Justice Department faces setbacks in illegal influence fight

By Eric Tucker
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) - The outcome of three recent investigations shows the difficulty of prosecuting allegations of illegal foreign influence, a Justice Department official said Wednesday.

But Assistant Attorney General John Demers, the department's top national security official, said the government would not back down from its efforts to police covert influence campaigns aimed at shaping public opinion.

At issue is the Foreign Agents Registration Act, a 1938 law requiring lobbyists working in the U.S. on behalf of a foreign government or entity to register with the Justice Department in the name of transparency. The law received particular attention during former special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation into Russian election interference, when prosecutors used it against multiple Trump campaign aides and against Russians accused of a hidden social media campaign to influence voter opinion.

"The crux here is understanding FARA as a way of combating covert foreign influence," Demers said. "The way we do that is requiring people to register so we know when they're talking on behalf of a foreign power. It's an American voice, but they're foreign words. If people understand that, then they understand the importance of the registration requirement."

But he acknowledged the challenges as he spoke to reporters Wednesday.

It was a day after a judge threw out foreign lobbying convictions against a onetime business partner of former Trump administration national security adviser Michael Flynn. Demers said the Justice Department was still evaluating its next step.

That came after prosecutors closed an investigation into lobbyists Tony Podesta and Vin Weber without charges.

In another recent case, a jury acquitted prominent Washington lawyer Greg Craig of lying to the Justice Department about his work for Ukraine. Demers said he disagreed with the verdict.

"No one ever said that combating foreign influence was going to be easy but we are still committed to doing it," he said.

He also pointed to other strides he said the department had made, including prosecutions in 2018 against more than 20 people and entities - more than were charged in the last 50 years.

The department also said it's on track to double the number of new registrants and foreign principals registering annually as of 2016.

A specialized FARA unit is now led by Brandon Van Grack, a prosecutor on Mueller's team, and the department has created a new online system for filing, storing and searching registrations.

Published: Fri, Sep 27, 2019