Foreign-funded groups at risk under new Trump executive order

Foreign-funded groups at risk under new Trump executive order.

by Steven Nelson · September 16, 2018
President Trump’s new executive order authorizing administrative sanctions for foreign interference in U.S. elections could open the door to shutting down “propaganda” groups that openly receive overseas funding.

The Trump administration and special counsel Robert Mueller already have dusted off the Foreign Agents Registration Act to force self-designation of Russia-funded news services and to prosecute Trump campaign aides.

The new executive order could add economic sanctions against nations and individuals involved with foreign-funded groups, including those that file FARA disclosure reports with the Justice Department and bear disclaimers.

The executive order, signed Wednesday, requires intelligence reviews after federal elections to determine if “a foreign government, or any person acting as an agent of or on behalf of a foreign government, has acted with the intent or purpose of interfering in that election.”

Several agencies would review evidence and proposed sanctions if there’s a finding of foreign involvement, adding weight to proposed penalties before they reach the president. The order sets up a sanctions mechanism that doesn’t require congressional debate.

Many foreign nations fund U.S.-based news outlets that report with an arguable slant for American audiences. Last year, there was significant public debate as the Trump Justice Department pressured Russia-funded Sputnik and RT to register under FARA, a rare step as the outlets stood accused of being part of a broader Russian propaganda effort.

Attorney Joshua Rosenstein, a specialist on FARA issues, said the new executive order expands risk for foreign-funded entities.

“On its face, the EO would trigger economic sanctions and immigration restrictions for any individuals — including foreign agents, regardless of whether they are registered or not — who have been found to have interfered in U.S. elections,” Rosenstein said.

In a call with reporters outlining the executive order, national security adviser John Bolton outlined broad potential effects, including against entities that distribute “propaganda.”

“It includes not just interference with election or campaign infrastructure, but it also covers the distribution of propaganda and disinformation,” Bolton said. “It’s clear that this is intended to be a very broad effort to prevent foreign manipulation of the political process.”

Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats also described potentially broad implications.

“This executive order authorizes the development and application of sanctions against any individual, any entity, or country that authorizes, directs, sponsors, or otherwise supports interference in a U.S. election,” Coats told reporters.

Coats identified Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea as nations of particular concern. China and Iran have unregistered subsidized news outlets in the U.S. — CCTV America and Press TV, respectively.

Rosenstein said FARA-registered entities could be in trouble, even if they are complying with existing disclosure rules.

“Conceivably, even if a foreign agent were properly registered pursuant to FARA … if they engaged in these particular activities, there would be penalties levied against them,” he said.

The new sanctions would not result in criminal charges, Rosenstein said, though foreign-funded entities could be charged with espionage,

“It’s not clear that RT is a spy agency — it’s just a propaganda arm of the Russian government, so registration and proper reporting are all that are required in this particular area,” he said. “But I do suppose that if the group convened by the president’s executive order were to find that RT engaged in these particular prohibited activities, then yes, they would be subject to trade sanctions.”

For an organization like RT, that might mean that the U.S.-based division would be barred from taking money from the parent organization, he said.

“RT did vaguely threaten litigation over the FARA registration decision, then backed off. I’d imagine they would try to come up with creative ways to challenge the imposition of sanctions if they were imposed,” Rosenstein said.

Attorney Daniel Pickard, an expert on FARA and other laws governing corporations with overseas clients, declined to speculate on the potential liability of specific entities, but said that he sees a distinction in the behavior that FARA and the executive order seek to address.

“FARA is essentially a disclosure statute for individuals who are engaged in legitimate political or quasi political activities on behalf of a foreign principal,” Pickard said. “The president’s recent action, on the other hand, is intended to address nefarious efforts by foreign governments to undermine our democratic process.”

Speaking with reporters, Bolton said the mere threat of enforcement may work to curb foreign-funded efforts.

The new threat of sanctions is among the “deterrents in terms of keeping our election process free from that influence,” he said.

Washington Examiner · by Steven Nelson · September 16, 2018

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