Ukrainian Oligarchs And The Influence Of Foreign Money On American Politics

Nov 21, 2019
Originally published on November 22, 2019 11:01 am
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. The impeachment inquiry is investigating the irregular channel through which members of the Trump administration and the president's personal lawyer allegedly tried to make U.S. military assistance to Ukraine conditional on Ukraine investigating Trump's possible campaign opponent, Joe Biden. My guest has been examining how the influence also worked in the opposite direction, how oligarchs from Ukraine have tried to influence American policy through people who have been in the Trump administration or associated with Trump. That includes several people who have been convicted or are being investigated for working as unregistered foreign lobbyists.

Ben Freeman is the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. He's also the author of the 2012 book "The Foreign Policy Auction." Ben Freeman, welcome to FRESH AIR. Let's start with a list, if you can provide one, of members or at least some of the members of the Trump administration either serving time or being investigated for failing to register as a foreign lobbyist.

BEN FREEMAN: Thank you for having me. How much time do we have to answer this question?

GROSS: (Laughter).

FREEMAN: (Laughter) There's sort of a short list of folks there. And I think probably the most recognizable is Paul Manafort, but we have other folks like Michael Flynn and Carter Page too. And it would appear that Roger Stone might eventually be subject to FARA violations as well, though he hasn't yet. But there's rather a long list of Trump associates that have already been indicted for FARA violations.

GROSS: We have been hearing about Trump administration pressure on Ukraine to investigate the Bidens in order to receive the promised military aid to Ukraine, but influence went the other way too. And I'd like to talk with you about that, how Ukraine tried to influence U.S. policy. In the Trump administration, Giuliani is currently under investigation, and I believe one of the things he's being investigated for is being an unregistered lobbyist for Ukraine. What is he suspected of having done as an unregistered lobbyist?

FREEMAN: Quite a bit, actually. When we look at Giuliani's behavior overseas, he ostensibly, according to his own accounting, was working exclusively for the president of the United States. But what we've already learned, and I think we're going to learn a lot more, is that he was actually being paid by some folks overseas. We learned from the indictment of two of his associates, Lev Parnas and Fruman, that he was actually paid at least a half a million dollars from work that he did connected with them. And it appears based on that indictment that that money came from a Ukrainian oligarch.

And what exactly Giuliani was doing for that money is still very much an open question, but it at least appears that Giuliani was doing work to influence U.S. public opinion on behalf of some of these Ukrainian and other foreign interests too to shape U.S. policy in the U.S. If that's true, then it would require Rudy Giuliani to register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

GROSS: Do you have any idea what a Ukrainian oligarch, or plural Ukrainian oligarchs, might have wanted from the U.S.?

FREEMAN: There are actually many issues between the U.S. and Ukraine, but one of the principal issues is the issue of corruption in Ukraine. And corruption, for a variety of reasons, is endemic in Ukraine. Bribes are rampant. It's tough to get a straight business deal done in Ukraine. And there are very extensive ties between the Ukrainian government and the Russian government and Vladimir Putin.

And so a big issue for the U.S. is trying to stamp out that corruption and try and get Ukraine on a more democratic footing and a less corrupt footing. And so a lot of U.S. efforts there are to try and remove some of the corrupt officials and just to get Ukraine to institute policies that are going to improve governance in Ukraine.

As you can imagine, that doesn't go over so well for some of those officials who are corrupt, are some of the business folks and the oligarchs who are profiting from a very corrupt system there. And so some of these oligarchs are very incentivized to resist those anti-corruption efforts and to keep corrupt officials in place and to continue to profit from it.

GROSS: So oligarchs in Ukraine don't want Ukrainian corruption investigated?

FREEMAN: Yeah, that's exactly right. It's been a big issue for the U.S. As the U.S. tries to pull Ukraine out of the Russian orbit, a big part of those efforts from the U.S. is to clamp down on corruption in Ukraine, try and create more democratic processes, you know, a better, more transparent economic system in Ukraine. And so for these oligarchs, in many ways that's a threat to their livelihood. That's a threat to a system that they've been profiting from immensely.

And so you've been seeing a friction between oligarchs and the U.S. government efforts to fight that corruption. And a big part of those oligarchs' fight has been to recruit sympathetic folks in the U.S. or, in some cases, maybe not even sympathetic folks but to just recruit folks in the U.S. that can help to influence the U.S. government on their behalf.

GROSS: And would examples of that be Giuliani's associates Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman?

FREEMAN: Yeah, that's exactly right, Terry. A big part of what Parnas and Fruman and their other associates were doing was to try and garner influence on behalf of some of these Ukrainian interests. It included everything from them trying to get access to different politicians and sort of cozying themselves up to everybody...

GROSS: U.S. politicians.

FREEMAN: U.S. politicians, yeah, that's correct. And it was kind of a who's who of U.S. politicians too. It went all the way up the line to President Donald Trump. There are photos of Parnas and Fruman with the president himself. And a big part of what they did to get there was they made a series of - according to the indictment, they allegedly made a series of illegal campaign contributions to a bunch of different members of Congress. And that included illegal campaign contributions that were actually coming from a - one of these Ukrainian oligarchs.

GROSS: Did those contributions include money to a pro-Trump PAC?

FREEMAN: Yes, they did. There were contributions to a pro-Trump super PAC and a number of high-profile Republican officials too. And by and large, the scheme they hatched, it did - it worked. And they were able to get access to a number of these elected officials. They were able to pose with photo ops. They were able to get their message sort of through until the investigation came down, and all this work that they were doing was exposed. And as we know now, the investigation is still ongoing. And Giuliani himself is being investigated for his role in this and for possible violations of the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

GROSS: So can you connect the dots for us between Giuliani's role as an unregistered lobbyist for Ukraine trying to influence American policy in a way that favored oligarchs - connect that to his role having this irregular channel to Ukraine trying to make U.S. military aid to Ukraine conditional on the Ukrainian government investigating the Bidens?

FREEMAN: I think with Giuliani, we have kind of a classic case of playing both sides. And we know from Giuliani's own statements and from Trump that he was serving as the president's personal lawyer in that capacity. We know that he was working to get the Ukrainians - the Ukrainian government to conduct some investigations of the president's political rivals. And that's all sort of on the public record and well-known. Less well-known is how he was working in the other direction on behalf of some Ukrainian interests to get favorable outcomes here in the U.S.

The details of this are still coming out, and we don't know everything yet. But from the looks of it, he was being paid by Ukrainian interests - some of these oligarchs - to get favorable outcomes for here in the U.S. as well. So in a sense, that - he's serving as this sort of conduit between the U.S. and the Ukraine, and he's, in one way or another, benefiting from both sides.

GROSS: So we're talking about two sets of people in Ukraine - the oligarchs, who are connected to Russia and have a lot of business interests, and then the relatively new government in Ukraine, headed by Presidents Zelenskiy, who got elected on an anti-corruption platform.

FREEMAN: Yeah, that's absolutely correct. And Zelenskiy is really finding himself in, I think, a very unfortunate position in that he gets elected on this anti-corruption platform. And, you know, it's clear from the elections in Ukraine that the Ukrainian people are tired of all this corruption. They're tired of seeing their country's resources squandered, and so they elect somebody like Zelenskiy. And then he comes into office, and the sort of chief benefactor to the Ukrainian government is the United States, and through the United States is Donald Trump. And one of the first issues that he has to deal with is that this windfall of military assistance that the U.S. has been giving to the Ukraine every single year sort of without fail is suddenly in jeopardy.

And so from Zelenskiy's point of view, I think he rationally just says, I've got to figure out exactly what I need to do to make sure that that money keeps coming in. And so I think that a lot of the focus that people have been putting on Zelenskiy's comments about his conversation with Trump and whether it was a quid pro quo and all that. I think Zelenskiy is very much doing what he has to do to protect his country and doing what he thinks that he has to do to make sure that military assistance keeps coming to Ukraine.

GROSS: I don't know if this is outside of what you've been studying, but what are Giuliani's business interests in Ukraine?

FREEMAN: Really, Terry, I think that's kind of the million-dollar question. Actually, that's probably the multi-million-dollar question that I think a lot of investigators would like to know and I think are unraveling. We know already from the Parnas and Fruman indictment that, allegedly, part of that was a half-million-dollar payment to Giuliani for his work there. We also know that Giuliani has - his cybersecurity company has done some work in the country as well.

I think what we don't know the full scope of yet is who else in Ukraine was paying Giuliani for favorable work he might have been doing for them in the U.S. This is obviously a guy who has a direct line to the President of the United States, and so it would - I don't think it would stretch the imagination to think that more payments were coming to Giuliani from folks in Ukraine.

GROSS: Let me reintroduce you here. If you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Freeman, and he's the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Ben Freeman, and he investigates foreign influence on American politics. He's the director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy and author of the 2012 book "The Foreign Policy Auction."

So the Ukraine connections that we've been talking about and the unregistered lobbying that we've been talking about relate to the impeachment inquiry, the investigation underway now. Let's just kind of dial back a little bit and look at the Mueller investigation because Ukraine was a part of that, too. Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates had deep connections to Ukraine. Was Manafort an unregistered lobbyist for Ukraine?

FREEMAN: Yeah. Paul Manafort was convicted of being an unregistered foreign agent for the work that he did in Ukraine, and he was also convicted of other crimes as well. But a big part of the work he was doing in Ukraine, it very much was as a foreign agent for the former president there, Yanukovych.

GROSS: Who was a pro-Russia president.

FREEMAN: A pro-Russia president - yeah. That's exactly right. And I think it's fair to say that Yanukovych was very much part of the corrupt system in Ukraine that the Ukrainian people, I think, you know, had a big backlash against in this last election when they elected Zelenskiy. Yanukovych was very much out of the Russian model. He was friends with President Vladimir Putin and, I think, widely seen as a corrupt individual.

And a big part of Manafort's work on his behalf was basically trying to whitewash his image here in the U.S. and try to convince folks here in the U.S. that this wasn't a bad guy, this was somebody that we could count on - and try and, you know, really shine up what was otherwise a very corrupt president. And Manafort was being paid handsomely for this effort.

Speaking of millions of dollars, Manafort was literally being paid millions of dollars for this work. The interesting thing about it is the work itself that he did is not actually illegal. If he had registered and, you know, been on the up and up and said, you know, here's my contract that I'm doing; here's the work that I'm executing - and if he had reported all that under the Foreign Agents Registration Act and been transparent about it, there's actually nothing illegal about that, which I think is the most surprising thing to me about the Manafort situation - is that he didn't do that because Paul Manafort has been working for foreign powers and some of the worst of the worst of foreign dictators over the years. And he's been registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act previously, so I think he knows the statute very well. He knows when registration is required. He knows what's required of registrants. He just simply didn't do it this time, and to me, that's sort of the most shocking thing here.

GROSS: Do you have any sense of why Ukraine is connected to two different ends of the Trump administration? You know, you've got Manafort on the one hand, and then you've got Giuliani and this irregular channel on the other hand. And Giuliani is the president's personal lawyer but, you know, obviously very connected to the Trump administration.

FREEMAN: Yeah.

GROSS: So, you've got, you know, the Manafort end and the Giuliani end. I don't know if they were ever coordinated or not, but it seems to - the Ukraine connection seems to be coming from separate directions.

FREEMAN: Yeah. Yeah, I think that's exactly right. And I don't think we know yet whether there is a Giuliani-Manafort connection. I wouldn't be too surprised if we later learned that there was that connection. But really, from beginning to end of the Trump presidency and even before, really, we see this connection between people in Trump's orbit and Ukraine. And I think a big part of that goes even a level up beyond Ukraine.

The Trump administration really didn't have the foreign policy foundation that other presidencies have. The Trump campaign, it wasn't stocked with foreign policy experts, and really, the Trump orbit is not filled with a lot of foreign policy experts. And so the problem that presented for Trump was it became very hard for Trump to fill key positions in the foreign policy establishment, and it became hard for him, I think, to find legitimate sources of foreign policy advice.

And this kind of created a vacuum of information that, you know, sort of ne'er do wells or people seeking to profit from that vacuum could really fill. And I think within that, it created an opportunity and an environment for folks like Paul Manafort to come in and offer his foreign policy advice during the campaign. And then later, I think it afforded a huge opportunity for Giuliani and Giuliani's associates to come in and fill that vacuum and to say, we can provide the foreign policy advice that you might be lacking. And all the while, these people are profiting from that work immensely.

GROSS: How do you think the Citizens United decision, which opened the door for corporations to contribute unlimited money to campaigns, equating campaign contributions to free speech - how do you think the Citizens United decision has affected the ability of other countries to influence American elections?

FREEMAN: I think Citizens United - in many ways, it opened up a kind of Pandora's box of opportunities for foreign money and foreign influence to get into U.S. elections. One of the first examples that I'll say is with U.S. subsidiaries of foreign corporations. Now, before Citizens United, you already had the opportunity for U.S. citizens who were working for a foreign corporation - they could make campaign contributions all they wanted within the legal limits, of course. But post-Citizens United, that foreign subsidiary itself had the opportunity to use some of that subsidiary's own funds to make campaign contributions.

And where it gets tricky is that the subsidiary can make contributions, but the foreign corporations still can't because that's foreign money, right? But how do we really know that the money is coming from the subsidiary and not the foreign corporation itself? And I think if we're honest with ourselves, we really don't. Money is very fungible, and, you know, we can - businesses move money around all the time. So it's - I think it's - realistically, it's impossible to say and guarantee that money coming from the foreign corporation subsidiaries here is all U.S. money.

GROSS: My guest is Ben Freeman, director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. We'll talk more after a break, and we'll hear from Lisa Henson and Toby Froud, the executive producer and the design supervisor of the Netflix series "The Dark Crystal." It's a prequel to the 1982 film that was directed by Lisa's father, Jim Henson. The series, like the film, is entirely performed by puppets. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Ben Freeman about foreign influence in American politics. He directs the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy. He's also the author of the 2012 book "The Foreign Policy Auction." He's an expert on the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which requires lobbyists from foreign countries to register with the U.S. government. Failure to do so figured into cases against Trump's former campaign manager, Paul Manafort, and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

It's the Foreign Agent Registration Act that requires people who are lobbying on behalf of a foreign power to register with the U.S. government as a foreign lobbyist. What are some of the other things that the Foreign Agent Registration Act requires foreign lobbyists to do?

FREEMAN: FARA actually began as an anti-propaganda statute in 1938. And the reason FARA was initially enacted was because of Nazi propagandists in the U.S. And it's one of the few issues in our sort of hyperbolic rhetoric in politics that actually is Hitler's fault.

Hitler had sent all of these Nazi propagandists here to kind of create sympathy for Germany and to kind of rally pro-German sentiment in the U.S. And we, fortunately, took notice of it. And we passed this law that would require these propagandists to have to register and to sort of disclose what they were up to in their transparency efforts. And FARA today really upholds that same spirit.

GROSS: You said that the American political system is at a historical high point in its vulnerability to foreign influence because there are so many avenues for foreign money to have an impact on U.S. elections now. We know a lot now about social media and how foreign powers, including Russia, have manipulated our social media. But what are some of the other avenues for foreign influence on American politics?

FREEMAN: Unfortunately, the number of avenues available to foreign powers to influence U.S. democracy are quite immense. And I like to take the approach of looking inside out from Washington, D.C. Right here in Washington, D.C., there is a half-billion-dollar-a-year foreign influence industry, wherein a majority of countries in the world have paid lobbyists and PR firms on their payroll looking to push their interests in Congress and in the executive branch here and looking to shape the media narrative here extensively.

And another part of what happens here in D.C. is that a lot of foreign powers fund what we affectionately call think tanks in D.C. And these are nonprofit organizations that are staffed with subject-matter experts on, you know, anything from climate change to the defense budget to U.S. policy in the Middle East, for example. And a lot of the funding from these think tanks - it comes directly from foreign governments. And in many cases, it comes with strings attached.

And there are plenty of stories out there about think tanks not being able to report on certain issues that a foreign funder finds sensitive or, on the other hand, producing reports that are quite flattering to the foreign government that is funding them. Even beyond think tanks, the media outlets here often work directly with the agents of foreign governments in their work on crafting stories. And this can be sort of as inconsequential as a foreign agent helping to grant an interview with a country's ambassador to a preferred journalist.

Or it can go so far as, sometimes, foreign agents actually help to write stories that journalists are producing. Unfortunately for the public, the public doesn't usually know when a foreign agent has a hand in a story that's coming out from a seemingly unbiased media outlet. And so really, the public is left in the dark.

GROSS: Can you give an example of a foreign agent influencing or helping to write an article or to do a feature in a newspaper or broadcasting?

FREEMAN: Yeah, sure. A couple years ago, a man named Norm Coleman - he produced an op-ed in The Hill. And Norm Coleman might ring a bell to some listeners because he's a former senator - Norm Coleman...

GROSS: From Minnesota.

FREEMAN: ...From Minnesota, yes. And Norm Coleman's a senator. And so his tag line in the op-ed that he wrote in The Hill that was quite favorable to Saudi Arabia - it just mentioned that he's a former senator from Minnesota. What it failed to mention was that he was also a paid lobbyist working for - you guessed it - Saudi Arabia.

Coleman's story is indicative of a lot of what we've been seeing lately in D.C., where prominent members of Congress - representatives, senators and their staffers, too, who are doing great work for the country - elected officials - when they retire, they join lobbying, consulting and PR firms who are working directly on behalf of foreign governments.

GROSS: What countries do you think are using money most effectively right now to influence policy in the U.S. or to influence elections in the U.S.?

FREEMAN: That's a really tough question, actually, because the nation has been so focused on Russian interference. And I think rightfully so, in many ways. I mean, the Russians very clearly tried to hijack the 2016 election. Every indication is they're going to try to do the same thing in 2020, so I think a lot of the focus on Russia is very justified.

But there's a reason we're talking about all the illegal activity that the Russians have done - is that they don't have a real established foreign influence operation here in the U.S. that works through legal channels. The Russian lobby here is woefully ineffective. It's woefully powerless. And that's just not true for other countries.

I think many other countries do a much, much better job of influencing the U.S. political process without having to go to lengths of sabotaging an election. And really, for the Russians, going after an election is, in many ways, a last resort. You know, resorting to something like that, I think, shows not just the power of, you know, Russian influence operations but a weakness of them in a sense.

And you see other countries who are able to get influence in the U.S. without going to such extremes. I think some of the most prominent examples are many of our allies - Japan and South Korea, for example, year in and year out, those countries spend the most on foreign influence here in the U.S. You probably don't think of those countries when you think of sort of your nefarious lobbyists, you know, roaming the halls of Congress and trying to line the pockets of congressmen. But those countries do spend extensively on their influence operations here.

And a lot of what they're spending it on is just for basic economic reasons - promoting trade between Japan, South Korea and the U.S.; promoting the military alliance between Japan, South Korea and the U.S.

Behind them, I would say - I would point folks to countries in the Middle East and specifically Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and the Qatari government. And of course, I would be remiss in this question if I didn't mention the Israel lobby, which for years has been widely considered one of the most influential lobbying operations in D.C. - if not the most influential lobbying operation in D.C. A lot of Israel's lobby comes from American Israelis here. And so they're not registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act because they are American citizens. But that combined with what is a pretty stout FARA-registered Israel lobby I think still makes Israel one of the most influential countries when it comes to influencing U.S. foreign policy.

GROSS: Well, Ben Freeman, thank you so much for talking with us.

FREEMAN: Thank you so much for having me, Terry.

GROSS: Ben Freeman directs the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy.

After a break, we'll hear from Lisa Henson and Toby Froud, the executive producer and the design supervisor of the Netflix series "The Dark Crystal," a prequel to the 1982 film that was directed by Lisa's father Jim Henson. The series, like the film, is entirely performed by puppets. This is FRESH AIR.

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