Schumer presses Justice Dept to examine Ric Grenell's foreign work

The Senate Democratic leader believes the Justice Department should take a closer look at acting Intelligence Director Ric Grenell's foreign work.
Image: United States Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell attends a reception in Berlin on Jan. 14, 2019.
U.S. Ambassador to Germany Richard Grenell at a reception in Berlin on Jan. 14, 2019.Bernd von Jutrczenka / dpa via AP file
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By Steve Benen

Almost immediately after Donald Trump announced that Richard Grenell would serve as the acting director of National Intelligence, the choice was difficult to defend. After all, there are some written and unambiguous qualifications for the position, and Grenell does not meet them.

On the contrary, Grenell parlayed a career as a prominent internet troll and Republican operative into an ambassadorship, and before last week, he'd never served a day in the intelligence community in any capacity. The idea that he'd be tasked with overseeing the intelligence community, even temporarily, was bizarre.

But as Grenell gets to work overhauling -- which is to say, Trumpifying -- his powerful office, the broader concerns are not limited to his partisanship and skill-set. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) issued a notable statement this morning that helped shine a light on an entirely different area of interest.

Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) today released a letter sent to Assistant Attorney General for National Security John Demers requesting that the Department of Justice's National Security Division immediately investigate reports that Acting Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Richard Grenell did not disclose his past work as a foreign agent, in possible violation of the Foreign Agents Registration Act. Leader Schumer's letter comes amid public reporting that prior to Acting DNI Grenell's service in the Trump administration, he did not register with or report to DOJ his work in support of a number of foreign entities -- including the government of Hungary and Vladimir Plahotniuc, a Moldovan government official who last month was sanctioned by the U.S. government for corruption and who has ties to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

A copy of the New York senator's letter to the Justice Department is available online here.

Schumer's effort hardly comes out of the blue. Pro Publica reported late last week that Grenell used to work for a Moldovan politician "who is now a fugitive and was recently barred from entering the U.S. under anti-corruption sanctions imposed last month by the State Department."

The same report added that Grenell did not disclose the payments he received for the work, and he "did not register under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, which generally requires people to disclose work in the U.S. on behalf of foreign politicians."

A few days later, the Washington Post ran a related report on the considerable amount of foreign work Grenell and his public-relations firm has done -- an "unusual" background for someone in the U.S. intelligence community.

The article added that at least some of Grenell's work has been "the type of activity that, in other cases, has drawn the attention of Justice Department investigators tasked with enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), according to two lawyers who specialize in that law."

Meanwhile, CNN added yesterday, "Years before becoming the nation's top intelligence official, Richard Grenell touted his consulting work for clients in Iran, China and other countries, which included projects that could violate foreign lobbying laws or jeopardize his security clearance."

It's no wonder that Schumer would like to see the Justice Department review Grenell's work. But since the department is led by Attorney General Bill Barr, and federal law enforcement work appears increasingly guided by Donald Trump's political interests, it's difficult to believe DOJ officials will take Schumer's request seriously.