“This is a very dangerous trend,” said Richard Painter, a former White House ethics lawyer during the George W. Bush administration, who likened American elections to a blowout college party — and American laws to the cavalier bouncers a boisterous fraternity might employ.
“We have a great big money party and foreigners are going to want to participate,” Painter continued. “It’s like having a big party on a college campus but saying students under 21 can’t go.”
Democrats blame Trump’s behavior — like his private ask of Ukraine and public goading of China to investigate Joe Biden’s family — for why more foreigners feel inclined to be involved in elections, while Republicans continued to defend the president. But people in both parties aisle are troubled by the uptick in foreigners trying to illegally spend their way into American politics.
“This is something that I believe is an increasing issue,” said one Republican election lawyer, who requested anonymity to speak frankly about issues relating to his work. “When we’re dealing with foreign money, pretty much everyone agrees that it’s not allowed. You’re dealing with nefarious actors who are intentionally circumventing the law.”
Probes examining Trump’s fundraising date back to his 2016 campaign, a time when those raising money for the president were hungry for donors to help propel his insurgent bid for office.
Federal prosecutors have been probing whether a pro-Trump super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, and the fund that raised money for Trump’s inauguration accepted donations from American shell contributors serving as conduits for foreign money — called “straw donors” — while Trump associate Tom Barrack was fundraising for the groups. The donations may have come from countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, according to a report in The New York Times.
According to the indictment released Thursday, Parnas and Fruman allegedly created another straw donor, a fake company called Global Energy Producers LLC, that they used to donate to pro-Trump super PAC America First Action and another committee.
The donations helped Parnas and Fruman “gain access to exclusive political events and gain influence with other politicians,” while they worked to advance their own business goals and that of at least one Ukranian government official they were working on behalf of.
Parnas and Fruman partnered with a powerful Washington ally, Giuliani, with whom they worked on efforts including a push to have the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine removed from her post. The indictment alleges Parnas and Fruman successfully agitated for Marie Yovanovitch’s removal at the behest of a Ukranian official they were working with.
Kelly Sadler, a spokeswoman for America First Action, said on Thursday that the super PAC had put the funds into a “segregated bank account” when a complaint was filed with the Federal Election Commission in July 2018 about the donation.
“We take our legal obligations seriously and scrupulously comply with the law and any suggestion otherwise is false,” Sadler said.
The FBI has also opened an investigation into Yang, who ran a business that promoted access to Trump and his family to Chinese executives, often via Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida. Yang and foreign guests have attended political events for Trump, raising questions about how the foreigners paid for tickets and gained access to the events, which are often fundraisers.
Illegal lobbying on behalf of former governments has also ensnared former Trump officials. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort and an associate, Rick Gates, were indicted after extensive foreign lobbying work and accused of filing false statements in their claims about lobbying for foreign countries, including a pro-Russian party in Ukraine. The indictment claimed Manafort laundered more than $18 million. Former national security advisor Michael Flynn was also convicted of secretly lobbying on behalf of the Turkish government, after Flynn cooperated with prosecutors in the case.
And Broidy, a once-shunned GOP fundraiser who made a comeback as a top backer of Trump’s campaign and inauguration, helped promote the interests of Middle Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia to top West Wing officials after Trump became president, but later came under federal investigation for failing to properly register for his work.
Though derided by critics, legal lobbying on behalf of foreign governments and companies has long been a practice in Washington, so long as it’s properly registered and documented. And there have been moments in the past when foreign governments tried to sway U.S. elections, most notably a 1996 scheme in which China donated funds to Bill Clinton’s reelection campaign. Later, foreign donations to the Clinton Foundation drew criticism, despite their legality, from people who said the money would influence Hillary Clinton’s decisions were she to become president.
But the recent raft of foreign governments trying to illegally influence the U.S. is a “huge departure” from in the past, said Ann Ravel, former chairman of the Federal Election Commission.
“The reason why we don’t want foreign money in our campaigns is because it takes away from our autonomy as a country. When foreigners feel that with impunity they can give money and not be in any way subject to the laws, then obviously the money is being given for the purpose of influencing policy,” said Ravel. “That’s why most people give campaign contributions anyway.”