By Asha Rangappa
In a twist of legal deja vu, FBI agents recently executed a search warrant at the home of Rudy Giuliani, former President Donald Trump’s personal lawyer. Giuliani’s comments following the search suggest that he is being investigated for violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) based on his involvement with individuals from Ukraine in his efforts to obtain dirt on Joe and Hunter Biden prior to the 2020 election. Legal analysts and journalists have since underplayed the significance of FARA, mischaracterizing the statute as only being concerned with paperwork mistakes involving lobbying disclosures, and suggesting that there must be more serious allegations underlying the investigation. It’s possible that there may be other crimes implicated in Giuliani’s activities, but make no mistake: A FARA investigation, even standing alone, would reflect serious national security concerns, especially given Giuliani’s role as a member of Trump’s inner circle.
FARA is about more than just lobbying. FARA targets individuals who attempt to distort our democracy by secretly furthering the interests of foreign governments in our political process. (A separate law, The Lobbying Disclosure Act, specifically addresses people who are lobbying on behalf of foreign business or commercial interests.) FARA was originally created in 1938 to combat Nazi propaganda, and it has since been expanded to address foreign involvement in “political activities,” which include any attempts to influence public opinion or public officials. The goal of FARA is transparency: It allows people to promote foreign political interests, as long as they make it clear that that’s what they’re doing. Individuals can comply with the law simply by registering with the Justice Department and disclosing that they are acting at “the direction and control of a foreign principal” with regard to specified activities. Only people who willfully (meaning deliberately) fail to register under FARA are subject to criminal prosecution. (One recent non-criminal, and non-lobbying, example of FARA is the registration in November 2017 of RT and Sputnik, two Russian media outlets, as foreign agents of Russia.)