U.S. Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo and Mrs. Susan Pompeo [State Department photo by Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain]
Is Pompeo’s ‘crackdown’ on foreign influence politically timed?

After ignoring the problem in its own ranks, the administration has issued a toothless mandate, conveniently targeting China and Russia.

Less than three weeks before the U.S. presidential election, the Trump administration appears to have discovered the dangers of foreign influence in the U.S. political system. 

A State Department statement published on Wednesday warned that, “some foreign governments, such as those of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation, seek to exert influence over U.S. foreign policy through lobbyists, external experts, and think tanks” and urged U.S. think tanks to disclose their sources of foreign funding.

Obviously, such disclosures would be a step in the right direction but the State Department’s decision to single out China and Russia, two countries among many that no-doubt seek to influence the U.S. political process, is an odd way of addressing foreign influence. The State Department lacks enforcement tools to regulate U.S. institutions (the Justice Department and the Foreign Agent Registration Act have that purview) and Russia and China aren’t even in the top-five donors to think tanks. 

“China and Russia are doing a lot right now to exert undue influence in America, and it’s important we do everything we can to counter that,” Ben Freeman, Director of the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative at the Center for International Policy, tells Responsible Statecraft. “But, the research we’ve done at FITI has shown they don’t do much in terms of think tank funding. A lot of the biggest players here are U.S. allies.”

Indeed, according to a report released by Freeman’s group in January, the top five donor countries to U.S. think tanks are Norway, the United Kingdom, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and Sweden.

Moreover, despite Trump’s campaign promise to“drain the swamp,” his administration has a remarkable track record of hiring  individuals with financial ties to foreign governments and entities, including the following notable examples:

— Former National Security Adviser Mike Flynn acknowledged that in 2016 he conducted paid lobbying work on behalf of Turkey’s government.

— Former national security adviser John Bolton conducted paid speaking appearances for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, or MEK, an Iranian exile group that seeks the overthrow of Iran’s government, and received $165,000 from the Counter Extremism Project, a group with shadowy finances and evidence of funding ties to the UAE and/or Saudi Arabia. 

— Elliot Broidy, the vice chairman of the 2016 Trump Victory Committee, was charged with acting as a foreign agent on behalf of Malaysian and Chinese government interests to end a U.S. investigation of a billion-dollar embezzlement of a Malaysian state investment fund and working to return Chinese exile Guo Wengui to China.

— Former acting-director of U.S. National Intelligence and former Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell conducted undisclosed work for Hungary before entering the Trump administration.

— Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani came under fire during the impeachment hearings for all the myriad foreign clients he has had while maintaining his close personal contact with the president.

The web of foreign money coming into the country to influence U.S. policy is as vast as it is secretive. The Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative study mentioned above was hindered by the fact that organizations do not have to disclose where their money is coming from. Not surprisingly then, countries that are known to pour millions into U.S. think tanks, like Saudi Arabia and China, did not even crack the top 20. Neither did Russia. 

But FARA laws in theory are supposed to track foreign funding used for influencing the U.S. political process. We know a little more here, like of the billions of dollars Saudi Arabia has spent  trying to fend off lawsuits from the 9/11 survivors or to burnish Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s image. That didn’t seem to bother the Trump administration, particularly in 2018 as the president was inking a new arms deal in Washington with the prince. 

Freeman points out that according to their research, the UAE, for example, “made a secret $20 million contribution to a prominent think tank whose experts regularly opine on U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.” He added that the wealthy Gulf state also paid another think tank a quarter million dollars to write a report on exporting U.S. military drones. “Spoiler alert: the report recommended the U.S. export military drones to the UAE,” said Freeman.

“These conflicts of interest that can directly influence U.S. foreign policy are exactly why we need to have full transparency when it comes to foreign government funding of think tanks,” he added.

Not all foreign money comes through lobbying either. Rather than paying lobbyists directly, the Israeli government funneled over $6 million in “grants” since 2018 to Jewish, Evangelical Christian, and other pro-Israel organizations to counter the boycott movement in the U.S. and to promote other Israeli interests  in Washington and at the state level. This too, could be a blatant violation of FARA, The Forward reported in August. 

It is not clear why Pompeo chose this month — two weeks before the election — to take a stand, though it’s possible he was trying to end-run Democratic criticism about the president’s perceived soft spot on Russia, while taking the opportunity to strike out at his boss’s favorite target: China.

For sure, it is a good day any time there is a move to restrict the foreign influence in our political system. 

But over three-and-a-half years into the Trump administration’s first term, and after having embraced so many people with ties to foreign financial interests, this week’s announcement seems more like political posturing than a meaningful effort to reorient U.S. foreign policy away from foreign political influence over U.S. foreign policy. 

Freeman points to a glass half full. “The State Department took a very important step this week to bring greater transparency to foreign funding of think tanks,” Freeman noted. “It’s not a perfect fix, but it sends a very important signal to other parts of the government — like the Department of Justice and Congress — which can enact more permanent solutions that require, not just request, think tanks disclose funding they receive from foreign governments.”