“What’s the point of having FARA-you money, if you never say FARA you?” Bobby Axelrod, the protagonist of Showtime’s “Billions,” once asked this rhetorically as he contemplated buying a house so ostentatious that it would pique the envy of his enemies. Of course, he didn’t actually use the word, “FARA.” But FARA, the acronym for the Foreign Agents Registration Act, has become another four-letter dirty F-word to people who believe in equal justice.
Small wonder. The Department of Justice has enforced the law so unevenly that it more or less showcases the department’s unchecked discretion—protecting its political allies and persecuting its enemies.
For Americans concerned about how the Justice Department administers the law, the message is clear: FARA off. We’ll do whatever the FARA we want.
Numerous articles have offered gentle reminders to the Department of Justice that its prosecutorial decisions appear nakedly political.
“Thanks to FARA’s notorious breadth and vagueness,” writes attorney Nick Robinson at Foreign Policy, “the law has a history of being weaponized by the U.S. government and by politicians to target political opponents.”
The Justice Department is aware of the criticism. That’s why it recently filed a motion for an order banning any such criticism from the upcoming trial of Concord Catering, the Russian company accused of interfering in the 2016 election. The folks at the Justice Department don’t care about your impotent cries about “unfairness.” What’s the point of having “FARA-you” power if you never get to say “FARA you”?
FARA had a noble purpose originally: to help expose secret Nazi and Communist sympathizers spreading propaganda for America’s enemies. The law requires that anyone acting on behalf of a foreign government—friend or foe—must register with the Department of Justice. It’s not illegal to lobby on behalf of China, Russia, Saudi Arabia, or Great Britain. You just have to register before you do it.
But the law is vague. Nobody knows what’s required until the Department of Justice decides it doesn’t like you.
If, for instance, a small businesswoman contemplates a brochure to promote summer vacations to Greece, she must register with Department of Justice if the brochure uses material obtained from the Greek tourism bureau. She must then pay the Justice Department its FARA fee of $305 and register as a foreign agent using expensive specialty attorneys.
Vague criminal laws are the mother’s milk of the tyrannical seeking to use the law as a weapon against their political opponents.
Paul Manafort, for example, briefly worked as Trump’s campaign manager during the 2016 election. The Department of Justice now literally tortures Paul Manafort with years of solitary confinement (far exceeding international human rights limits) after he pleaded guilty to violating FARA (among other crimes).
Manafort did not properly register his representation of the Ukrainian Victor Yanukovych. Yet Tony Podesta lobbied for the very same Yanukovych at exactly the same time and also failed to register as a foreign agent. Mueller offered Podesta immunity for the same transgressions used to imprison Manafort. Podesta celebrated a formal declination of prosecution in September of 2019. His brother, John Podesta, was Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign chairman.
Hunter Biden (the former vice president’s son) recently made headlines for his work representing a foreign government to the United States. National Review reported that Hunter served on the board of a trade group that lobbied the Obama Administration to boost foreign aid to Ukraine. Did Hunter Biden register as a foreign agent? There appears to be no public record of him doing so.
Former National Security Advisor John Bolton, who decried any “drug deals” regarding Ukraine, accepted $115,000 from Ukrainian steel magnate Victor Pinchuk for speeches he gave in September 2017 and February 2018.
In the 2017 speech, Bolton reassured international and Ukrainian listeners that “the notion that this anomaly [Trump’s election] at a time of enormous dissatisfaction among the American public at large with conventional politics is going to represent a dramatic break in foreign policy is just wrong.” Don’t worry, Ukrainians, American elections won’t (can’t) change foreign policy. Permanent D.C. types like Bolton won’t allow it.
We now know that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s probe of the Trunp campaign’s alleged “collusion” with Russia was a political hit job initiated a full three months after the FBI completely debunked the Steele dossier’s collusion claims. We therefore should be concerned that as the probe wound down, the Justice Department moved one of its most controversial alumni, Brandon Van Grack, to the extremely sensitive post of running FARA prosecutions.
Van Grack’s subsequent prosecution of former Obama Administration figure Greg Craig for illegally representing Ukraine further emphasized the inherently political filter through which potential defendants pass: Craig’s jury was drawn from a highly partisan D.C. pool and they quickly acquitted him.
Perhaps the worst offender of FARA is Fusion GPS, the opposition research firm that accused Trump of colluding with Russians while it represented Russian interests in the United States. The Justice Department is approaching its third year of ignoring a Senate prosecution referral for what seems to be clear-cut FARA violations by Fusion GPS. You may remember that Clinton’s law firm Perkins Coie hired Fusion GPS to frame Trump for colluding with the Russians. Perkins Coie has been a career destination of multiple Justice Department alumni here, here, here, here, here, and . . . you get the idea.
In case you’re wondering whether anyone has complained about Perkins Coie secretly using campaign funds to pay Fusion GPS, they have. There are pending Federal Elections Commission complaints regarding that shady arrangement. FEC Commissioner Ellen L. Weintraub currently is being sued for ignoring the complaints. Oh, and Weintraub is also an alumnus of Perkins Coie.
The Justice Department is rubbing the public’s nose in its power to use FARA to punish political opponents while giving a pass to allies. Further, their leadership repeatedly insists that nothing you do at the ballot box can affect how it does business. There’s been no public statement attempting to reconcile the apparent mismatch between the way the law is enforced depending on the politics of the target. And there’s no apparent shame in this regard. It’s part of the power we are just supposed to accept as inherent in the Department of Justice.
Again, what’s the point of having FARA-you power if you don’t occasionally tell people seeking equal application of the law, “FARA you!”