Long considered the architect of modern lobbying, Paul Manafort may further redefine the practice as his legal team looks to ensnare international bigwigs, while sowing confusion over the industry’s laws.
Facing imprisonment for, among other charges, failing to register as a foreign agent for lobbying efforts in Ukraine throughout the 2000s, Manafort’s defense is likely to involve shifting blame to lobbyists Tony Podesta and Vin Weber, according to a source close with the defendant.
Manafort hired Podesta and Weber’s lobbying firms—the Podesta Group and Mercury Public Affairs—in 2012, but they did not register as foreign agents until 2017. This failure to disclose dealings with the Ukrainian government has received attention by the Justice Department. CNN reported on Wednesday that Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s office referred “a collection of cases” regarding Podesta and Weber to the Southern District of New York.
“[Manafort’s lawyers] are trying to put an innocent spin on what happened. And argue that, yes, mistakes may have been made, but they certainly don’t raise to a criminal conduct,” federal litigator Andrew Stoltmann told Observer. “Foreign lobbying efforts, in terms of what can or can’t be done, is a little murky and the murkier the defendant can make it, the more likely it is he won’t be convicted.”
Enacted in 1938, the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) requires lobbyists to disclose their “relationship with the foreign principal, as well as activities, receipts and disbursements in support of those activities.” An audit led by the Justice Department in 2016, however, found “widespread delinquencies” in compliance with the laws.
“Washington insiders (which I haven’t been one of for 20 years) have skirted the FARA laws for years—violations have rarely been prosecuted,” Manafort’s former lobbying partner Roger Stone told Observer via email. “The punishment has been a fine and those have been modest. Manafort is being held to a different standard.”
The Manafort trial is, in many ways, a referendum on the extent foreign lobbying has seeped into the political process: Manafort served as President Trump’s campaign manager, while Tony Podesta is brother to John Podesta (chairman to Hillary Clinton’s campaign). Testifying at court on Tuesday over his involvement with the former Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych was Tad Devine—chief strategist for Bernie Sanders’ presidential run who proposed a “day rate” of $10,000 for lobbying work.
The crux of Manafort’s defense strategy has so far involved discrediting the prosecution’s main witness, Rick Gates—Manafort’s former deputy now cooperating with the Justice Department.
“Rick Gates had his hands in the cookie jar, and he didn’t want his boss to find out,” Manafort’s lawyer Thomas Zehnle said on Tuesday, accusing the witness of being “willing to say anything to save himself.”
“[Manafort’s defense strategy is] to present a classic credibility contest between the two individuals,” explained Stoltmann. “Clearly Manafort’s team is confident they can do that because of the likely amount of negative information they have on Gates. They will attempt to verbally crucify him on cross-examination and if they can poke enough holes in his story, or on his credibility, they will win the trial.”