WASHINGTON — Eighty years ago, Congress became so alarmed by the rise of pro-Nazi propaganda in the United States that it passed the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), a law intended to shine a light on the activities and money spent by foreign countries and their representatives to lobby the U.S. government and spread their messages on American soil.
For large stretches of its existence, FARA has been an afterthought — a “stop sign in the desert” — as one foreign lobbyist put it. According to a 2016 Justice Department inspector general’s report, there were only seven FARA-related prosecutions between 1966 and 2015.
Since President Trump took office, though, this little-known foreign influence law has seen a resurgence in enforcement. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has indicted multiple former Trump aides for not disclosing foreign lobbying work and violating FARA. Thanks in part to Mueller, there have been five criminal prosecutions under FARA brought in the last 18 months — almost as many there were in the last 40 years.
Now, the Justice Department is planning a major FARA crackdown — with a former member of Mueller’s team leading the charge. The New York Times reported last week that John Demers, the head of the DOJ’s national security division, said at a recent conference that the department was moving “from treating FARA as an administrative obligation and regulatory obligation to one that is increasingly an enforcement priority.”
“The Attorney General’s announcement confirms what FARA lawyers have been counseling for some time: that FARA would remain a priority long after the Special Counsel is finished with his work, and that DOJ means business,” Joshua Rosenstein, a Washington, D.C., lawyer at the firm Sandler Reiff who represents FARA agents, tells Rolling Stone. “This should serve as a very serious warning to those who flout FARA’s requirements that the department is going to be far more aggressive than it’s been in recent memory.”
According to CNN, Demers later told reporters that the DOJ was considering whether to ask Congress for subpoena power to request documents as part of FARA investigations. (Right now, the department requests information from individuals and hopes those individuals cooperate.)
Demers added that Brandon Van Grack, a veteran DOJ lawyer with deep national security and counterintelligence experience, would be overseeing the agency’s FARA overhaul in a newly created position within the department’s national security division.
Van Grack worked on Mueller’s team for roughly a year, handling two high-profile cases that focused on Michael Flynn, the president’s former national security adviser, and Manafort. He was part of the legal team that convinced a northern Virginia jury last August to convict Manafort on eight counts of bank and tax fraud. He also worked on Flynn and Manafort’s plea deals reached in federal court in Washington, D.C.
David Laufman, the former chief of the counterintelligence and export control section in the department’s national security division that includes oversight of FARA, says that DOJ’s appointment of Van Grack “underscores that it’s a new era in FARA enforcement.” Laufman adds that individuals and companies operating under FARA should expect the recent surge in FARA enforcement to “not only to continue, but to intensify.”
Demers, the DOJ national-security division chief, said in his speech at a white-collar crime conference that the decision to ratchet up enforcement of foreign-influence laws came in the wake of a $4.6-million settlement between the DOJ and a major law firm, Skadden Arps, that was accused of misleading the government about FARA work for the government of Ukraine. CNN has reported that the unnamed Skadden Arps partner at the heart of that case was Gregory Craig, a former White House counsel under President Obama. Craig left Skadden Arps last year.