Viktor Yanukovych (painted portrait on a wall.)

Was CRC Public Relations Registered as a Foreign Agent?

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Was CRC Public Relations Registered as a Foreign Agent?

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The nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court was already a topic of controversy well before multiple women came forward with credible claims that he had sexually harassed and victimized them during the summer of 2018.

Before Kavanaugh himself had even had a chance to respond to the charges publicly, others swooped into the discourse in apparent attempts to exonerate him. One such endeavor took the form of a long string of tweets from Ed Whelan, a writer for the National Review and president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative Washington, D.C. think tank dedicated — according to its website — to “applying the Judeo-Christian moral tradition to critical issues of public policy.”

According to Whelan, Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, who was the first woman to come forward with a story about the Supreme Court nominee attempting to rape her at a party thirty-five years before, was not sexually assaulted by a teenaged Brett Kavanaugh, but by another man roughly the same age who bore a passing resemblance to him. Whelan then put up full names, home addresses, floor plans, and photographs to support his doppelgänger thesis.

The backlash was swift and thorough. Whelan deleted the thread (although the tweets, of course, still live on in infamy and in screenshots), publicly apologized, and tried to resign from his EPPC post.

That particular story was not over yet, however. It soon emerged that he was not simply pushing a strange conspiracy theory on his own, but that it had been cooked up at least in part by Creative Response Concepts Public Relations, a firm that was until 2018 perhaps best known for its role in the so-called “Swift Boat” controversy that damaged John Kerry’s 2004 bid for United States president.

“After suggesting on Twitter on Tuesday that he had obtained information that would exculpate Kavanaugh from the sexual assault allegation made by Christine Blasey Ford, Whelan worked over the next 48 hours with CRC and its president, Greg Mueller, to stoke the anticipation,” reported Politico:

A longtime friend of Kavanaugh’s, Whelan teased his reveal — even as he refused to discuss it with other colleagues and close friends, a half dozen of them said. At the same time, he told them he was absolutely confident the information he had obtained would exculpate the judge.

The hype ping-ponged from Republicans on Capitol Hill to Kavanaugh’s team in the White House, evidence of an extraordinarily successful public relations campaign that ultimately backfired when Whelan’s theory — complete with architectural drawings and an alleged Kavanaugh doppelgänger — landed with a thud on Twitter Thursday evening.

In the aftermath of that revelation, and in the middle of an NBC investigation about his own purported sexual harassment, a former CRC employee named Garrett Ventry resigned from his post with Judiciary Committee chair Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), where he had been acting as a spokesperson and helping with “messaging” around Blasey’s assault claims. He had been working with Grassley’s office since taking a leave from CRC in July 2018.

But the story was not over yet:

This is true. The company registered as a foreign agent in 2005, meaning that the firm was an agency in the United States representing the interests of foreign powers in a political or “quasi-political” capacity; the law was originally passed in 1938 as a way to fight outside propaganda.

It covers most lobbying, advertising, public relations, and fundraising for “foreign principals” as defined, that is not of a commercial nature, or performed by Embassy officials. The Act requires agents to make periodic public disclosure of their identities, agency, activities, receipts and disbursements. Disclosure of the required information facilitates evaluation by the government and the American people of the statements and activities of such persons in light of their status as foreign agents.

The 2005 document, readily available on fara.gov, clearly shows that Creative Response Concepts accepted money for working with Viktor Yanukovych, Ukraine’s pro-Russia prime minister who won the 2004 election after his popular outspoken opponent, the Western-friendly Victor Yushchenko, suddenly fell mysteriously ill. (Austrian doctors diagnosed it as dioxin poisoning.) Yanukovych fled Ukraine for Russia in 2014 with the Kremlin’s help.

According to a 2017 article by Ukraine political expert Taras Kuzio, CRC was not alone in their work. In fact, in the mid-2000s, the playing field was teeming with big names, including former campaign chairman Paul Manafort.

Yanukovych and his oligarchic allies hired American consultants, lobbyists and lawyers to a greater degree than any other group of Ukrainians. From 2002-2004, his government had an established relationship with a range of U.S. consultancies that included DB Communications, Venable, Potomac Communications Strategies, Creative Response Concepts and Jefferson Waterman International. FARA reported that the Yanukovych government paid DB Communications and Venable $123,000 per month in 2004.

After the 2004 Orange Revolution, Davis-Manafort International was recommended to Yanukovych’s long-term ally, oligarch Rinat Akhmetov. Davis-Manafort International worked in Ukraine and in the U.S. but never registered with FARA in 2005-2014. Manafort headed Trump’s election campaign but resigned after extensive media coverage of his nefarious activities. Manafort’s work for Yanukovych became public through the FARA registration of Daniel J. Edelman. 

However, whether this is related to Whelan’s tweetstorm or Kavanaugh’s confirmation at all, or what this means beyond the fact that the world is a small place and Washington, D.C. smaller still remains unclear — but time, perhaps, will tell.