Grassley: Secret Foreign Lobbying Campaigns are Real Threat
Jun 11, 2019
Prepared Floor Remarks by U.S. Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa
Tuesday, June 11, 2019
For nearly two years, Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation captivated Washington.
Most of the media reporting focused on speculation and false allegations of a criminal conspiracy between the Trump campaign and the Kremlin.
This reporting was fueled by critics eager to all but guarantee the president’s guilt.
After an exhaustive investigation – and millions of taxpayer dollars spent – many of those same critics still can’t accept that Mueller and his investigative team of Democratic donors found no collusion.
The continuing political noise over the last two years, however, risks drowning out critical sirens warning of the real threat: self-interested and surreptitious foreign influence in our political discourse.
Mueller’s team indicted dozens of Russians for a scheme to sow discord in American politics through social media and the release of hacked emails.
Not enough attention, however, has been paid to foreign interests secretly enlisting American cutouts to directly influence our laws, policies and public opinion.
This is a serious problem that should send shivers down the spine of anyone in government who meets with lobbyists.
If lobbyists or public relations firms are pushing policy preferences at the behest of foreign powers or foreign interests, we ought to know about it.
This week I introduced bipartisan legislation to strengthen and fine-tune enforcement authorities to better expose clandestine foreign influence campaigns.
My bipartisan bill, the Foreign Agents Disclosure and Registration Enhancement Act, will encourage greater compliance with the often-ignored requirements for lobbyists working on behalf of foreign entities.
It accomplishes this by making critical updates to one of our nation’s oldest lobbying disclosure laws.
In 1938, Congress passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) to unmask Nazi propaganda and identify foreign attempts to influence Congress and the American public.
Until recently, however, it’s been seldom used.
Only 15 FARA violations have been criminally prosecuted since 1966, when the law was updated. About half of these prosecutions stemmed from Special Counsel Mueller’s investigation.
Though, that’s not due to a lack of foreign influence efforts.
As part of my oversight efforts, I first raised concerns about shoddy FARA enforcement in 2015 – before Donald Trump launched his presidential campaign – when a former Clinton White House staffer and a lawyer for a Georgian political party failed to register as foreign agents.
I also raised concerns about work for Ukrainians by Paul Manafort and the Podesta Group, and about reports that the Democratic National Committee worked with Ukraine to undermine the Trump campaign.
I raised concerns when the firm behind the discredited Steele dossier failed to register for its lobbying work to repeal U.S. sanctions against Russia.
As it turns out, that same lobbying effort was behind the bait-and-switch at Trump Tower in June of 2016.
I even subpoenaed Manafort to testify at a Judiciary Committee hearing on lax FARA enforcement and praised Mueller for dusting off the law that had been ignored by lobbyists and prosecutors for so long.
In the end, Manafort, his colleague Rick Gates, and former Obama White House Counsel Greg Craig were among those indicted for violating FARA.
My FARA oversight activities have been done without regard to power, party, or privilege.
I’m an equal-opportunity overseer and believe FARA ought to be better enforced, and enforced equally.
Now, all of this talk about FARA may have started as a creative tactic by an aggressive team of investigators to pressure Manafort into spilling nonexistent details on the Trump campaign.
But Mueller’s probe had the positive effect of shining a light on the Justice Department’s FARA Registration Unit, as well as a legion of lobbyists whose work for foreign clients had flown under the radar for years.
The charges spurred a rush on K Street. New foreign agent registrations increased by 50 percent from 2016 to 2017.
Attorney General Barr also recently pledged to prioritize enforcement at the Justice Department.
I’m pleased to hear this.
However, even though FARA is finally being taken more seriously, the law still lacks key enforcement authorities needed to investigate and hold accountable covert conveyors of foreign interests.
FARA also includes a broad exemption for anyone already registered with Congress as a lobbyist.
It’s time we ask whether this exemption continues to serve the public interest and operate as intended.
Moreover, even those registered under FARA aren’t required to clearly disclose that they’re working on behalf of a foreign government or entity when meeting with Capitol Hill or administration officials.
Policymakers need to know when these meetings are driven by foreign interests.
My bipartisan legislation, based on my oversight work, grants federal investigators new tools – such as civil investigative demand authority – to help the Justice Department gain access to material needed to identify covert foreign influence and improve FARA compliance.
This will strengthen the Justice Department’s hand in rooting out those who attempt to shield their operation from the American people and policymakers.
To ensure accountability, my bill provides key controls on who in the Justice Department can use the new authority, and it provides due process protections.
This authority will also sunset after 5 years, requiring the Justice Department to demonstrate its appropriate use if Congress is to reauthorize it.
In addition, the bill requires a review of the new authority by the Justice Department’s Inspector General.
This bipartisan bill also improves deterrence by strengthening the penalties that scofflaws face for violating their FARA registration and disclosure requirements.
It also requires foreign agents to immediately disclose their clients.
That way, policymakers can evaluate their positions in light of those associations.
Even my own office has, in the past, been targeted by secretive lobbying efforts orchestrated by foreign powers whose policy interests were diametrically opposed to those of the United States.
We saw through the ploy.
But anyone in government should have full awareness into who they’re meeting with – and why.
The bill requires the Justice Department to craft a comprehensive FARA enforcement strategy to better coordinate agency efforts, analyze FARA’s current exemptions and fee structure, and promote transparency by ensuring the ongoing, proactive release of FARA advisory opinions.
Finally, it establishes a review of the Lobbying Disclosure Act exemption to determine whether and to what extent it’s been abused to conceal foreign influence.
Legitimate interests engaging in legitimate conduct shouldn’t bear an unnecessary burden.
But we must also be certain that this exemption hasn’t created an opportunity for abuse by those who wish to operate in the dark.
This bill is the product of my years-long oversight into FARA, as well as bipartisan cooperation.
It reflects a consensus that the curtain over foreign influence must be peeled back.
I’m pleased to be joined in this effort by Senators Feinstein, Cornyn, Shaheen, Rubio and Young.
The Mueller investigation might not have brought the legal charges that many of the president’s critics were hoping for, but it was a powerful indictment of our government’s lax FARA enforcement and our willingness to take the bait of foreign powers seeking to wreak havoc on our civic discourse.
In the wake of Mueller’s investigation, it’s on us in Congress to keep our eye on the ball.
It’s on us to strengthen our defenses against hidden foreign influence and preserve the voice of the American people.
The bipartisan Foreign Agents Disclosure and Registration Enhancement Act aims to accomplish these ends, and I urge all my colleagues to join in support.