ARLINGTON, VA. – The Russia probe that consumed the first three years of the Trump presidency also nearly derailed the Washington career of former Minnesota Congressman Vin Weber.
Now he’s trying to get his reputation back.
The former six-term congressman from southern Minnesota recently learned that the Justice Department has dropped its probe into whether he and another powerful D.C. lobbyist violated federal foreign lobbying rules in their work for the nation of Ukraine.
The episode made Weber — a prominent GOP strategist and adviser to presidents and presidential candidates — collateral damage in Robert Mueller’s investigation into Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort, who is serving a prison term in connection with his work in Ukraine.
“You really only have your reputation in this business,” Weber told the Star Tribune during an interview in a hotel restaurant near the Pentagon. “And the reputational issue bothered me a great deal. I never had any doubt about the facts. But I’d rather not have gone through it.”
A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which had been handling the investigation into Weber and Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta, did not respond to several e-mails seeking comment.
At the end of last month, the D.C.-based global strategy firm Mercury LLC reinstated Weber as partner. He had resigned in late August while under scrutiny.
“Vin Weber is one of the most insightful leaders in Washington, D.C.,” said Michael McKeon, another Mercury partner. “We are proud to have him at Mercury.”
Weber insists he always believed the goal of his work for Ukraine was to strengthen the country’s U.S. relationship, to help loosen Russia’s grip on its much smaller neighbor and improve Ukraine’s image in the West. “That’s what I believed our mission was, that’s what we were working for all the time,” he said.
Manafort contracted Weber and Mercury in 2012 to work on behalf of a Brussels-based nonprofit, the European Center for a Modern Ukraine. By 2014, the outfit had steered almost $700,000 to Weber and Mercury.
Manafort is now serving a four-year prison term after his conviction in federal court on tax and bank fraud charges. He also pleaded guilty to conspiracy to defraud the U.S. and witness tampering. The charges stemmed from his work for former Ukrainian Prime Minister Viktor Yanukovych, whose pro-Russia regime was toppled in 2014.
Weber said he’s never stepped foot in Ukraine.
“Remember, this was 2012,” Weber said of the contract with Manafort. “It’s easy to say today, well, you shouldn’t have done anything associated with Paul Manafort. Well, 2012, we didn’t know that. I’d met Paul Manafort one time. He’d been the [Republican National Convention] manager for Bob Dole. Who’s more respectable than Bob Dole?”
The federal investigation into Weber and Podesta centered on their failure to register their work for Ukraine under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA).
“We were advised repeatedly by our lawyers that the proper registration for a nonprofit organization was the lobbying disclosure act,” Weber said. “The question was, was that proper, or should we have registered under the Foreign Agents Registration Act? Which I would have had no hesitancy to do, none. I’ve done it before, I’ve done it since.”
Failure to properly register under FARA is a felony. But James Thurber, a political-science professor at American University and an expert on lobbyist ethics, said FARA prosecutions over the past 50 years have been extremely rare. An inspector general report in 2015 criticized the Justice Department for not rigorously enforcing the law, he said, and Congress has tried without success to tighten it.
“I think they got bad advice,” Thurber said of Weber and Podesta. “They should have known better. They should have asked.”
Former Minnesota congressman Tim Penny, a Democrat who served with Weber, said his friend largely “suffered in silence” during the investigation and that when they talked, he was reluctant to discuss the pressure he was under.
“I was pretty certain from the outset that he was caught up in something that had little to do with him and everything to do with other agendas,” Penny said. “Because of what I know of him, I just couldn’t imagine he’d get caught up with something untoward in a knowing way.”
Weber, 67, was born in the southwestern Minnesota town of Slayton. His grandfather was a Minnesota state senator and editor of the weekly Murray County Herald. His father later ran the paper, and Weber worked there as a teenager.
Weber got involved with Republican politics as a student at the University of Minnesota. He was an early supporter of President Ronald Reagan, going back to his first White House bid in 1968.
Reagan was elected president in 1980, the same year that the 28-year-old Weber was elected to Congress. Two years earlier, he’d managed the U.S. Senate campaign of former Sen. Rudy Boschwitz.
“I still tell people, if you want to talk to one of the smartest strategic thinkers in Washington, that’s Vin,” said Annette Meeks, a longtime Republican operative from Minnesota who went to work for Weber in 1984 and later joined the staff of former Speaker Newt Gingrich, an old Weber ally. “He has an amazing insight into American politics and the American psyche.”
Early in his time in Congress, Gingrich approached him and pitched a long-term project to topple Democrats’ four-decade majority in the U.S. House.
“We [Republicans] got confrontational, some of which I’m not happy about today,” Weber said.
Gingrich’s aggressive tactics are now often cited for helping foment the bitter partisanship that grips Washington today. Weber doesn’t entirely disagree.
“I bemoan the current state of our politics, and I don’t think there’s any denying the actions of House Republicans in the 1980s contributed to that,” he said. But he said he’d do it again.
By the time Gingrich’s plan came to fruition in the 1994 midterm election, Weber was gone from Congress. He didn’t run for re-election in 1992, a decision that came shortly after he was implicated in a check overdraft scandal that dinged many House members. But Weber said the major factor was that he and his wife were new parents to two young daughters.
Weber soon joined a prominent D.C. public affairs firm that later morphed into Mercury. He accumulated D.C. clout, mixing in elite conservative circles and counseling Republican presidential candidates including Dole, all three Bushes, John McCain and Mitt Romney.
It was Mueller’s investigation into Russian election tampering that led to the investigation into Weber. The questions about Russia, in turn, spun off into queries about Ukraine, which is now at the center of the impeachment case against President Donald Trump.
The two nations seemed bound together, both in history and in the special counsel probe.
“A very solid majority of Ukrainians do not want to go back to being part of Russia,” Weber said. Of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s intentions for the country, he said: “If he gets Ukraine back somehow, I don’t think there’s any reason to think he’ll stop.”
There’s an irony that circumstances stemming from Trump’s 2016 election ended up engulfing Weber, who publicly criticized Trump and says he did not vote for him.
“I wrote in Paul Ryan,” Weber said. “I assumed Hillary was going to win, and if I had not, I might have voted for Hillary.”
But of Trump’s tenure, Weber said, “It’s not been as bad as I thought it would be.” Will he vote for Trump next year?
“Probably,” Weber said.