Special counsel Bob Mueller is using a law mocked as “toothless” and a “complete joke” in a very serious way to take down the Trump team, NPR reports.
Since 1966, the Department of Justice has only used the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) in seven prosecutions. The law requires any Americans working on behalf of a foreign government, entity, or person to disclose where their money is coming from.
“The perception out there in the regulated community is that it’s a toothless statute,” Christopher DeLacy, the head of the political law team at Holland & Knight, told NPR.
But Mueller, in his first indictments in the Trump-Russia probe, has already taken on the highest profile FARA prosecution the Justice Department has ever had.
The indictments against former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his top deputy, Rick Gates, include multiple FARA violations stemming from their time lobbying on behalf of Kremlin-backed former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych. Manafort and Gates are charged with failing to register as foreign agents, along with laundering millions of dollars they earned and conspiring against the United States government to commit financial crimes, as well as tax fraud.
“I think these recent cases could be a watershed moment as far as enforcement of FARA,” DeLacy told NPR.
“The FARA violations seem to be on par with the tax and money laundering allegations in the indictments, and that’s a pretty significant thing. It elevates FARA in a way that it really hasn’t been elevated in recent memory,” he explained.
The law was first enacted as a way to battle propaganda from Nazis and communists in 1938, requiring all “persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity” to disclose who is paying them abroad.
“It’s a statute designed to bring out into the sunlight the coordination between foreign actors, foreign governments, foreign corporations, foreign private citizens and those in the United States who are pushing for particular policy changes,” explains University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck.
“The idea [was] not that these policy changes are per se problematic, but that when a foreign interest is the one funding, calling the shots, pushing for some kind of change to domestic policy, the American people and American policymakers have a right to know,” he added.
Given Russia’s extensive efforts to meddle in the 2016 election and beyond, disclosing foreign entities that may be funding propaganda efforts in the United States has taken on a new urgency.
Just this week, Kremlin-backed news agency RT filed as a foreign agent with the Justice Department after coming under immense pressure.
Their registration revealed what many already suspected, that they are receiving money from the Kremlin. Their registration shows that they received $350,000 from ANO TV-Novosti, a “Russian government entity.”
“Americans have a right to know who is acting in the United States to influence the U.S. government or public on behalf of foreign principals,” acting Assistant Attorney General for National Security Dana Boente told NPR. “The Department of Justice is committed to enforcing FARA and expects compliance with the law by all entities engaged in specified activities on behalf of any foreign principal, regardless of its nationality.”
With a renewed focus on FARA, Mueller’s prosecutors may use the act to charge Michael Flynn, the disgraced former National Security Adviser who lied about the money he got lobbying for Turkish and foreign interests, and his son.
It’s unclear if anyone else in Trump’s orbit has run afoul of the law, but those four indictments alone could open up a world of other secrets the Trump team tried to keep under wraps. Manafort, Flynn, and their associates are dead to rights, but they aren’t the ultimate target of this investigation.