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Why Bob Dole’s unsavory American lobbying legacy matters

Over the past few days, a range of pieces about the late Sen. Bob Dole have centered on a handful of themes. There are pieces praising Dole’s bravery, his statesmanship, his patriotism. There are even pieces linking Dole’s death to the end of an era of bipartisanship — with more than a few pundits opining that the Kansas lawmaker was one of the last figures remaining from an era when Congress actually functioned.

It’s certainly true that Dole, the 1996 Republican nominee for president and a World War II hero, was a singular figure in Washington.

It’s certainly true that Dole, the 1996 Republican nominee for president and a World War II hero, was a singular figure in Washington.

But there’s another element to Dole’s legacy, as well. While Dole may have symbolized bipartisan comity, he also blazed a path for prominent Washington politicians to become lobbyists for some of the shadiest, most kleptocratic foreign figures in Washington. In many ways, Dole helped open the floodgates to an explosion of sleazy lobbying that has drenched Washington in the past few decades.

It’s a legacy that has received little attention over the past few years, even as foreign lobbying on behalf of crooked, corrupt clients led to scandal after scandal during the Trump era. But Dole, a supposed “lion of the Senate,” had a whole second career as an American politician willing to sell his name to whichever foreign lobbying client came calling — regardless of their democratic credentials.

Just look through some of the oligarchs, regimes and groups Dole helped whitewash after retiring from the Senate in 1996. Perhaps no figure better encapsulates Dole’s transformation into a reputation launderer for kleptocratic clients than Russian oligarch Oleg Deripaska.

In the mid-2000s, Deripaska — one of the most notorious pro-Kremlin oligarchs to emerge in Moscow — attempted to land an American visa to visit the U.S. Both then and now, accusations of bribery and violence saturated Deripaska’s rise to power. As the Treasury Department wrote in 2018, there are “allegations that Deripaska bribed a government official, ordered the murder of a businessman, and had links to a Russian organized crime group.” (Deripaska has consistently denied such allegations and sued the Treasury in 2019 in an effort, he said, to clear his name and rid himself of U.S. sanctions.) Washington held off on granting Deripaska a visa.

Then Dole stepped in. With his firm, Alston and Bird, taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in fees from the Russian oligarch, Dole led a lobbying campaign to, as The Wall Street Journal reported at the time, “persuade U.S. officials his client isn’t a criminal and that his business operations are transparent.” The campaign was ultimately successful, ushering Deripaska into the U.S. and granting him access to U.S. policymakers and businessmen.

A few years later, though, it became clear to many that Deripaska was not some clean, independent businessman, as Dole took money to claim. Instead, as CNN recently reported, Deripaska remained an “ally” of Russian President Vladimir Putin, with the oligarch appearing in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election for allegedly working alongside Paul Manafort. The Mueller report detailed that Manafort funneled information about the Trump campaign, including internal polling data, to alleged Russian intelligence agent Konstantin Kilimnik, with the expectation that Kilimnik would pass the information to Deripaska (among others).

The Treasury Department claimed in 2018 that Deripaska remains a key player in Russia’s “malign activity” abroad and that he “has said that he does not separate himself from the Russian state.” Deripaska has always denied the allegations against him. Nonetheless, the U.S. slapped sanctions on Deripaska that same year. In October, the FBI launched raids on American properties linked to Deripaska.

But it wasn’t just Russian oligarchs. Alongside foreign clients from places like Kosovo and Armenia, Dole and his firm had no problem working with autocratic or dictatorial regimes around the world. One federal lobbying filing indicates Dole worked on behalf of the dictatorial government of the United Arab Emirates, which has been connected to allegations of underhanded lobbying campaigns in recent years. Filings also indicate Dole worked to whitewash the reputation of the autocratic regime in the Democratic Republic of Congo, connecting the country’s budding dictator with policymakers in Washington.

Alongside foreign clients from places like Kosovo and Armenia, Dole and his firm had no problem working with autocratic or dictatorial regimes around the world.

In the late 2000s, Dole also joined the board of a bank in Kyrgyzstan called AsiaUniversalBank. According to extensive reporting from both journalists and pro-transparency groups like Global Witness, the bank acted as an effective money laundromat for the ruling Bakiyev family, which snuffed out pro-democracy movements until it was ousted in a bloody revolution in 2010. (The was regarded as so suspect that even the Russian Central Bank recommended against working with AUB.) As Global Witness wrote, the bank maintained “significant indicators that suggest money laundering: hundreds of millions of dollars seemed to be moving through their accounts while they were not engaged in any real business activity.”

But then Dole stepped into the breach, joining the bank’s board in 2007 and lending his reputation to the brand. (It’s unclear how much Dole made from the arrangement.) One Kyrgyz official told me a few years ago about Dole joining the bank, “I remember being disgusted by how cheap U.S. politicians [were] on sale.”

To be sure, Dole is hardly the only prominent Western politician to trade their name for lucrative lobbying contracts. European countries have seen numerous former leaders leave office and immediately link up with dictators and authoritarians, from German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder working in Russia to British Prime Minister Tony Blair advising the dictator in Kazakhstan. But Dole certainly stands out.

But then again, maybe this shouldn’t be a surprise. After all, Dole was the only former GOP nominee to endorse Donald Trump (and who continued praising the former president). Likewise, it’s worth remembering who oversaw Dole’s formal nomination in 1996, a name that will forever be synonymous with shady foreign connections: Paul Manafort.

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