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Manafort Trial Brings Scrutiny To Lobbyists


The government is putting Paul Manafort's lush life and ostrich skin coat on display in the courtroom. Prosecutors claim he hid money from the IRS and doctored financial statements to the tune of $60 million. And for what? Lobbying on behalf of a Ukrainian strongman.

David Rehr is a former lobbyist. He now teaches at George Mason University Schar School of Policy and Government. Professor Rehr, thanks so much for being with us.

DAVID REHR: Thanks for having me this morning.

SIMON: From your perspective as an industry veteran, what are the headlines for you in the Manafort trial about lobbying?

REHR: One, make sure you fill out all the federal forms correctly and thoroughly. Two, report all your income to the government. Those will be the two big headlines. Three...

SIMON: That's the law, right?

REHR: Yeah, that's - follow the law is clear. Three, it really hasn't affected the lobbying business, per se, even with President Trump. There's so much uncertainty out there that businesses and individuals want people representing them in Washington who are just kind of aware of what's going on and looking after their interests.

SIMON: Well, that raises this question. During your lobbying career, you lobbied, I gather, for broadcasters and beer wholesalers. As we noted, Mr. Manafort specialized in lobbying for foreign strongman, including Mobutu Sese Seko of Zaire and Viktor Yanukovych of Ukraine, Moscow's man - Moscow's plant in Kiev. Question might sound naive - I thought ambassadors were supposed to represent the interests of foreign powers in Washington, D.C. How did lobbyists become part of it?

REHR: Well, many strongmen, many officials around the world are benefiting from American style of campaigns. And the one thing that's been clear about Manafort is that he actually worked on campaigns to get people elected in the Ukraine. We're not quite sure how much he represented them in Washington and urged policymakers to enact policy that would positively affect them. I think that case has to be made yet. People tend to lump in campaign activists and lobbyists and advocates all together, but I think the law defines kind of separate categories that people can do things without having to report.

SIMON: Revelation for some people this week in the Manafort trial - the names of lobbyists who are usually associated with Democrats have also been popping up in this trial and in special counsel Mueller's investigation. What does this say about the system?

REHR: Well, I think it says about the system that advocacy is everywhere, which is not a bad thing. But I think we need to be sure that we're picking our friends carefully. I think what upsets a lot of people is, here's a man who made millions of dollars working for a bully in the Ukraine that doesn't represent the democratic institutions that we all believe in.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, but are you speaking, for example, of Tad Devine, who maybe...

REHR: Yeah, I think...

SIMON: ...Didn't make millions. I know he made a lot - who ran Bernie Sanders' campaign.

REHR: Yeah, I think it's a question of, you know, does money tempt you to do things that you might not otherwise do?

SIMON: Well, you've been there. What do you say?

REHR: I like to think that you need to stay grounded, right? You need to stay grounded. You need to say to yourself, am I doing what matters to the country and our future? Or am I just thinking about just pure self-interest, the amount of money that I can amass for myself and my family?

SIMON: This has been just week one of the trial. And as we noted, there's another Manafort trial ahead. And gosh knows what the fallout will be in reporting about the lobbying industry. But do you - is it possible, do you think, that the lobbying industry - is it some kind of break point, as arguably it was, let's say, a decade ago about the Jack Abramoff revelations?

REHR: It might be, particularly for foreign interests. I know that there's a lot of concern from the president on down of people everywhere trying to get at America and learn our interests and learn our secrets. And there may be some attempt to have more transparency about public lobbying for foreign interests.

SIMON: I mean, the suggestion is, they'd just walk out on K Street, hire somebody, and that's how they'd do it.

REHR: Right. That's right. And I think people would say, I think we need to have a little bit more oversight. You know, we don't want individuals - American lobbyists - looking for secrets and then selling them to our foreign adversaries. It kind of reminds me in a way of, like, the 1950s. You know, we're all real nervous about what foreigners are doing, so let's pass some laws to make sure that America doesn't help our enemies.

SIMON: David Rehr of George Mason University, thanks so much.

REHR: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.