Comer’s Latest Claim Is More of the Same
Plus: Zelensky arrives in Washington as U.S. aid is on the ropes.
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FARA-way from reality
As we’ve documented before, House Oversight Committee Chairman James Comer (R-Ky.) keeps pivoting to new allegations against President Joe Biden each time his current allegations fail to pan out. Some of the past theories, like the conspiracy that Biden pressured the Ukraine government to fire a corrupt prosecutor, have endured despite being wildly inconsistent with the truth, for a very simple reason.1 Comer’s latest claim du jour is that the president is guilty of violating the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
A bit of background on FARA: The law was passed on the eve of World War II as a way to understand and address Nazi and Communist attempts to influence the United States through propaganda. It now more broadly applies to anyone with a foreign business or political interest in the states, requiring them to register with the government and report activities intended to influence public opinion or policy on behalf of a “foreign principal,” which can be a foreign government, company, or even a nonprofit organization.
There’s a lot of money to be made for Americans willing to represent foreign interests in the United States. (Just ask any of the hundred-plus former lawmakers who registered as foreign agents after leaving Congress over the past couple decades.) Big spenders include trade organizations, telecommunications companies, and foreign governments. Their work can be good, nefarious, or somewhere in between. It really depends on whom you ask.
Comer dropped his latest claim in an appearance on Fox News’s Hannity:
You also have the obvious violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. And who was he lobbying for? He was lobbying for China, Russia, and some of the worst countries in the world. But also, he was lobbying his father. So that makes Joe Biden liable in Foreign Agents Registration Act liability. So we’ve got a lot of concerns here. This is the tip of the iceberg.
Comer has previously said of Hunter Biden’s work for the Chinese energy company CEFC that “we don’t know one single thing he did to earn the money.” As he often does, Comer is here relying on insinuation to fill in the picture of wrongdoing in the mind of his listener. But ironically, the plain meaning of this remark is the opposite of what he means to communicate: He cannot point to an actual FARA violation committed by the younger Biden.
As for Joe Biden, Comer’s suggestion that he was a party to any FARA activities because his son attempted to lobby him is entirely inconsistent with an already very broadly interpreted law. FARA applies to individuals and companies working on behalf of foreign principals. The individual being lobbied—in this case, Joe Biden—is not subject to FARA. For example, when former House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce (R-Calif.) meets with staff for Oversight member Mike Waltz (R-Fla.), neither the Waltz staffer nor Rep. Waltz himself are involved in FARA. Just Royce is, and he and the rest of his lobbying colleagues meticulously document their FARA activities to keep in line with the law and avoid unwanted negative attention for their large roster of foreign clients.
I spoke to Comer about his unusual interpretation of FARA during the Monday night vote series. When I asked if he could tell me in clear terms how Joe Biden could be liable under the act, he said, “I don't want to get into it. You can defend the individual. Nobody's buying what you're selling.”
The rest of the his answer was an adventure:
You assume Joe Biden didn’t know anything about this. I know, he said that. But he’s met with all these people. He’s communicated with these people he said he’d never met with. I firmly believe that Joe Biden has FARA liability, just like Hunter Biden does. And the fact that you indict Hunter Biden for the obvious—he didn’t pay taxes on the things that he had a W-2 on. But all these loans, if you had a loan on the books for five, six, seven years, you’ve never made a principal payment, much less than interest payment. At what point does that loan become revenue? Are you hiding? Was it ever alone? Or was it always revenue just listed as loans are you will not pay taxes on it? And then you take—how did you get that money? You’re lobbying? Lobbying China, you’re lobbying uranium? And who are you lobbying? You’re lobbying Joe Biden, and Joe, you flew on the plane with Joe Biden.
Unfortunately, none of this addressed my original question or my followups about how an individual being lobbied could be liable under FARA when the act has always been interpreted as applying exclusively to the one doing the lobbying. Comer clearly isn’t well versed in FARA law. That’s true of most people in Washington, including in the legal community. But if you’re going to lob accusations of FARA-related lawbreaking, you should be able to clearly and specifically describe how the law was broken.
Comer also said he’s confident that House Republicans will have the votes to formally begin their impeachment inquiry Wednesday. The House Republican Conference is going all in on this vote, setting up a media row for their members to make interview rounds in the Capitol, which is something typically reserved for big legislative moments or the State of the Union address.
FARA is very broad. Its applications are open to interpretation and what kind of reporting is required for various activities that fall under its purview is often unclear until the Justice Department makes a decision on how to proceed. Sometimes that means a warning, and sometimes that means full-blown criminal charges, as in the case of New Jersey Sen. Bob Menendez.
Hunter Biden could end up with a FARA violation if more information about his work for various foreign clients is uncovered. In the press release announcing the latest charges against the president’s son, Special Counsel David Weiss added that the investigation remains “ongoing.” Extending it to the president would require an even greater tranche of new information and for Biden to have also been engaged in lobbying for these companies. Of course, there’s no evidence of that, no matter how much Comer wants there to be.
Zelensky on the Hill
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky came to Capitol Hill today to brief lawmakers in both chambers. Unfortunately, it might be too late for a deal to come through.
Already, many lawmakers are pessimistic about a deal’s chances.
Sen. James Lankford (R-Okla.), one of the top Republican negotiators in the Ukraine-U.S. border working group, dimmed the lights on the prospect Monday night, telling reporters, “We’re not going to be able to get [a deal] by Thursday or Friday this week.” He added that the text of the forthcoming bill isn’t finalized, and “there are large areas that are unresolved.”
After the meeting with Zelensky, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) painted a very grim picture:
The bottom line here is I told [Zelensky], you need to thank Mike Johnson for being willing to support a package with Ukraine aid if we can secure the border. And I told my Democratic colleagues, I told President Zelensky, “Here’s the problem. It’s got nothing to do with you.” The FBI director said last week—our FBI director—he’s never been more worried about an attack on America now. That after October the seventh, every jihadist group in the world wants to hit us to punish us for helping Israel. . . . I’ve never been more worried about a 9/11 than I am today. . . .
[Ukraine will] fight to the last person. Let’s say that we can’t get a deal when, you know, support collapses, Europe will have to step in, but they’re gonna keep fighting. They’ll have courage. I mean, I have no doubt that the Ukrainians will fight to their last person.
Graham also chided Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), another negotiator on the potential agreement, for being “very unhelpful,” adding, “His attitude about what's going on, it’s all face. We’re not holding the border hostage. We’re trying to protect the American people.”
When reporters spoke to Murphy, he seemed to be trying to stay positive, letting out a big sigh before saying, “We continue to make progress.” He was also concerned that time might run out even if the Senate actually reaches a compromise:
I can’t believe the House is talking about leaving. How do you say you’re serious about trying to come to a resolution on Ukraine and declare that you’re packing up and giving up?
Regarding the apparent beef with Graham, Murphy declined to comment.
If you recall from last Thursday’s Bulwark+ exclusive edition of Press Pass, I reported that many Senate Democrats are concerned about whether their Republican colleagues are genuinely seeking a deal or deliberately trying to derail the process.
For many Republicans, particularly those in the House, aid to Ukraine has become synonymous with Democratic policy priorities, despite bipartisan support for helping the war effort against Russia. In the eyes of the base and throughout the conservative media echo chamber, one of the worst sins a Republican can commit is working with or handing a win to Democrats. That doesn’t bode well for a deal. But as Murphy said, greater miracles have been worked in the Capitol. It is Christmastime, after all.
A key constituency has fully embraced the theory: conservative media.