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How Robert Mueller Changed Washington

Since the special counsel rode into town, people in D.C. are doing an awful lot of things "out of an abundance of caution."

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

Even before special counsel Robert Mueller hands in the findings of his investigation, his inquiry has already left its mark on the nation’s capital.

Washington is a different town today than it was when Mueller was appointed nearly two years ago to investigate whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia. Long-ignored laws are being made great again—and bad behavior long accepted and tolerated in the D.C. swamp is sending people to prison.

Take one of Washington’s more enduring traditions: lying to Congress. Nobody took this crime very seriously until Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer, pleaded guilty to charges of lying to the Senate about his efforts to erect a Trump Tower in Moscow during the 2016 campaign. More recently, Roger Stone, Trump’s longtime political adviser, was indicted on charges of lying to the House Intelligence Committee about his connections to WikiLeaks. Before that, only six people had been successfully prosecuted for perjury or related crimes before Congress in the previous 60 years, a 2007 law review article found. (Not counted in that total are people like Elliott Abrams, President Trump’s special envoy to Venezuela, who received a pardon after pleading guilty in 1991 to misdemeanor counts of withholding information from Congress during the Iran-Contra hearings.)

It used to be that people could lie with impunity. Baltimore Orioles first baseman Rafael Palmeiro tested positive for steroids in 2005, just six weeks after telling a House committee under oath “I have never used steroids. Period.” No perjury charges were filed. (The committee “couldn’t find any evidence of steroid use prior to his testimony,” the chairman said.) But that was then. Today, telling lies to Congress could be the crime that could lead to Trump’s impeachment. That hinges on if—and it’s a big if—Cohen confirms reporting by BuzzFeed that the president directed him to lie to Congress about Trump Tower Moscow. Cohen is testifying before Congress again this week, including a public hearing before the House Oversight Committee on Wednesday.

Thanks to Mueller’s inquiry, D.C. is also confronting big changes to one of its sleaziest business models: lobbying for foreign governments. The indictment of Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, on charges of acting as an unregistered agent of Ukraine—a crime that’s almost as frequently neglected in federal law enforcement circles as lying to Congress—sent K Street lobbyists scurrying to bring themselves into belated compliance with the law requiring agents of foreign governments to register with the Justice Department. Filings nearly tripled from 550 in 2016 to an estimated 1,302 today. This burst of transparency also revealed that foreign governments paid their U.S. agents nearly $850 million since 2017, according to the Open Secrets’ Foreign Lobby Watch.

Mueller has helped reinvigorate the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), the 1938 law that seeks to inform the U.S. government and the American public of sources of foreign propaganda and influence. Between 1966 and 2015, only seven criminal cases were prosecuted under FARA, according to a report by the Department of Justice’s inspector general. Just like the case of lying to Congress, the consequences of lax enforcement were predictable: The law was ignored. This normalization of foreign agent work has particular salience for both Mueller’s probe and the republic at large, since by most working definitions, a spy is an unregistered foreign agent.

Manafort’s attorneys argued Tuesday that Mueller is treating their client like a mob boss for the “esoteric” crime of failing to file a form, but it’s no coincidence that Manafort’s influence and wealth grew as FARA declined. The number of registered foreign agents peaked in the 1980s, when Manafort started his lobbying career. A little-noticed exhibit released by prosecutors this past weekend revealed that Manafort was already breaking the rules as early as 1986. That was when the Justice Department began investigating Manafort for FARA violations while he was working as a registered agent of Saudi Arabia and serving simultaneously as director of a federal agency, the Overseas Private Investment Corporation. At the time, Manafort was pushing a massive Saudi arms sale.

The 1990s were good years for Manafort. His lucrative work for brutal dictators earned his firm a prominent spot in what the Center for Public Integrity called “The Torturer’s Lobby.” And this was when the FARA law withered into virtual irrelevance. The number of registered foreign agents dropped sharply in 1993, due in no small measure to the imposition of filing fees, according to the report from the Justice Department’s inspector general. (The fee today is $305.) The work never stopped, of course; if anything, it grew. The only thing that stopped was the legally required disclosures. Prosecutors and FBI agents told the DOJ inspector general that the desire for secrecy came principally at the behest of the on-the-make lobbyist “who is conscious of the need to preserve credibility by concealing the support of the foreign principal.” Only in Washington’s through-the-looking-glass world could lying and breaking the law make you seem more credible.

Manafort’s work in Ukraine from 2006 to 2015 showed how deep the rot had spread. His covert $11 million influence campaign on behalf of Ukraine’s former President Viktor Yanukovych, a pro-Russian strongman, involved such D.C. notables as Tony Podesta, whose brother John ran Hillary Clinton’s campaign; Vin Weber, a former Republican congressman from Minnesota; and Gregory B. Craig, a White House counsel under President Obama who resigned from his partnership at the powerhouse law firm Skadden Arps. All are now reportedly the subject of criminal referrals from Mueller’s team. The first witness called at Manafort’s trial was Tad Devine, who worked for Manafort in Ukraine before he was chief strategist for Bernie Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign.

Even though Mueller has given FARA some bite, its jaws still don’t open wide enough. Take the case of former Democratic Senator Joe Lieberman of Connecticut. These days, Lieberman is preparing a report for ZTE, a Chinese maker of smartphones that the U.S. intelligence community believes poses a threat to national security. Even though ZTE’s largest shareholder is a state-owned enterprise, Lieberman avoided registering as a foreign agent. Why? Because of a loophole in the FARA law, which doesn’t apply to foreign companies. Lieberman registered instead as a run-of-the-mill lobbyist late last year “out of an abundance of caution.” 

That’s a phrase you hear a lot since Mueller rode into town. People in D.C. seem to be doing an awful lot of things out of an abundance of caution. Shortly after Mueller’s appointment, CNN reported that White House lawyers started researching impeachment “out of an abundance of caution.” Mercury Public Affairs, a lobbying firm caught up in Manafort’s secret effort in Ukraine, belatedly registered as a foreign agent for a Turkish business group linked to Trump’s short-lived national security adviser, Michael Flynn “out of an abundance of caution.” An abundance of caution likewise prompted Jared Kushner to disclose on his security clearance forms that he had attended a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower with a woman described as a “Russian government lawyer” bringing dirt on Hillary Clinton. 

For Trump, this is all terribly unfair, as he reminds us daily. His defenders like Alan Dershowitz and Lindsey Graham hem and haw, complaining that Mueller is prosecuting “mere process crimes” or “criminalizing politics.” (The question left hanging in the air here, but never posed by the eager cable personalities lavishing screen time on these quisling Trump apologists, is whether these fine distinctions make paying a porn star $130,000 to hush up an affair with Trump part of the process, or merely “politics.”) The truth is, Washington is perfectly happy churning out laws by the truckload, but has problems following its own rules. Regardless of who’s in power, the rules don’t apply to those who wield it—ç’est pour les autres.

Mueller’s investigation has shown that there’s a simple way to clean up Washington: Apply Washington’s rules to itself and punish the lawbreakers. Do that, and those who thrived in the darkness—the entourage of fixers, cheats, dirty tricksters, influence peddlers, grifters, and liars who’ve surrounded Trump for years—will suddenly find themselves blinking in the sunlight.