Special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russiagate inquiry is said to be increasingly focused on how Trump campaign and administration officials sought to win influence in Washington for Russia and other countries which they represented or where they had business interests.
Among other things, former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his long-time colleague and campaign aide Rick Gates were charged over lobbying work on behalf of a Ukrainian strongman. Former national security adviser Michael Flynn is being looked at over lobbying for a businessman close to Turkish President Recep Erdogan.
Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and White House senior adviser, reportedly sought to shape policy in a way that would attract foreign investors to his business projects. A Lebanese-American businessman named George Nader is being questioned about the United Arab Emirates funneling money to support Trump’s presidential campaign, and because he reportedly met with Blackwater founder Erik Prince in the Seychelles as part of a plan to set up a secret Trump-Putin communications backchannel.
Mueller’s probe, the New York Times recently reported, appears to be broadening to look at “how money from multiple countries has flowed through and influenced Washington during the Trump era.”
Trump’s aides and advisors may be especially venal and amateurish — no surprise given that Trump himself was sired by a Queens slumlord and his generally shady business history — but if Mueller does expand his investigation he’ll find plenty of top Washington players engaged in similarly dubious activities, especially those involving foreign influence peddling.
(Before going further, let me caveat this by saying that I’m not referring to money-laundering, tax evasion and perjury, but misconduct directly related to influence peddling and profiteering through political and campaign duties.)
Records compiled by OpenSecrets.org show there are currently 918 lobbyists registered to represent 400 foreign entities. Working for dictators and oligarchs is a small part of the overall business but it’s an especially lucrative one because the dirtier the client, the more lobbyists can charge.
Manafort and Flynn both failed to register their lobbying activities for overseas clients. They should have but almost no one bothers registering under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, because the law is essentially unenforced. A September 2016 Department of Justice report showed only seven people had been prosecuted under FARA since 1966 and only one of those was convicted. The DOJ’s FARA unit is notoriously underfunded, the law depends on voluntary compliance, and it’s mostly media reports that trigger investigations.
Furthermore, the traditional influence peddling game long ago changed. Foreign countries and their lobbyists routinely supplement conventional tactics — for example, meetings with lawmakers and executive branch officials — with more sophisticated strategies that are harder to monitor and sometimes don’t require registration at all. These include working through think tanks and universities, funding business associations and ostensibly cultural groups, third-party PR and media campaigns and — much like the Russian trolls indicted by Mueller — using the Internet to spread misinformation.
Think tanks in particular have become a big part of the foreign lobbying arsenal. Foreign regimes, their lobbyists or business allies, can donate to top DC think tanks and get plenty in return. And since think tanks are non-profits, disclosure of funders is voluntary and what donations buy can be hard to pin down.
But there’s no question that cash begets influence. The Atlantic Council, for example, has taken money from the government of oil-rich Kazakh dictator Nursultan Nazaybayev and political fixers and corporations close to him, and it has been remarkably friendly to his regime. In 2012, it put on an event about Kazakhstan, paid for by ChevronTexaco. A keynote speaker was Kenneth Derr, the company’s CEO when it forged a partnership with Kazakhstan in the 1990s.
Oleg Deripaska, a Russian oligarch close to Putin — and whose relationship with Manafort is prominently mentioned in Mueller’s indictment of Trump’s former campaign chief — is a former metals trader who “survived the gangster wars in the post-Soviet aluminum industry,” according to an old story in the Times. He’s banned from the U.S. over his suspected ties to Russian organized crime, but for years he was accepted in polite Washington society because he threw so much money around town, including to prominent think tanks.
Through one of his business entities, Basic Element, Deripaska was a major donor to the Council on Foreign Relations. According to the Council’s website, Basic Element was at one point a member of the “President’s Circle,” which allowed his firm to sponsor a series on “corporate governance.” Deripaska’s firm also contributed to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, where he was invited to give a talk about Russian business restructuring after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Another controversial Eastern European oligarch, Victor Pinchuk from the Ukraine, grew rich during the corrupt, authoritarian rule of Leonid Kuchma, his father-in-law. He reportedly amassed his fortune by obtaining massive industrial interests at a fraction of their value through rigged privatizations.
Pinchuk has hired Washington consultants like Doug Schoen, a long-time consultant to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and Monica Crowley, who withdrew from consideration to be President Trump’s national security spokesperson due to a plagiarism scandal. In a similar spirit of bipartisanship, Pinchuk also donated $150,000 to the Trump Foundation and millions to the Clinton Foundation.
Meanwhile, Pinchuk’s personal foundation supported a Brookings Institution initiative “to provide information for experts and policymakers in order to promote a European perspective for Ukraine.” He also underwrote Ukraine-related programs at the Peterson Institute for International Economics and the Aspen Institute.
Lobbyists and PR professionals also create “third-party blogs,” which look independent but are paid to put out positives items about clients. The items may have little news value, but they get picked up by Google and spread on Facebook and other social media sites. Another client service is to push down or eliminate negative information on the web and to attack clients’ opponents by spreading rumors and altering Wikipedia profiles.
Bilateral business associations are another routine lobbying tool and because they are non-profits, like think tanks, they are subject to minimal disclosure rules and their activities are hard to monitor. One example is the US-Turkmenistan Business Council, whose members include Boeing, Caterpillar and GE and which is led by Eric Stewart, a lobbyist with Williams & Jensen.
Turkmen ruler Grubanguly Berdimuhamedov is one of the world’s last Stalinist dictatorships and his regime is a hard sell in Washington. But the Council does its part by seeking to “advance the US-Turkmenistan bilateral relationship” and sponsor “policy conferences, briefing sessions and major events featuring senior U.S. and Turkmen officials,” according to its website.
Then there are cultural groups like the Hong Kong-based China-United States Exchange Foundation. Its mission is to improve “US-China relations by facilitating open and constructive exchanges between policy-makers, business leaders, academics, think tanks, cultural figures, educators and students from the United States and China.”
This sounds benign but the Foundation is effectively a lobbying instrument for the Chinese government. It was founded by Tung Chee-hwa, a shipping magnate who served as chief executive of Hong Kong. The group sponsors trips to China for American politicians, academics and journalists, and has joint projects with some of Washington’s top think tanks.
In 2016, the Foundation invited a delegation from the Center for American Progress, led by its founder John Podesta, “to meet with their Chinese counterparts and Chinese leadership.” Tony Podesta, John’s brother and Hillary Clinton’s former campaign manager, was lobbying for the Foundation at the same time. (The Podesta group, Tony’s firm, collapsed after the Mueller investigation revealed that it worked in Ukraine along with Manafort).
Foreign regimes have a multitude of other means to curry favor in Washington. Lobbyists can’t pay for junkets for members of congress but they can recruit friendly non-profit groups that can. “In one instance, a lobbyist literally registered a new nonprofit—in his own office—that went on to pay for congressional travel abroad,” The Atlantic reported in 2014.
Corrupt dictators can even pay for their own election observers. The Washington-based International Tax and Investment Centre (ITIC), which has received funding from Chevron, ExxonMobil and the Kazakhstan Petroleum Association, has dispatched observers to various ballotings in Kazakhstan. They invariably deem them free and fair, including a 2011 election that President Nazarbayev won with 95 percent support.
So let’s hope that Mueller decides to take a deep look at this world, because the ability of corrupt foreign government — and other well-endowed interests — to buy favors in Washington is deeply entrenched, and one of the primary reasons Americans are so disgusted and cynical about politics.
But don’t expect him to. Republicans in congress mostly back Trump and Democrats want to see him brought down. But blocking a deep dive into lobbying may produce rare bipartisan unity, because neither party wants to see the that world severely curtailed. Lobbyists and their clients provide the campaign cash that keep members of congress in power, and for many elected officials going to work at a lobby shop, PR agency, think tank or other advocacy organization is their preferred retirement plan.