns in 2016, Manafort was working with the Podesta Group (which John had helped found with his brother Tony) to assist the corrupt puppet government that Putin was then supporting in Ukraine.
In working for the Orwellian-sounding European Centre for a Modern Ukraine, or ECMU, both were actually helping a regime that wanted to turn Ukraine away from the West, and back toward a subservient posture toward the Kremlin. Were they aware that they were working directly for pro-Russian Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych? Manafort clearly knew, as he reported directly to him on their progress. And if the Podesta Group wasn’t aware at first, then they probably should have figured it out as they ardently tried to convince members of Congress that, hey, of course it's perfectly on the up-and-up that Yanukovych has imprisoned his political rivals.
In any case, both Manafort and the Podesta Group were handsomely rewarded for their work, even though the ECMU’s reported total budget was a tiny fraction of what they were paying American lobbying and PR firms.
Neither the Podesta Group nor Manafort registered as foreign agents at the time, even though U.S. law requires such registration under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA. And that is, in fact, one of the charges against Manafort — a charge that is rarely brought, even against those who flagrantly violate the law.
And there’s the important point. Manafort’s indictment screams out to the need to put some real teeth into FARA.
No, not all foreign governments are bad. And even among the bad ones, not all of their aims are nefarious. But it still is deeply unseemly — and arguably corrupt — that so many former American public servants are cashing in their years of public service with foreign money buying influence in Congress. Even U.S. generals monetize their national service and go into service of rival governments (see: Flynn, Mike).
Foreign agent registration, as matters stand now, is toothless. Neither Manafort nor the Podesta Group took it seriously for precisely that reason. But if FARA were taken more seriously, and its registrants publicized more widely, this would at least create a healthy stigma to discourage those who would use their influence to help ugly dictatorships with odious causes.
This high-profile indictment finally gives both Congress and federal regulators an excuse to act. If President Trump is truly serious about draining the swamp, here’s one easy step he can take to do it.