Editor’s Note: This is a follow-on to a September 27 piece titled A New National Security Framework for Foreign Interference.
Two Soviet-born associates of Rudy Giuliani have been indicted and arrested for violating campaign finance laws, including allegedly funneling Russian money into the main pro-Trump political action committee (PAC). This is a tactic we have seen Russia deploy elsewhere, particularly in Europe. This week’s strong enforcement of the law should help deter this kind of foreign interference in U.S. elections. To underscore this deterrence and reinforce its importance for national security, any related conduct in the United States should also be investigated, along with non-monetary “things of value” contributed by foreigners in connection to U.S. elections. The cross-cutting nature of this apparent foreign influence campaign also demonstrates why the United States needs to address this challenge with a holistic national security framework.
Financial tools of foreign interference
This week’s campaign finance enforcement action could not have come at a more important time for defending American democracy from foreign interference. The 2016 presidential election was subject to “sweeping and systematic” interference, and the next presidential election is just a year away with the FBI warning that “the Russians are absolutely intent on trying to interfere with our elections.”
Whereas cyberattacks and information operations were Russia’s most salient attack vectors in 2016, reporting over the past year highlights the increasingly common use of malign finance to interfere in democracies. Russia made loans to a political party in France, established ties to the top donor in Britain, offered of derogatory information on an opponent in the United States in 2016, provided “material support” to a lawmaker in Germany, negotiated with Italians to funnel oil profits to a political party, and nurtured extremist websites in Sweden and other European member states. Looking across these and two dozen similar cases over the past decade, the pattern suggests greater frequency, higher dollar amounts, and more brazen criminality.
This backdrop demonstrates the national security imperative of enforcing the laws we have against foreign political contributions, particularly after the mixed signals that have emerged from the Trump administration in recent months.
Enforcement against foreign donations
In April, just three days after Special Counsel Robert Mueller declined to prosecute possible campaign finance violations, Giuliani concluded that “there’s nothing wrong with taking information from Russians.” In the weeks that followed, Giuliani started telling journalists he was advocating for Ukraine to investigate President Donald Trump’s leading political opponent. Over the summer, the Trump administration appears to have pressured the Ukrainian government “for help with a political campaign,” in the words of one official involved.
This week we learned that Giuliani’s associates disguised the foreign sources of their political contributions by using a U.S. anonymous shell company, which underscores the need to outlaw corporate anonymity and enforce campaign finance prohibitions against foreign money. Moreover, past episodes of foreign influence campaigns suggest they often involve a network of players deploying a combination of tools. Indeed, the indictment suggests that the financial contributions in this case were only the way in the door, buying influence and access “with candidates, campaigns, and the candidates’ governments.”
Coordinated national security responses
One defendant, Lev Parnas, was used by Giuliani to gather information in Kyiv about Trump’s political opponent. The indictment notes that Parnas and co-defendant Igor Fruman committed to raise money for a U.S. congressman and then sought his help getting the State Department to remove or recall the U.S. ambassador to Ukraine who was blocking Giuliani’s activities. The defendants were also reportedly involved in an effort earlier this year to replace the management of the Ukrainian state gas company and steer contracts to firms controlled by Trump allies, a plan reportedly backed by Trump and potentially carried out with support from Giuliani and Energy Secretary Rick Perry.
This intermingling of tools and interests that are both public and private, formal and informal, domestic and foreign, legal and illegal is a vivid illustration of the adhocracy were are accustomed to seeing Russia use to carry out multi-pronged and deniable foreign operations. Keeping this form of malign influence out of the United States will involve a correspondingly comprehensive response. It starts with policies at home, including financial resilience matters involved in this case such as outlawing shell companies and prosecuting the solicitation of non-financial things of value. It also involves learning from allies who are innovating new ways to meet the challenge of foreign influence. Most importantly, the United States needs bipartisan support for rooting foreign influence out of American politics, as well as new executive branch mechanisms to coordinate intelligence, law enforcement, and policy responses across governmental silos.
My colleague and I recently warned that Trump administration officials have been normalizing the idea that soliciting foreign interference in a U.S. election won’t be prosecuted, and we argued that this multifaceted challenge calls for a broader national security perspective. This week’s enforcement is both a welcome corrective to that trend and a demonstration of the important role campaign finance enforcement should play as one line of defense within that broader framework. There’s a lot of work to be done.