How Foreign Governments Interfere in U.S. Politics

How Foreign Governments Interfere in U.S. Politics

From TikTok to AIPAC, intense partisanship provides a channel for foreign states to interfere in U.S. politics and policy.

The Chinese ownership of the video app TikTok—targeted by a bill that the House of Representatives passed with a large bipartisan majority—might indicate a severe concern about curbing the influence of foreign states in American public affairs. Part of the argument for requiring the current Chinese owner to sell the app if it continues to operate in the United States is that the Chinese government might pressure the owner to turn over data on TikTok’s American users. However, another argument supporting the bill is that China could use the app not only as an intelligence-gathering tool but also as an instrument for influencing American opinion and politics, including U.S. elections.

So far, no evidence has surfaced that the Chinese regime has exploited its ownership of TikTok for either of these purposes. Whatever threat there may be is still a matter of potential future exploitation by Beijing. However, the possibility of Chinese influence can hardly be dismissed. The U.S. intelligence community, in its most recent unclassified worldwide threat assessment, states that a propaganda arm of the Chinese regime reportedly used individual TikTok accounts to target candidates from both U.S. political parties during the campaign for the 2022 midterm elections.

However, as the House bill faces an uncertain future in the Senate, deliberations on it show less seriousness about curbing foreign influence than a miring of the issue in the sort of partisan and parochial considerations that pollute discussion of so many other problems.

Among the calculations that senators make are, for example, what political blowback might be expected from younger users for whom TikTok is highly popular. Democrats are especially concerned about not only antagonizing that cohort but also losing an important platform from which to reach them.

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, from whom many congressional Republicans take their cues these days, carries parochialism to an extreme in his position on the TikTok issue. Trump previously supported the bill about Chinese divestiture but later reversed his position. The reasons for the reversal evidently include staying in the good graces of billionaire donor Jeff Yass, a major investor in TikTok’s current parent company. Trump also does not wish any social media business from a banned TikTok to go to Meta, led by Mark Zuckerberg, against whom he has a grudge. To the extent Trump is concerned about the minds of social media users getting influenced, he is more worried about Zuckerberg’s manipulation than the Chinese regime’s.

As if there were not already enough political and emotional baggage clouding the TikTok issue, an additional angle concerns the current artificial humanitarian catastrophe in the Gaza Strip. TikTok has become a prominent platform for expressions of sympathy for the Palestinians and related criticism of Israeli policies. Those wanting to silence any criticism of Israel thus have a motive to support the removal of TikTok from American life.

This gets to another significant problem of foreign state influence on American politics and policy, which arose backhandedly with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s (D-NY) recent speech calling for Israelis to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Given Schumer’s impeccable pro-Israel credentials, the speech was an important statement. Unsurprisingly, Netanyahu struck back at Schumer, saying, “It’s inappropriate to go to a sister democracy and try to replace the elected leadership there.”

Netanyahu’s rejoinder was as rich as it was unsurprising, given that no other foreign leader is probably as well-practiced in extensively and directly interfering in U.S. politics and policy as Benjamin Netanyahu. That interference has included, among many other things, denouncing policies of an incumbent U.S. administration from the House of Representatives podium and operationalizing an alliance between Netanyahu’s Likud and Trump’s Republicans through the sharing of campaign materials.

Netanyahu continued his rejoinder to Schumer and his partisan ways by speaking via video link to the Republican Senate caucus. Schumer rejected the idea of a Netanyahu speech to the Democratic caucus because, according to his spokesperson, “he does not think these discussions should happen in a partisan manner. That’s not helpful to Israel.”  

Israeli interference in American politics is longstanding and goes far beyond Netanyahu. The most glaring omission in applying and enforcing the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) is that the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) has never been registered under that law.

Social media have played a role in Israel’s interference in American politics, as it has in China’s interference. Social media researchers have uncovered an Israeli influence effort aimed primarily at Democratic lawmakers that has used hundreds of fake accounts to promote the Israeli position on issues involving Palestinians.

The increasingly sharp partisan divide on issues involving Israel and the Palestinians means there is a partisan—precisely, a Republican—motive to downplay or ignore Israeli interference in American politics and policy. Thus, one hears Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) attack Schumer’s speech in terms as scathing as Netanyahu himself might use. McConnell has not recognized the irony of criticizing Schumer for “interference” in the politics of a “democratic ally” when the foreign leader McConnell is defending has indulged so extensively in such interference himself.

Speaker of the House Mike Johnson (R-LA), without consulting Democratic leaders in Congress or the executive branch, says he will invite Netanyahu to hold forth again from the House podium. 

As with the interference by Israel, Republicans have acquired a motive to downplay or ignore the extensively and repeatedly documented interference by Russia in U.S. elections. The motive stems mainly from Donald Trump’s peculiar relationship with Russia and the Republican desire to discredit any reference to how Russia aided Trump’s candidacy in 2016 or to the actions of Trump and his entourage that facilitated the Russian interference.

As the Israeli and Russian cases both illustrate, partisanship in the United States provides a channel for foreign states to interfere in U.S. politics and policy. This was precisely one of the Founding Fathers’ chief concerns in warning against the ill effects of “faction” in the infant American republic. Among the first installments of the Federalist Papers was a series of essays by John Jay collectively titled “Concerning Dangers from Foreign Force and Influence.” Jay foresaw how domestic division could lead to foreign interference parties because foreign regimes, “acting under the impulse of opposite interests and unfriendly passions,” would often favor one side or the other in domestic American disputes.

Personal corruption provides another channel for foreign states to interfere in U.S. policymaking. But partisanship is also often involved, partly because politicians ignore the problem of foreign interference while trying to score partisan points.

The search by congressional Republicans for some basis to impeach President Biden by looking at his son’s foreign business activities—a search that seems to be going nowhere since the Republicans’ star source was exposed as a fabricator—illustrates the point. If the members really wanted to address foreign influence stemming from the business dealings of a president’s family member, they would have a glaring example from the previous administration, especially involving Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner.

Kushner—quite unlike Hunter Biden—was given wide responsibilities regarding U.S. policy toward the Middle East. A payoff came six months after Kushner and his father-in-law left office when Kushner received a $2 billion infusion into his newly created private equity fund from a Saudi public investment fund controlled by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). The Saudi ruler acted against the advice of his own professional investment advisers, who had cited the inexperience and high fees of Kushner’s operation as reasons not to invest in it. The transaction is best understood as a return favor for the Trump administration’s friendly posture toward MBS’s autocratic regime, such as disregarding the crown prince’s role in the murder of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and probably a down payment for more hoped-for favors from a second Trump administration.

Kushner’s overseas business dealings were recently in the news because of planned projects in the Balkans, in which his income would depend on cooperation by the governments of Serbia and Albania. It is unknown whether Kushner would be in a position in a second Trump administration to steer reciprocal favors to those Balkan nations.

More likely, he again would have a role in Middle East policy, given his personal ties to Netanyahu and Israel. In an interview last month, Kushner showed how a real estate developer’s perspective could lead to unrealistic, ineffective, and insensitive policies on an issue as complicated as the current humanitarian tragedy in the Gaza Strip—while giving a foreign state space to carry out extreme policies. Gaza’s “waterfront property” could be “very valuable,” Kushner said, recommending that Israel “move the people out and then clean it up” so it can “finish the job” in the Strip.

Paul R. Pillar retired in 2005 from a twenty-eight-year career in the U.S. intelligence community, in which his last position was as the National Intelligence Officer for the Near East and South Asia. Earlier, he served in a variety of analytical and managerial positions, including as chief of analytic units at the CIA, covering portions of the Near East, the Persian Gulf, and South Asia. His most recent book is Beyond the Water’s Edge: How Partisanship Corrupts U.S. Foreign Policy. He is also a contributing editor for this publication.