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GOP Strategist: Manafort Played The Lobbying Game 'At A Completely Different Level'


Long before Paul Manafort became President Trump's campaign chairman, he was a Washington, D.C., lobbyist. And it is that career that seems to have gotten him in trouble with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. Manafort was charged yesterday with money laundering and for failing to register as a foreign lobbyist, and it's his role as a lobbyist that we want to take a deeper look at this morning. We're joined by John Feehery. He's a partner at a D.C. lobbying firm and a Republican strategist. Thanks so much for coming in this morning.

JOHN FEEHERY: Good morning.

MARTIN: What do you make of the charges against Manafort?

FEEHERY: I thought it was kind of low hanging fruit, not that surprising given that the FBI had taken a lot of boxes out of his house. So I wasn't really that surprised by the fact that he was going to be indicted.

MARTIN: They had searched his house earlier this summer, and it had been speculated that he would have been.

FEEHERY: Right. I mean, the one guy who I thought would be indicted, I thought would be him. And it was him. So not surprising.

MARTIN: So let's talk about what he did as a lobbyist. Was his approach different than other people who do this kind of work with foreign governments?

FEEHERY: Well, he's not just a lobbyist. He was also a political consultant, and he did so much of his work outside the United States helping people get elected and then using that political consultant background of his to get money from them and then try to influence the Congress or Washington policymakers. So it was a little bit different. Most lobbyists don't do political consulting outside...

MARTIN: Abroad.

FEEHERY: Abroad, outside the country. But some do. And, you know, that's very lucrative. That's why people do it. You know, that's kind of - Willie Sutton - that's where the money is.

MARTIN: But when you do that work, you have to know that you're supposed to register.

FEEHERY: You're supposed to register. And the reason why people don't register, try to avoid to register, is it's very expensive to register with FARA. And it's very complicated. It's a very - lots of forms, very complicated and it takes some real effort to do it. Also people don't necessarily - if they can get away with not filing FARA and find some excuses not to do that, they don't necessarily want to have that out in the public that they're politically consulting. Sometimes people who are not that - they're kind of despots, bad characters, bad hombres, whatever you want to call them. There are a lot of folks out there who need representation and who sometimes people are embarrassed to say they represent.

MARTIN: I want to get your take on another move that's transpired in the last day or so. Someone else who does this work, Tony Podesta. He's a Democrat, brother of John Podesta, who is Hillary Clinton's campaign manager. Tony Podesta was the head of the Podesta Group, a top lobbying firm. He stepped down yesterday. His firm also did work with Manafort on behalf of the Ukrainian government. What do you read into this?

FEEHERY: Well, listen. I like Tony Podesta. I think he's a very nice guy. He's obviously very successful at what he does. He's made a lot of money. I think that perhaps there was a miscommunication or lack of communication about what the true client was. I do think that this is a really serious problem for Tony Podesta and his whole firm. It's embarrassing, I think. And if you didn't file the proper forms and get to the bottom of who your client is, it's really kind of on you, and you need to do a better job of understanding precisely who the client is and where you're getting all this money. 'Cause money doesn't just fall out of trees.

MARTIN: So presumably the Trump campaign knew that money doesn't fall out of trees. They knew Paul Manafort's background and history as a political consultant working with these foreign governments. Should they have known better when they hired him to lead their campaign?

FEEHERY: Keep in mind when Donald Trump - he's a novice to the political scene, a complete novice. He doesn't really know all these things. And I also think that no one expected Donald Trump to win back in August when they hired him. He was - Paul Manafort was hired to get him through the convention, and that was what he did very well. You know, and I don't think they did a deep check on Paul Manafort's background.

MARTIN: Lastly, why isn't this law, the FARA law, the law that requires people to register if they're a foreign lobbyist, why are there - why is it not enforced more often? Only seven times since 1966.

FEEHERY: That's a really good question. I think it's probably because lack of resources from the Justice Department. I also think that people don't know what they don't know, and I think it can be a very complicated thing to pursue.

MARTIN: John Feehery is a Republican strategist partner at a lobbying firm, EFB Advocacy. Thanks so much for your time.

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