WASHINGTON – Criminal prosecutions are rare for people who fail to register as foreign agents, according to a top Justice Department official who testified Wednesday about an obscure law receiving new attention amid investigations into contacts between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Adam Hickey, a deputy assistant attorney general, told Senate lawmakers that the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) — a law aimed at ensuring transparency about lobbying efforts done in the U.S. at the direction of foreign governments or principals — contains multiple exemptions for registration and requires proof that someone intended to break the law by failing to disclose their work.
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He said lawyers in a specialized Justice Department unit often prod someone to voluntarily register instead of seeking to charge them.
“The high burden of proving willfulness, difficulties in proving direction or control by a foreign principal and exemptions available under the statute make criminal prosecution for FARA violations challenging,” Hickey said.
Nonetheless, he said, the Justice Department will not refuse to bring a case if there is evidence intentional wrongdoing and has brought four criminal prosecutions under the statute since 2007, all of which he said have resulted in convictions.
The law has been broadly discussed in the last year because of Justice Department investigations into Trump campaign associates and because of a watchdog report last year that said the statute had been weakly enforced for decades. That report, from the Justice Department’s inspector general, found that the number of FARA registrations had declined in the last two decades and that prosecutions and civil enforcement actions were rare. The report made several recommendations for improvement.
Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort belatedly registered in June with the Justice Department for political consulting work he did for a Ukrainian political party before joining the Republican candidate’s presidential bid. He acknowledged that he coached party members on how to interact with U.S. government officials.
Besides Manafort, Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, and his consulting firm registered in the weeks after his ouster from the administration for lobbying work that could have benefited the Turkish government.
Manafort had been invited to testify at Wednesday’s hearing but he did not appear. Instead, he agreed Tuesday night to turn over documents and to continue negotiating about setting up an interview with the panel.
7 times members of Trump’s team dodged questions on the Russia investigation pic.twitter.com/4Zi2boStJQ
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The committee also removed Donald Trump Jr. from the list of witnesses scheduled for Wednesday’s public hearing.
The panel has sought to talk with Manafort about a June 2016 Trump Tower meeting in New York with Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya, among other issues including his foreign political work on behalf of Ukrainian interests.
On Tuesday Manafort met with Senate Intelligence Committee staff, providing his recollection of the Veselnitskaya meeting and agreeing to turn over contemporaneous notes of the gathering last year, according to people familiar with the closed-door interview. Manafort “answered their questions fully,” said his spokesman, Jason Maloni.
Trump’s son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner was also on Capitol Hill Tuesday for a second day of private meetings, this time for a conversation with lawmakers on the House Intelligence Committee.
Both Manafort and Kushner have been cooperating with the committees which, along with Special Counsel Robert Mueller, are probing Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and possible collusion with Trump associates.
The two men have faced particular scrutiny about attending the Trump Tower meeting because it was flatly described in emails to Donald Trump Jr. as being part of a Russian government effort to aid Trump’s presidential campaign.
Manafort’s discussion with committee staff was limited to his recollection of the June 2016 meeting, according to two people familiar with the interview. Both demanded anonymity to discuss details because the interview occurred behind closed doors. Manafort had previously disclosed the meeting in documents he turned over to the committee. He has now provided the committee with notes he took at the time, one of the people said.
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The other person said Manafort has also said he will participate in additional interviews with the Senate Intelligence Committee staff on other topics if necessary. Those meetings haven’t yet been scheduled.
Kushner spent about three hours behind closed doors Tuesday with the House intelligence panel. Republican Rep. Mike Conaway of Texas, who is leading the committee’s Russia probe, said he found Kushner to be “straightforward, forthcoming, wanted to answer every question we had.” He said Kushner was willing to follow up with the committee if it has additional questions.
The committee’s top Democrat, Rep. Adam Schiff of California, said the questions touched on “a range of issues the committee had been concerned about.”
“We appreciate his voluntary willingness to come and testify today,” Schiff added.