One unexpected aftershock of the 2016 election cycle is investigations into whether several key players violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a law enacted in 1938 to deal with German propaganda. When it comes to FARA violations, prosecutions are rare. Since 1966, in fact, the Justice Department has only brought seven prosecutions, resulting in just a single conviction.
Nevertheless, the indictment of Paul Manafort and Rick Gates charges both men with two different violations of FARA stemming from their work on behalf of political leaders in Ukraine — failing to register as the agent of a foreign principal and making false and misleading statements on a FARA disclosure.
Top Washington lobbyist Tony Podesta, who bundled hundreds of thousands of dollars for Hillary Clinton in 2016, stepped down from his firm this week amid new reports of his involvement with the lobbying campaign allegedly orchestrated by Manafort and Gates. The Podesta Group filed retroactive FARA disclosures maintaining it was unaware the work was ultimately being directed by foreign principals, but evidence suggests that might not be the case. Podesta and his firm are now under investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller as well.
Former national security adviser Mike Flynn also filed a retroactive FARA disclosure for work he did on behalf of Turkey in 2016, while he was involved with President Trump's campaign. Experts have said the charges against Manafort and Gates are bad news for Podesta and Flynn.
For a law that's enforced halfheartedly at best, it's curious to see so many major Washington players suddenly catching heat for FARA violations.
Writing in Politico, prominent journalist Ken Silverstein headlined his reaction to the FARA-related charges brought against Trump's ex-campaign chairman: "I've Covered Foreign Lobbying for 20 Years and I'm Amazed Manafort Got Busted." Drawing on decades of close observation, Silverstein's perspective is helpful. "Manafort is hardly the only Washington lobbyist who appears to have flouted the FARA rules," he writes. "Evading registration is child's play for Washington pros."
Consider this passage:
... I've written about foreign lobbying and Manafort for more than 20 years. During that time, I’ve seen only a handful of cases brought against people or organizations accused of not registering as foreign agents. And it was always some foreign group, or Washington outsider, or foreign group — the Cuban 5 or someone allegedly connected to Irish Republican Army — never a wired Washington lobbyist like Manafort. Yet Manafort, like dozens of other influence peddlers, has been operating in plain sight for years.
Silverstein concludes that were it not for the existence of a special counsel probe, Manafort may never have been busted, arguing, "Manafort has been under investigation since 2014, but if the DOJ’s track record is any indicator, it’s quite likely that had he not been Trump’s campaign manager, Manafort would be kicking back and enjoying his allegedly laundered cash at this very moment."
Given the magnitude of what Manafort and Gates (and Podesta) stand accused of doing on behalf of leaders in Ukraine's governing party — covertly attempting to sway major government offices and journalists in favor of pro-Russian forces in a foreign country — the evidence makes a strong case for Attorney General Jeff Sessions to consider strengthening his department's ability to enforce FARA.
The purpose of the law, which is to ensure Americans know exactly who is seeking to influence public opinion and policy in our country (and who is taking their money), is a cause well worth defending.