The FBI and federal prosecutors have wielded the Foreign Agents Registration Act as a prime weapon against Donald Trump allies, unleashing it again Wednesday to justify raiding the apartment and law office of his former attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani.
Prosecutors rarely brandished charges of failing to register under FARA, as the law is known, until the FBI launched the Trump-Russia election investigation in 2016. When special counsel Robert Mueller and his team of mostly Democratic-aligned prosecutors took over the probe in May 2017, FARA legal threats became common. The team made sure the Justice Department included FARA in the official scope of its investigation into the Trump campaign.
Robert J. Costello, Mr. Giuliani’s attorney, said in a statement that the warrant for Wednesday’s search contains “one indication of an alleged incident” of failing to register — in other words, FARA. He said the Biden administration’s warrant violates attorney-client privacy. President Biden said Thursday that he had no knowledge of the raid beforehand.
The FARA claim apparently stems from Mr. Giuliani’s 2019-2020 investigation of Vice President Biden’s actions in Ukraine. Mr. Giuliani, then President Trump’s attorney, developed a number of Ukrainian sources, including a member of parliament whom the Trump administration later deemed a Russian agent of disinformation.
Mr. Costello said the FBI refused to accept the infamous Hunter Biden hard drive, which details his foreign money sources including some payments while his father was vice president. A Republican Senate report exposed millions of dollars in payments to Hunter Biden from oligarchs in Moscow and Ukraine and from a Chinese billionaire later accused of fraud.
There is a feeling among conservatives that the FBI targets Republicans and not Democrats, as expressed by Rep. Devin Nunes of California at an April 15 hearing of intelligence chiefs, including FBI Director Christopher A. Wray.
“As for the leaders of the intelligence community, I hope you plan on spending a reasonable amount of time in upcoming years on activities other than investigating conservatives and spying on Republican presidential campaigns,” Mr. Nunes said.
“Democrat prosecutors are waging political warfare for the benefit of the Democratic Party,” tweeted Fox News commentator Jesse Watters.
Enacted during the Great Depression, FARA is designed to expose covert foreign influence in U.S. policymaking. It requires people working on behalf of foreign governments or principals — political parties, corporations or nongovernmental organizations — to register. They must detail their agreements to the Justice Department and disclose the money they make.
The FBI’s Crossfire Hurricane investigation of the Trump campaign started solely as a hunt for FARA violations.
Republicans say Mr. Mueller and the FBI used FARA as a gateway law to enable them to open a case on a Trump associate to see whether it would lead to a Trump-Russia conspiracy. Mr. Mueller concluded in March 2019 that he did not establish such a conspiracy.
George Papadopoulos, a Trump campaign volunteer, describes in his book, “Deep State Target,” how he came to plead guilty to lying to the FBI. His statements were about an April 2016 meeting he had with a somewhat mysterious professor, Joseph Mifsud, who told him that Moscow owned emails of Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton.
As he was contemplating a plea, Mr. Mueller’s team ratcheted up the pressure by threatening to prosecute him under FARA for his dealings with Israel, Mr. Papadopoulos writes.
“This is as chilling as it is false,” he writes. “I was never an Israeli agent. Never. But FARA charges are a whole other life-ruining ballgame.
“Then there is an even more frightening scenario,” he continues. “I get word that if I don’t okay this plea agreement, the Special Counsel will file much harsher charges. All their questions about my contacts with Israel appear designed to provide them with ammunition for another, far more outrageous charge that I was operating as an unregistered foreign agent for Israel, and they will hit me with FARA charges.”
He adds: “I was faced with a choice: accept the charges that I lied or face FARA charges. I made a deal. A deal forced on me. Although FARA has been widely ignored for years in Washington, the Special Counsel’s Office has dusted the statute off as a prime weapon to get members of the Trump circle to talk.”
Rod Rosenstein, then acting attorney general, included the Israel allegation in his August 2017 scope memo to Mr. Mueller. Mr. Rosenstein later testified that Mr. Mueller’s staff dictated the memo’s components.
FARA coursed through just about every aspect of Mr. Mueller’s prosecution of Michael Flynn, a retired Army lieutenant general who was briefly Mr. Trump’s national security adviser.
Mr. Flynn was pressed by the Justice Department’s David Laufman during the investigation to register his firm, Flynn Intel Group, under FARA for the work it did for the government of Turkey, according to a court filing. Mr. Mueller’s team then turned around and accused Mr. Flynn of lying in the filing.
Mr. Flynn’s attorney, Sidney Powell, argued in court motions that his previous law firm advised him that he was not required to file. She also disputed that his subsequent filing contained lies.
Mr. Laufman, who oversaw Justice’s FARA division as counterintelligence chief, was a driving force to bring more FARA violation cases.
As the Mueller probe ended in February 2019, he wrote in a paper that there had been nearly as many FARA prosecutions (five) in the most recent 18 months (the beginning of the Trump term) than in the previous 40 years.
In a deal reached in December 2017, Mr. Flynn pleaded guilty to lying to FBI agent Peter Strzok and a second agent about his phone call with the Russian ambassador during the presidential transition.
Mr. Mueller’s team was so enamored about citing FARA that it accused Mr. Flynn of lying in the plea statement in court, even though he was not pleading guilty to that charge.
The FARA angle was included in Mr. Rosenstein’s August 2017 scope memo.
Months later, when Attorney General William Barr moved to dismiss the Flynn perjury conviction, his motion specifically said Mr. Flynn’s contact with the Russian ambassador had nothing to do with a FARA violation. The motion referred to the FBI’s internal January 2017 memo closing the Flynn case. It was revived because of his FBI interview on Jan. 24.
The closing memo, the Justice Department said, “made clear that the FBI had found no basis to ‘predicate further investigative efforts’ into whether Mr. Flynn was being directed and controlled by a foreign power (Russia) in a manner that threatened U.S. national security or violated FARA or its related statutes.”
Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager, was never charged with colluding with Russia, but he did face a series of FARA counts for his work with Ukraine. He was convicted of bank and tax fraud by a federal jury in Alexandria, Virginia, and then pleaded guilty to witness tampering and conspiracy to defraud the U.S. in federal court in the District of Columbia.
His business partner, Rick Gates, was also FARA-targeted but ended up pleading guilty to two other crimes.
Carter Page, a Trump volunteer and one of the original four Crossfire Hurricane targets, also was investigated under FARA. He was subjected to a year’s worth of surveillance wiretaps. The warrants’ key piece of evidence was the Democratic Party-financed dossier sourced to the Kremlin. He was cleared of Russian collusion.
“They were looking for FARA violations,” Mr. Phares said. “They couldn’t find anything about Russia, so they started asking me about Egypt. It’s laughable.”
Rudolph W. Giuliani, a former U.S. attorney for Manhattan and former New York mayor, now joins the club of Trump allies facing FARA accusations.
“The search warrants involve only one indication of an alleged incident of failure to register as a foreign agent,” Mr. Costello, Mr. Guiliani’s attorney, said in a written statement. “Mayor Giuliani has not only denied this allegation, but offered twice in the past two years through his attorney Bob Costello to demonstrate that it is entirely untrue. Twice the offer was rejected by the [Southern District of New York] by stating that while they were willing to listen to anything Mr. Costello had to say, they would not tell Mr. Giuliani or Mr. Costello, the subject matter they wanted him to address.”
He added: “It is also a clear example of a corrupt double-standard. One for high-level Democrats whose blatant crimes are ignored, such as Hilary Clinton, Hunter Biden, Joe Biden, and Republicans who are prominent supporters and defenders of President Trump who are subjected to false charges and procedures used in the past, if at all, in cases involving terrorists and organized criminals.”
“Of course, I’m sure you will not be surprised that the FBI left behind the only electronics that contain evidence of crimes, the Hunter Biden hard drives. Mayor Giuliani offered them on several occasions, but the agents steadfastly declined,” Mr. Costello said.
The shop owner also provided the hard drive to Mr. Giuliani, who passed it to the New York Post, which authenticated the emails and broke the story in October.
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