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Lobbying and Influence

Reprinted with permission from Responsible Statecraft.

President Trump’s newly installed acting Director of National Intelligence, Richard Grenell, knowingly provided public relations services directed at U.S. media on behalf of a project funded by Hungary’s far-right government, according to an investigation published by Responsible Statecraft. While working for Hungary, Grenell didn’t register as a foreign agent under the Foreign Agent Registration Act (FARA), which is a requirement applying to individuals and entities operating inside the U.S. as an “agent” of a “foreign principal.”

Grenell’s appointment as acting Director of National Intelligence, which was announced last week, was met with widespread ridicule and disbelief. 

“President Trump selected an unqualified loyalist as his top spy,” said  International Institute for Strategic Studies senior fellow Jonathan Stevenson in a New York Times op-ed

“Mr. Grenell, who currently serves as ambassador to Germany, is manifestly unqualified for the job, even in an acting capacity,” the Washington Post editorial board said. “He has no experience in intelligence or in managing large organizations – like the 17 agencies that will now report to him.”

Craig Engle, Grenell’s attorney, told Responsible Statecraft that Grenell “knew that the Hungarian government was the sponsor” of work he undertook, but claimed that Grenell’s activities did not require him to file under FARA.

According to the Justice Department, activities requiring registration as an “agent” to a “foreign principal” includes engaging in “acts within the United States as a public relations counsel, publicity agent, information-service employee or political consultant for or in the interests of such foreign principal.”

Last Friday, ProPublica reported that Grenell took undisclosed payments for advocacy work on behalf of Vladimir Plahotniuc, a Moldovan politician who was later accused of corruption. Engle told ProPublica that Grenell was not required to file under the FARA because “he was not working at the direction of a foreign power.”

Grenell’s history as a Twitter troll and political operative is well documented, but his work for foreign entities and governments has largely gone unreported. 

In 2009, Grenell founded Capitol Media Partners (CMP), a public relations firm with offices in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, and Washington, DC. 

Grenell and CMP’s’ work for the Magyar Foundation of North America, a group that describes itself as “promoting Magyar heritage, history, and pride through educational, social and cultural programs,” was detailed following a freedom of information request filed with the Hungarian government by a Hungarian investigative reporting outlet.

That outlet, Atlatszo, reported in 2018 that Magyar was funded by Hungary’s right-wing nationalist government, led by Prime Minister Viktor Orban.

Magyar’s attorney, who also happens to be Craig Engle, confirmed to Responsible Statecraft in an email that the group employed Grenell, saying:

“Your question about the Magyar Foundation was referred to me  (I was its legal counsel).

“Ric was the media relations consultant to Magyar. The Foundation engaged in a series of academic and cultural and fine arts – and several religious-themed – programs. The Foundation sought out Ric to help us get coverage of these events, especially with the press that covered foreign affairs. Ric wasn’t listed on any FARA report since the Foundation did not engage in FARA-related activity. (That was done in a separate contract by a lobbyist).”

The Magyar Foundation’s work included funding two academics at Pepperdine University to study Hungary and U.S.-Hungary relations, building a database of Hungarian-Americans, conducting promotion of Hungary with a “Win a Trip to Hungary contest,” and conducting social media campaigns, according to descriptions of a three-year, $7 million grant to the Magyar Foundation from the government of Hungary obtained by Atlatszo.

The Magyar Foundation contracted “public relations” work to Grenell’s CMP. The Magyar Foundation’s 2017 financial disclosures show CMP received $103,750.

Engle told Responsible Statecraft in a separate email that he couldn’t comment on a 2013 archived version of CMP’s website that lists a map of Somalia and Zaland, “a subsidiary of Ariana Afghanistan Television,” as “clients,” but he confirmed that Grenell knew he was doing work for Magyar on behalf of the Hungarian government.” Engle wrote:

“Eli – your email with questions was forwarded to me (I am Rics (sic) lawyer and am familiar with his work).

“I can’t answer your questions about Zalan and Somalia, but I can answer the question about the Magyar Foundation of North America. Ric was a consultant to the foundation to help it get press attendance at its cultural and academic events across the country. Yes, Ric knew that the Hungarian government was the sponsor [emphasis added]. Ric has not filled under FARA because his work doesn’t qualify as registerable (sic) activity. (Hungary’s FARA related work was performed by a lobbyist under a separate contract).”

Documents acquired by Atlatszo’s freedom of information request to Hungary’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade reveals more about what the Hungarian government paid Magyar and Grenell to do, tasks that appear very similar to the Justice Department’s definition of “acts within the United States as a public relations counsel” on behalf of a foreign principal, requiring FARA registration.

A grant report from the Magyar Foundation to the Hungarian government describes how the organization worked toward “our goals of enhancing relations between Hungary and America by promoting Hungarian culture and contributions and engaging Hungarian Americans in our mission.”

In the grant report, Magyar promoted its influence with U.S. politicians and policymakers saying it “boasts over 175 years of experience and long-standing established professional relationships with American opinion leaders, academics, elected and government officials, and the media.”

And the report to the Hungarian government directly referenced that Magyar hired Grenell’s firm.

“The Foundation hired Capitol Media Partners, an international communications and public affairs firm to liaison to the foreign press to promote our events in Washington, D.C.,” Magyar reported.

The foundation spelled out CMP’s role in directing media to the Hungarian government-funded project, writing, “[Magyar Foundation], through both in-house communications staff and expert communications consultants, Capitol Media Partners and Justin Wilson, contacted over 50 media outlets to promote [Magyar Foundation] events and secure national media attendance,” for an event held at the National Press Club.

The report’s emphasis on influencing U.S. media and gaining access to U.S. politicians offers a clear indication that Magyar was marketing influence and access in Washington to Hungary’s government.

CMP’s website never listed the Magyar Foundation as a client and the client list section of the website is now removed.

An archived version from 2018 of Grenell’s personal website said, “Grenell has worked with clients based in the U.S. as well as Iran, Kazakhstan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, China, Australia, Timor-Leste, and throughout Europe.” Grenell’s website has also been removed.

Grenell’s Executive Branch Public Financial Disclosure Report, filed in 2017, reveals another foreign client, the Prague Freedom Foundation, a nonprofit based in Prague that “promote[s] freedom of the press and encourage[s] independent journalism.”

CMP and Grenell did not provide clarification to Responsible Statecraft regarding their other foreign clients, what that work entailed, and whether that work required the company and/or Grenell to file under FARA.

Responsible Statecraft is a publication of analysis, opinion, and news that seeks to promote a positive vision of U.S. foreign policy based on diplomatic engagement and military restraint. It is a project of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

Reprinted with permission from Media Matters.

On April 1, CNN political commentator David Urban registered to lobby for the passage of a trade agreement backed by President Donald Trump. Just three days later, Urban exploited his CNN employment by touting the agreement unprompted on Jake Tapper’s weekday program — without any disclosure of his direct financial conflict of interest.

Urban is a Republican operative and the president of American Continental Group, a lobbying firm that took in over $13 million in lobbying fees last year. Urban also worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, and he is helping advise his 2020 reelection campaign.

Trump has been trying to pass the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), which would replace the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Due to concerns about the measure’s prospects in Congress, Republicans formed the 501(c)(4) group Trade Works for America to pressure members of Congress, especially Democrats, to support it.

As part of its efforts, Trade Works for America retained Urban and American Continental Group to specifically lobby on USMCA, with the effective registration date of April 1.

Just a few days later, Urban appeared on the April 4 edition of CNN’s The Lead with Jake Tapper and said that the USMCA has been “getting some momentum, some traction with Democrats in the House” and Trump’s threat to close the U.S.-Mexico border would “kind of blow that up” and be “a tragedy”:

DAVID URBAN (CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR AND LOBBYING COMPANY PRESIDENT): I would say that one of the president’s and this administration’s objectives, main objectives coming in the next several months is the ratification of the USMCA. And I think closing the border would have gone a lot — a far way in undermining that.

JAKE TAPPER (HOST): That’s the new NAFTA, the replacement for NAFTA?

URBAN: The new NAFTA, right. I think there’s — it’s getting some momentum, some traction with Democrats in the House. I think it’s moving somewhat forward, and to kind of blow that up would have been a tragedy.

Neither CNN nor Urban disclosed that he is being paid to lobby for the trade agreement.

Urban has repeatedly shown a blatant disregard for ethics during his CNN appearances. He advocated for a military strike against Iran (he lobbies for defense contractors). He attacked pro-environment policies and praised Trump’s efforts to roll back environmental protections (he lobbies for fossil fuel-related companies). And he specifically raised the National Association of Home Builders’ objection to a Republican tax plan (he lobbies for the organization).

After criticism from Media Matters, CNN began a panel segment with Urban last Sunday by stating: “We have to disclose that you are a corporate lobbyist who has clients in the defense and energy industries.” Urban responded by laughing and saying, “We get in trouble. We always get in trouble. I get in trouble.”

But as Urban’s USMCA episode shows, that disclosure doesn’t really suffice and his financial conflicts of interest aren’t just limited to “the defense and energy industries.” American Continental Group lists over a dozen issue areas that it works on, from commerce to manufacturing to transportation.

Additionally, Urban registered as a foreign agent last year to, among other things, “provide advice, counsel and assist Emirates Global Aluminum PJSC,” a state-owned company based in the United Arab Emirates, “in a license request to the United States Department of the Treasury” on behalf of a subsidiary.

Urban clearly doesn’t care about media ethics or conflicts of interest. The question is whether CNN cares, and if it does, why it continues to employ the president and part-owner of a large lobbying company despite his past duplicity and his countless real and potential financial conflicts of interest.

The network did not respond to a request for comment.

IMAGE: CNN commentator, lobbyist, and former top Trump campaign aide David Urban.