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On GPS: Trump appoints loyalist to oversee U.S. intelligence
07:13 - Source: CNN
Washington CNN  — 

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.

Last week, President Donald Trump appointed Grenell as the acting director of national intelligence, elevating him to an influential position that oversees all US intelligence agencies, even though he has no experience working in the intelligence community.

An archived version of Grenell’s personal website says, “Grenell has worked with clients based in the U.S. as well as Iran, Kazakhstan, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia, China, Australia, Timor-Leste, and throughout Europe.” The site was apparently taken down in 2018.

Two years before Grenell joined the Trump administration in 2018 to become the US ambassador to Germany, his company earned more than $100,000 from a foundation tied to the far-right Hungarian government, according to federal tax records. And Grenell also once published a series of columns favorable toward a Moldovan oligarch who is now a blacklisted fugitive facing allegations of massive corruption.

Recent news reports and a close examination of Grenell’s financial disclosure forms raise additional questions about whether any of his clients were foreign governments or politicians. US law requires Americans to disclose any work with international clients to the Justice Department, which recently ramped up enforcement of these federal lobbying laws to curb foreign meddling in US politics.

Grenell now has unrestricted access to closely held national security secrets and classified information about some of the most consequential topics, including any intelligence about Russia or other foreign powers interfering in the 2020 presidential election.

Support for Moldovan oligarch

The investigative outlet ProPublica reported Friday that Grenell worked in the US on behalf of a leading Moldovan politician, according to a person familiar with the relationship and another individual, but never registered as a foreign agent. CNN has not independently verified ProPublica’s reporting, but Grenell’s public financial disclosure form confirms that he received more than $5,000 from a lobbying firm that was involved in the effort.

ProPublica highlighted two op-eds Grenell wrote in 2016 in which he defended his alleged client Vladimir Plahotniuc, who was fending off corruption allegations and trying to improve his image with a visit to Washington. CNN found two additional columns by Grenell, published in conservative outlets Fox News and Newsmax, in which he accused Plahotniuc’s critics of smearing him on behalf of the Kremlin.

Plahotniuc, who was described by The New York Times as the “most-feared man” in the European country, fled Moldova in June after the new government charged him with corruption and seized many of his assets. Last month, the State Department blacklisted Plahotniuc for his “involvement in significant corruption” that “severely compromised the independence of democratic institutions in Moldova.”

Just five weeks after that announcement, Trump tapped Grenell for the senior intelligence post.

Senators had the chance to question Grenell during his in-person confirmation hearing in September 2017, but they didn’t ask about his work for foreign interests. This time around, there likely won’t be a confirmation hearing, because Trump installed Grenell as director of national intelligence only in an acting capacity, bypassing Congress.

Potential FARA problems

One Washington, DC, attorney who handles Foreign Agents Registration Act cases told CNN that investigators at the Justice Department regularly look in the press for evidence of improper foreign influence. That’s essentially what happened with Trump’s former national security adviser Michael Flynn in November 2016 after he published an op-ed attacking a top critic of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Flynn later pleaded guilty to lying to the FBI and admitted the FARA violation, though he is now trying to retract his guilty plea.

It’s unclear whether Grenell was directed by any Moldovan officials to publish the op-eds in US outlets, and it’s not clear if his activities violated FARA. There is no public indication that the Justice Department is currently investigating Grenell.

Craig Engle, a lawyer who is representing Grenell, declined to comment to CNN. But Engle told ProPublica that Grenell’s paid consulting work did not require him to register under FARA “because he was not working at the direction of a foreign power.”

“Ric was not paid to write these stories, in fact he has written hundreds of stories on his own time to express his own views,” Engle told ProPublica. “But to be clear: he was not working for any individual, he was working for himself and was advocating the ideal of a pro-western political party that was emerging.”

Engle made similar comments to the Washington Post on Monday, telling the newspaper Grenell had never been paid to express a foreign policy opinion.

The Moldova project was just one of many foreign jobs for Grenell. In 2016, Grenell’s company earned more than $100,000 from the Magyar Foundation, which is almost entirely funded by the Hungarian government, according to federal records. His work for Hungary was first flagged by the Quincy Institute, a foreign policy think tank.

Trump has grown close to Hungary’s far-right Prime Minister Viktor Orban and invited him to the White House last year. The foundation is based in the US and its filings with the Internal Revenue Service indicate that Grenell’s company was paid for “public relations.”

The Justice Department has prosecuted people over their contacts with reporters on behalf of foreign clients, including President Barack Obama’s White House Counsel Greg Craig. Craig was ultimately acquitted last year of one FARA-related lying charge.

CNN’s Kylie Atwood, Olanma Mang and Nicolle Okoren contributed to this report.