Will Paul Manafort Take This D.C. Power Broker Down With Him?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the Mueller investigation is shining a light into the shady world of lobbying for foreign governments.
After a decade in Congress, Vin Weber was drummed out for, in effect, not having enough money in the bank. The Minnesota Republican wrote more than 100 bad checks from his House bank account, one of dozens of members who were roasted for a perk that came to define an out-of-touch Congress in 1992. Weber went on a farewell apology tour of his sprawling district, where one local newspaper memorably printed a constituent’s call for his jailing.
But this was just the first act of Weber’s Washington tale. In the past quarter-century as a lobbyist, Weber’s checkbook has been flush as a power broker respected on both sides of the aisle. The question hanging over Weber now is whether he will be felled once again by scandal — this time as a side player in special counsel Robert Mueller’s probe that has exposed the shady world of overseas lobbying via Paul Manafort, former Donald Trump campaign chairman and Weber business associate.
Weber, 66, grew up in small-town Slayton, Minnesota, and worked as a Capitol Hill staffer before he was first elected to Congress in 1980 at just 28 years old. He became an ally of rising star Newt Gingrich, ascending in the Republican leadership until declining to run for re-election amid the check-kiting scandal. When the 1994 GOP wave led the party to its first House majority in four decades, Weber was well placed to influence them, having just opened lobbying firm Clark & Weinstock’s new D.C. office.
Weber’s varied work leaves him vulnerable to charges of ideological malleability.
Since then, Weber — who did not respond to requests for comment — has represented educational institutions, private companies, trade associations and foreign governments. He stayed on after Clark & Weinstock merged with Mercury, a PR firm, in 2011, and remains a partner at the renamed Mercury Public Affairs. Through it all, he’s kept a high profile: Weber has been named among Washington’s most influential lobbyists multiple times since the 2000s and served as a special adviser to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “When people come [to D.C.], Vin’s a guy they call on,” says Tom Davis, a former Republican congressman from northern Virginia who’s now a director of federal government affairs at Deloitte LLP. “He understands how Washington works.”
Weber has managed to cultivate respect across the ideological spectrum in Washington, as he wrote exactly the kind of “swamp” tale that irks Trump. Sure enough, Weber was one of candidate Trump’s prominent Republican critics — counted among 30 former GOP House members to sign an October 2016 letter calling Trump “a man who makes a mockery of the principles and values we have cherished.” Weber’s establishment allies still view Trump as an aberration and expect to regain political influence when he’s gone. “Whether that’s correct or not remains to be seen,” says Davis.
Lately, Weber has been less critical of Trump, calling the GOP’s 40-seat House loss “about what you’d expect for a midterm” and crediting the president with “[motivating] both sides” in a post-election panel at the University of Minnesota. He did warn Republicans to shore up their losses with suburban moderates, calling the party’s base strategy “a burning platform.”
While our politics is increasingly characterized by ideological movements and partisan shouting, Washington lobbyists fare better in the mainstream. Many of Weber’s present and recent past clients have cross-partisan appeal, like the Air Conditioning, Heating, and Refrigeration Institute (AHRI) trade association and Gallaudet University (a Washington, D.C., university for the deaf and hard of hearing).
Not all Mercury clients are milquetoast. Weber represented the government of Qatar until late last year; filings show Weber and his associates lobbying members of both parties about restarting the “Qatar caucus” in the House, which has not yet come to fruition amid accusations of Qatari ties to terrorism and longstanding U.S. ties with regional foe Saudi Arabia.
Weber’s varied work leaves him vulnerable to charges of ideological malleability too. While Weber advised then-candidate Romney, who famously called Russia “our No. 1 geopolitical foe,” Mercury made a killing off its relationship with the European Centre for a Modern Ukraine (ECFMU) think tank — earning about $640,000 between April 2012 and May 2014, according to filings compiled by ProPublica. An indictment filed this year by the special counsel’s office revealed that the ostensibly independent ECFMU was directly controlled by then-president Viktor Yanukovych’s party, which openly pushed Ukraine closer to the Kremlin.
Weber’s two-year stint repping ECFMU is his only publicly reported tie to Manafort’s Ukraine lobbying, but not to Kremlin-tied interests. Beginning in 2009, Weber represented Gazprom, the Russian state natural gas firm. And as late as August 2016, Weber continued to hold Manafort in high regard, telling CNBC that “[h]e is not the sort to take a bullet for Donald Trump.”
Now, it’s Manafort who may control Weber’s fate. This summer, Manafort took a plea deal for his testimony. According to public reports, federal prosecutors in New York are investigating whether Weber violated U.S. law earlier this decade by failing to properly disclose his lobbying work for ECFMU. Robert Trout, Weber’s lawyer, declined to comment for this story but told The New York Times in September that Weber was willing to properly register his work for ECFMU, and did so under less stringent rules, “only because that is what the company’s outside lawyers advised.” Manafort’s testimony could back up — or undermine — Trout’s statements. The plot thickened last month when Mueller’s team accused Manafort of breaching his plea agreement by lying, throwing his entire testimony into doubt, though Manafort associate Rick Gates is still cooperating — and would be in the know on Ukraine too.
The often deliberate opacity of foreign lobbying arrangements complicates media and law enforcement efforts to identify true sources of money and influence in real time. “We’ve been thinking more about how much we really know about foreign governments’ or entities’ lobbying activities,” says Michael Minta, a political science professor at the University of Minnesota. That’s due in many ways to Mueller’s digging.
Despite some clients heading for the exits since Manafort’s October 2017 indictment, Mercury has apparently avoided the fate of the Podesta Group, another Manafort-tied firm that went dark in late 2017. Clients such as AHRI say they’re holding firm.
Weber himself is keeping busy too. He sits on the boards of two top D.C. think tanks, the Council on Foreign Relations and the Aspen Institute, and is the de facto “man in Washington” for the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Says University of Minnesota political science professor Lawrence Jacobs, who ran the post-election panel: “I value Vin for his intelligence and candor.”
Many do, meaning that even in Trump’s disrupted Washington and with a possible prosecution hovering, Weber isn’t going anywhere anytime soon.
Read more: Lobbyist David Urban is Trump’s defender from the trenches of the swamp.