Senators of both parties complained Wednesday that lax law enforcement has made it too easy for Russia and other countries to gain influence over the U.S. political process.
Their comments came at a long-awaited Senate hearing on foreign influence on U.S. politics, which was earlier set to feature Donald Trump Jr. and Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort. The top Trump campaign figures cut deals with the Senate Judiciary Committee to give their testimony behind the scenes, draining much of the drama from the hearing.
Still, lawmakers raised serious concerns about the broader issue at hand, with the June 2016 meeting between Trump Jr., Manafort, Jared Kushner and the Russian lawyer Natalia Veselnitskaya hanging over the hearing.
"People should know if foreign governments, political parties or other foreign interests are trying to influence U.S. policy or public opinion," said the panel’s GOP chairman, Chuck Grassley of Iowa. "Given recent Russian and other efforts to influence our election this law has never been more important. Unfortunately, it appears the Justice Department and FBI have been seriously lax in enforcement of the Foreign Agent Registration Act."
"Justice Department officials cannot even agree on what makes a good case for enforcement of the law," Grassley declared.
The committee’s ranking Democrat, Dianne Feinstein of California, agreed that too little is being done to make sure people acting for foreign governments are registering.
"My conclusion is that authorities don’t take the law seriously," Feinstein said.
FBI and Justice Department witnesses at the hearing declined to discuss specifics of the ongoing Trump-Russia probe, but a top FBI official described in unusually grave terms the threat of covert foreign efforts to affect U.S. policy.
“Our country is under relentless assault by hostile state actors and their proxies,” FBI counterintelligence chief Bill Priestap said. "They use people from across their governments and from all walks of life to pursue their desire to gain strategic advantage over the United States in whatever ways they can. … Make no mistake: our economy, our national security and our way of life are being actively threatened by state actors today and every day."
Justice Department national security official Adam Hickey said prosecuting violations of FARA is difficult, in part because prosecutors are required to show that a suspect deliberately violated the law.
“The high burden of proving willfulness, difficulties in proving direction or control by a foreign principal, and exemptions available under the statute make criminal prosecution for FARA violations challenging,” Hickey told the panel.
The hearing sometimes descended into partisan complaints, with Republicans arguing that Democrats are eager to put a one-sided focus on the Trump campaign while ignoring influence efforts aimed at or involving Democrats.
Feinstein offered praise for Grassley’s handling of the committee’s investigation, but Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Wis.) hinted at some irritation that Trump Jr. and Manafort were not testifying Wednesday.
"While it’s disappointing that some of our witnesses aren’t here today, it’s important to move forward in a bipartisan way," Klobuchar said.