Former Trump campaign chairman to register as foreign agent
WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump’s former campaign chairman Paul Manafort will register with the Justice Department as a foreign agent for lobbying work he did on behalf of political interests in Ukraine, led at the time by a pro-Russian political party, his spokesman said Wednesday.
Manafort is the second Trump campaign adviser to have to register as a foreign agent since the election. The confirmation that he intends to register comes as the Trump administration has been facing heavy scrutiny over the foreign ties of former campaign advisers and other Trump associates.
By registering retroactively, Manafort will be acknowledging that he failed to properly disclose his work to the Justice Department as required by federal law.
The Justice Department rarely prosecutes such violations of the Foreign Agent Registration Act, but Manafort will now have to publicly and specifically detail his foreign agent work. That includes which American government agencies and officials he sought to influence, how he was paid and the details of contracts he signed as part of the work. Before, Manafort had been able to keep much of that information out of public view.
Manafort began discussions with the government about his lobbying activities after Trump hired him in March 2016, Manafort spokesman Jason Maloni said, although it was unclear whether those conversations occurred before or after Trump forced Manafort to resign in August.
Manafort has recently been given guidance by federal authorities related to whether he should register as a foreign agent, Maloni said. Asked by The Associated Press whether Manafort intends to register as a foreign agent, Maloni said: “Yes, he is registering.”
Manafort’s resignation from the campaign came immediately after the AP had reported that Manafort’s consulting firm between 2012 and 2014 orchestrated a covert Washington lobbying operation on behalf of Ukraine’s ruling political party without disclosing that it was working as a foreign agent.
Manafort’s decision to register as a foreign agent comes about one month after former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn registered with the Justice Department for work he did that could have benefited the Turkish government. The filing came after Trump fired Flynn in February, saying that Flynn had misled administration top officials about his contacts with Russia.
Also this week, the White House has faced questions about the influence of Carter Page, who advised the campaign on foreign policy. The Washington Post reported late Tuesday that the government obtained a secret warrant under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act last summer to monitor Page’s communications.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about whether Trump was aware that Manafort needed to register as a foreign agent.
Earlier Wednesday, one of the Washington lobbying firms that worked on the influence campaign under the direction of Manafort and his former deputy, Rick Gates, itself registered after the fact with the Justice Department as a foreign agent. It acknowledged its work could have principally benefited Ukraine’s government. The other firm involved, Mercury LLC, later said it also would register soon as a foreign agent for its work.
Federal prosecutors have been looking into Manafort’s work for years as part of an effort to recover Ukrainian assets stolen after the 2014 ouster of Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych, who fled to Russia. No charges have been filed as part of the investigation.
Separately, Manafort is also under scrutiny as part of congressional and FBI investigations into possible contacts between Trump associates and Russia’s government under President Vladimir Putin during the 2016 U.S. presidential campaign.
Manafort has said: “I have never been involved with anything to do with the Russian government or the Putin administration or any other issues under investigation,” and his spokesman, Maloni, has said there was nothing improper about his political consulting in Ukraine, including how he was paid.
Gates, who has been seen inside the White House on a number of occasions, helped plan Trump’s inauguration and until last month was involved in a nonprofit organization, America First Policies, to back the White House agenda. Gates did not respond to text messages left by the AP on Wednesday. His voicemail box was full.
The Podesta Group disclosed details of the lobbying it did from 2012 through 2014 on behalf of a Brussels-based nonprofit, the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine. The lobbying firm, run by the brother of Hillary Clinton presidential campaign chairman John Podesta, reported in its filing that it was paid more than $1.2 million for its efforts. It cited unspecified “information brought to light in recent months” and conversations with Justice Department employees as the reason for its decision.
Mercury LLC told the AP just hours later that it also intends to file with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agent Registration Act.
In an August interview, Mercury partner Vin Weber told the AP that his firm had never taken guidance from or coordinated with Manafort or Gates about the work. Emails obtained by the AP contradicted that and showed that Gates directly oversaw and guided the lobbying work Mercury conducted.
Asked why Mercury did not consider registering with the Justice Department earlier, Mercury partner Michael McKeon declined to say what had changed.
“I’m not going to get into that,” he told the AP. “We relied on our counsel.”
The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires people working on behalf of foreign political leaders to disclose their efforts to the Justice Department. Willfully failing to register is a felony, though the department rarely files criminal charges in such cases. It routinely works with lobbying firms to help them get back in compliance by registering and disclosing their work.
The Podesta Group and Mercury had previously disclosed their lobbying work to Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, but neither firm had registered with the Justice Department. A foreign agent registration requires lobbying firms to disclose more details about their work than is required under the congressional registration, including the details of the lobbying contract, individual contacts with American officials and any attempts to influence U.S. public opinion.
In a statement to the AP, Kimberley Fritts, CEO of the Podesta Group, said that the Justice Department’s Foreign Agent Registration unit worked with the firm to make sure it was complying with federal law.
“We have, and will continue to have, no hesitation doing so to underscore our commitment to transparency,” Fritts said.
Fritts said that the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine had certified to the Podesta Group that it was not a vehicle of a foreign government or political party, which is why the lobbying firm only previously registered with Congress. Fritts did not say what information had been brought to light to change that determination.
The Podesta Group has previously acknowledged to AP that Manafort’s firm, DMP International, had provided guidance about the lobbying effort. It said officials there did not understand that Manafort and Gates were simultaneously being paid by the Party of Regions.
As the AP reported in August, the lobbying effort included not only traditional outreach to politicians in Washington but attempts to influence American public opinion and gather political intelligence on competing lobbying efforts in the U.S. The details of the lobbying effort were detailed in emails obtained by the AP last year.
The new paperwork identified Obama administration officials, legislators, reporters and editorial writers whose offices the lobbyists contacted. They included contacts with congressional leaders including emails and calls to staffers for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., both strong supporters at the time of sanctions against Yanukovych’s government.
By October 2013, as relations deteriorated between the Obama administration and Yanukovych, the lobbying effort appeared to intensify. Three times that month, for example, Podesta lobbyists contacted staffers for Rep. Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., who had sponsored sanctions legislation.
One of them was Dan Harsha, now associate director of communications at Harvard University’s Ash Center for Democratic Governance and Innovation. Harsha said he did not recall specific lobbying conversations but said congressional staffers were aware that the European Center was a pro-Yanukovych entity.
“How many obscure European think tanks were able to hire sophisticated A-list lobbyists?” he said. “It was widely assumed the think tank was a conduit for Yanukovych and it was treated as such on the Hill.”
The European Centre did not immediately respond to phone messages and emails from the AP.
Associated Press writer Stephen Braun contributed to this report.