Donald Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey has thrust foreign governments’ growing influence on American politics and policy—and U.S. officials’ failure to police it—front and center on Capitol Hill.
The immediate question facing Congress is whether to appoint a special prosecutor to investigate Russia’s role in the U.S. presidential race, something Democrats demand and GOP leaders reject. But the Russia probe has also shed light on another problem that worries lawmakers on both sides of the aisle: the secrecy that shrouds foreign influence peddling.
In theory, U.S. lobbyists representing foreign governments and interests must register and disclose their activities with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a 1938 law written to stop Germany from using American firms to spread Nazi propaganda. In practice, though, the FARA is riddled with loopholes and barely enforced by the Justice Department, which has prosecuted a grand total of seven violations in the past 50 years.
FARA records are not even digitized, making them impossible to search. A federal Inspector General report released in September called the lack of compliance “unacceptable,” and found that an astonishing 62 percent of lobbyists fail to file their disclosure reports on time. Given that Justice officials rely almost entirely on voluntary compliance with the FARA, a high percentage of foreign agents in the U.S. appear to be evading registration and disclosure altogether.
Take Michael Flynn and Paul Manafort, two onetime Trump aides at the heart of the federal and congressional Russia investigations. Flynn, who was fired as national security adviser after lying about his communications with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., belatedly registered as a foreign agent in March, reporting that he was paid more than $500,000 for lobbying work he did on behalf of Turkey during the presidential campaign.
Manafort worked with two lobbying firms that registered as foreign agents in April—five years after the fact—in connection with a 2012 lobbying campaign on behalf of pro-Russian Ukrainian interests. Manafort was ousted as Trump’s campaign manager following reports that the Ukrainian govern may have illicitly paid him $12.7 million, something he denies.
A third onetime Trump aide, former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, may have violated the FARA when he set up a meeting that was held during the transition at Mar-a-Lago between Trump and Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim, according to Public Citizen, which has asked the Justice Department to investigate. Lewandowski has said he was not paid for that work, but Public Citizen argues the FARA applies either way. Public Citizen also wants the Secretary of the Senate and the Clerk of the House to investigate whether Lewandowski violated the Lobbying Disclosure Act, which covers domestic lobbying activities.
A broadly worded exception in the lobbying laws allows foreign agents to register under the LDA, and not the FARA, when they represent foreign commercial interests rather than foreign governments and parties. That’s ostensibly why Flynn didn’t immediately register under FARA for the work he did to assist Turkey: the work was done for a Dutch firm, but the primary beneficiary was Turkey. Last year’s IG report recommends that the Justice Department close that loophole, given that foreign government and commercial interests are not always distinct.
“This is a law that’s going unmonitored and unenforced by the Department of Justice,” says Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. The risk of undue foreign influence on American policy is greater today than at any time in recent memory, says Holman, pointing to Trump’s failure to divest from his business holdings, which include numerous ongoing overseas deals and projects.
Foreign interests are also gaining a foothold in U.S. policy through investments in U.S. media companies, payments to think tanks and universities, and through irregular avenues, such as Egyptian businessman and politician Moustafa el-Gindy’s rental of a townhouse to the pro-Trump Breitbart News Network, reportedly at below-market rates. The rental agreement is the subject of a Justice Department complaint (from an unnamed source) alleging a FARA violation.
Foreign influence has raised some alarms among Republicans, as well as Democrats. During a recent Justice Department oversight hearing by the House Judiciary Committee, panel Republican Mike Johnson, of Louisiana, brought up the Inspector General’s FARA report and noted that he is drafting legislation “that will try to seek some common sense methods to improve transparency and oversight in foreign donations and influencing U.S. policymaking.”
Republican Senator Todd Young of Indiana has signed onto a bill authored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire that would strengthen the FARA and give the Justice Department the authority to investigate RT America, the Kremlin’s mouthpiece in the U.S., for spreading disinformation during the presidential campaign. Russia has retaliated by authorizing an investigation into U.S. media organizations in Russia. Several Republicans, including Arizona’s John McCain, have signed onto another bill sponsored by Shaheen and other Democrats that would impose sanctions on Russia.
Shaheen was also the first senator to call for public hearings into Russia’s interference in the November elections. So far, Republicans have resisted Democrats’ calls for an independent counsel to take over that probe. But Trump’s firing of Comey ups the pressure on Republicans to tap an outside investigator. As the evidence of undue foreign influence in the U.S. piles up, the least that lawmakers can do is demand that American foreign agents come clean about their activities.