The Justice Department official who spearheaded the department’s crackdown on unregistered foreign agents praised the department’s tougher approach to enforcing the Foreign Agent Registration Act and predicted that DOJ will continue the crackdown under the Biden administration.
“It is clear that this incoming Justice Department remains very focused on addressing the issues pertaining to covert and malign foreign influence, and that they have every intention to continue to robustly enforce FARA,” Brandon Van Grack, who recently stepped down from his post as the chief of the revamped FARA office, said in an interview. “Probably you’re dealing with a FARA unit that is more, better staffed, than it has been probably in my lifetime.”
Van Grack, who was a lead prosecutor on Robert Mueller’s team investigating Russian interference in the 2016 election, defended the special counsel’s work, which spurred a number of high-profile prosecutions that ensnared some of President Donald Trump’s top allies. The Mueller probe also revitalized FARA, the decades-old law requiring entities who represent a foreign government or political party to file public disclosures detailing their work, and sent chills down K Street.
Van Grack is leaving public service altogether after more than a decade at the department to become a partner at the law and lobbying firm Morrison & Foerster.
DOJ counterintelligence prosecutor Jennifer Gellie will step into Van Grack’s place leading the FARA unit, according to an internal email from national security division chief John Demers obtained by POLITICO. Gellie has handled matters like the registration of Russian state-owned outlets Sputnik and RT as foreign agents, one area the FARA office has homed in on since 2016.
One of the most notorious of Van Grack’s cases was Mueller’s pursuit of Trump’s first national security adviser, Michael Flynn. Flynn pleaded guilty in 2017 to lying to the FBI about his contacts with the Russian ambassador and about the Trump transition’s efforts to oppose a United Nations resolution related to Israel during the transition, as well as a Turkey-related lobbying project.
But Flynn later attempted to withdraw his guilty plea, claiming he had been tricked into it by investigators. When Attorney General William Barr moved last year to drop the charges amidst repeated public complaints from Trump, Van Grack abruptly withdrew from the case.
In the interview, Van Grack wouldn’t elaborate on those events, but suggested his exit stemmed from a profound disagreement with the department’s move.
“I’m just going to let my decision to withdraw from a case that I’d been overseeing for three years speak for itself,” he said.
DOJ’s reversal in the Flynn case, and the months of litigation that followed, left Van Grack in an exceedingly awkward position. Flynn’s defense team, led by Texas attorney Sidney Powell, zeroed in on Van Grack in unusually personal terms — accusing him of trickery and deceit.
“You’re asking my client to lie,” Powell told Van Grack during a heated 2019 showdown over Flynn’s expected testimony, notes taken by a Powell associate revealed.
“No one is asking your client to lie,” the prosecutor shot back, according to the notes. “Be careful about what you say.”
While the department never conceded any error on the part of prosecutors and instead blamed the FBI, Barr’s description of the case as an outrageous miscarriage of justice suggested that Mueller’s team was at a minimum inattentive to chicanery related to the case.
Van Grack declined to comment on whether the Justice Department is conducting any after-action review of the actions of the Flynn prosecution team or of Barr’s unusual decision to abandon the case.
However, Van Grack insisted that the high-profile blow-up did not contribute to his decision to leave his post.
“It played no role in my decision to leave the department,” he said.
For a time, Van Grack was the only former Mueller prosecutor in a leadership role at the department. Indeed, he said he believed his work for Mueller factored favorably into Demers’ decision to tap him to lead the department’s new FARA unit back in 2019, and praised Demers for the appointment in spite of the partisan division Mueller’s probe evoked.
“The Mueller investigation, obviously, has been perceived and discussed in a very political light,” Van Grack said. “And I think it’s sort of a credit to the department and John and the National Security Division that … that in no way was an impediment or a distraction to their decision to ask me to fill this role.”
Van Grack acknowledged that pursuing foreign-influence cases often ruffles political feathers in Washington, but he said political considerations had not affected his work ADDS: running DOJ’s foreign-agent office.
“Inherently, you are investigating, and opening and prosecuting, in many instances sort of matters that has potentially … political connections to them,” he said. “And I think across the board, I’m sort of proud of the fact that the FARA unit was able, and is able to stay above the fray and has been able to do everything it’s been able to do and in a, I think, apolitical way.”
Under Van Grack’s oversight, the department has seen foreign agent registrations soar, and reached record levels last year, he said, as did the number of investigations opened into potential violations.
His office also began publishing advisory opinions to provide transparency into the department’s decision making process when it comes to enforcing FARA, and DOJ officials have begun to speak at conferences and issue more detailed guidance in an effort to encourage more compliance with the law, which Van Grack emphasized was the department’s intent.
DOJ’s reinvigorated focus on pursuing unregistered foreign agents resulted in several high-profile cases, but several of them faltered in court.
A federal judge in 2019 overturned guilty verdicts against one of Flynn’s associates for the pair’s Turkish lobbying work, and prior to that a jury acquitted former President Obama’s White House counsel Greg Craig, the only FARA prosecution of a Democratic figure to come out of Mueller’s investigation.
Several others wrapped up in accusations of violating FARA were ultimately pardoned by Trump in the waning days of his administration — including Flynn, former RNC deputy finance director Elliot Broidy and Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort. (Van Grack was a prosecutor at Manafort’s Virginia trial.)
But Van Grack brushed aside the question of whether going after Craig was a mistake, reiterating that the foreign-agent office’s work prioritized compliance with registration and reporting requirements rather than criminal prosecutions.
For that work, he contended, the FARA unit is “more than capable of continuing its important mission for years to come.”
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