Robert Mueller could use supposedly ‘toothless’ law to bring down Trump
Robert Mueller in the Oval Office on July 20, 2012. (Photo by Pete Souza.)

While special counsel Robert Mueller investigation into President Donald Trump's White House outwardly appears to be focusing on money laundering and contacts between the administration and Russian contacts, the former FBI director has an ace of his sleeve by giving new life to the the Foreign Agents Registration Act, or FARA, to flip former aides against the president.

According to a report by NPR, FARA, which has previously been described as "toothless," is playing a major part in the pursuit of former Trump campaign manager Paul Manafort and his business associate Rick Gates.

As described by NPR, FARA "requires Americans working on behalf of foreign governments, foreign political parties, or any person or organization outside the U.S., to disclose who is paying them to do what."

Manfort's deep ties to political work for foreign governments -- in addition to advising the president -- opened him up to being charged under the statute and provides a clue of yet another avenue Mueller is using to dig into the Trump administration.

"It's a statute designed to bring out into the sunlight the coordination between foreign actors, foreign governments, foreign corporations, foreign private citizens and those in the United States who are pushing for particular policy changes," explained University of Texas law professor Stephen Vladeck, adding, "The idea [was] not that these policy changes are per se problematic, but that when a foreign interest is the one funding, calling the shots, pushing for some kind of change to domestic policy, the American people and American policymakers have a right to know."

According to the report, from 1966 to 2017, the Justice Department sought just seven prosecutions under FARA, and there are fewer than 10 staffers in the Justice Department investigating and enforcing FARA cases.

With Manafort and Rick Gates already charged by Mueller's team under FARA, it seems inevitable that former national security adviser Michael Flynn is facing similar charges for filing as a agent long after he did work for the Turkish government.

What remains to be seen is how both the Mueller team and attorneys for White House staffers deal with a law that is seldom enforced and has little track record that might provide a road-map for a legal strategy.

As Flynn attorney Robert Kelner, explained, "The statute itself is extremely vague: It contains a number of terms that are not well defined. There's very little case law interpreting it."

"There's been a lot of confusion about what it means and very, very little enforcement and that tends to lead to an atmosphere in which lots of firms don't pay very close attention to a statute that they don't understand, he added.