Opinion: Menendez case sounds the alarm on foreign influence on Congress

Editor’s Note: Casey Michel is the author of the forthcoming book, “Foreign Agents: How American Lobbyists and Lawmakers Threaten Democracy Around the World.” The views expressed in this piece are his own. View more opinion on CNN.

On Monday, for the first time in American history, a sitting senator is going on trial for allegedly conspiring to act as a foreign agent. The trial centers on the allegations swirling around New Jersey Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez, who faces a range of accusations about his connections to Egypt and Qatar.

Casey Michel - courtesy Versha Sharma
Casey Michel - courtesy Versha Sharma

Earlier this month, Rep. Henry Cuellar of Texas and his wife were charged with accepting bribes from two foreign entities. Cuellar said he and his wife are innocent.

Both of these cases are shocking and unprecedented, marking the only times sitting congressmen have ever been formally accused of working on behalf of foreign regimes. But they shouldn’t necessarily be a surprise, given how much foreign influence scandals have grown in recent years.

The 18-count indictment against Menendez includes bribery and obstruction of justice, but it all centers on one question: Was Menendez — who spent years serving as the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the most powerful congressional official helping steer American foreign policy — secretly working as an agent of Middle Eastern regimes?

According to prosecutors, the answer is an unequivocal yes. Per the indictments, Menendez allegedly not only passed along internal information to Egyptian contacts — including highly sensitive details about the staff at the American embassy in Cairo — but he further acted as a ghost writer for Egyptian officials, helping them sway Menendez’s Senate colleagues to support the country. Prosecutors also alleged that Menendez acted to help the Qatari government by issuing statements publicly supporting Qatar.

In return, prosecutors allege that Menendez and his wife received gifts, including gold bars, hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash and a luxury car. Both have pleaded not guilty.

The filings are, on their own, shocking. According to prosecutors, a sitting American senator secretly worked at the behest not of his constituents, but for a pair of foreign countries. Rather than turn to traditional lobbyists, these regimes infiltrated the highest ranks of Congress’s policy-making community and allegedly flipped Menendez, one of the most prominent figures directing American foreign policy, all to their benefit — and all without Menendez’s colleagues or the rest of us being aware.

Because again, Menendez wasn’t a simple, back-bench politician. From his perch atop the Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez was the most powerful congressional official dedicated to shaping American foreign policy, ranging from questions about strategy to arms shipments to financial planning.

Outside of the White House, Menendez was the most prominent American politician foreign regimes could target to sway him to their side, so it’s little surprise that both Egyptian and Qatari interests launched such bribery efforts. What’s surprising — and what’s so unprecedented, and so galling — is that they allegedly got to Menendez in the first place.

Then again, it’s possible that these kinds of practices have actually been in place for years, and go far beyond Menendez — and that we’re only just now learning about them. After all, it was only a few years ago that prosecutors finally became interested in enforcing even basic disclosure requirements about Americans working as agents for foreign regimes.

The first regulations forcing Americans to disclose their links to foreign governments were enacted in 1938 with the passage of the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). A remarkably progressive piece of legislation, FARA didn’t ban Americans — even congressional officials — from working as lobbyists for foreign regimes. Instead, it simply required that they disclose their efforts to US authorities — and to the American public.

Unfortunately, however, FARA quickly transformed into an afterthought. For decades, the number of FARA-related prosecutions remained few and far between. There were a handful of prosecutions targeting secret Nazi and Soviet agents, and a few related to those trying to lift sanctions on places like Iraq and Zimbabwe, but that was it. FARA was, in many ways, forgotten — even as the foreign lobbying industry itself exploded in the 21st century.

Then, in 2016, then-President Donald Trump entered the White House, and thanks to the number of alleged foreign agents in his administration, prosecutors finally began focusing on how wide-open Washington was to these kinds of foreign agents — and how necessary enforcing FARA was.

As a result, by the late 2010s, prosecutors began launching a number of FARA-related prosecutions among a wide range of figures close to Trump. Among the figures targeted for their secret foreign lobbying links were individuals such as Paul Manafort, Trump’s former campaign chairman, who was later convicted for failing to disclose his foreign lobbying work (among other charges). Trump’s former national security adviser, Mike Flynn, acknowledged failing to register as a foreign agent as part of his guilty plea for lying to the FBI, before the Justice Department dropped the case and cleared his record. Prosecutors targeted others along the way, including former Trump adviser Tom Barrack, who was acquitted, and former Trump campaign adviser Rick Gates. While not all of the prosecutions were successful, the efforts breathed new life not only into FARA, but shone a new light on how foreign regimes target and corrupt American politicians overall.

Which is where Menendez and his trial enter the picture. It’s not just that the allegations against Menendez illustrate how bipartisan such foreign lobbying efforts are. But they further illustrate just how far these efforts go beyond figures like Trump or his inner circle — and just how successful these regimes can be, if they target the right Americans.

Regardless of this trial’s outcome, the allegations should be a wake-up call not only for American officials, but also for Americans across the country. After all, if foreign regimes could target and recruit the most important congressional official tasked with crafting American foreign policy — and if they could do it as successfully as Egypt and Qatar allegedly did — then no congressional official is off-limits.

This story has been updated with the latest news developments.

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