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Mueller's best move so far is blowing lid off the dangerous foreign lobbying in DC

  • The Manafort indictment does not provide slam dunk evidence for or against President Trump.
  • But it does blow the lid off the ugly and dangerous business of foreign lobbying in America.
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller deserves everyone's thanks for exposing this problem on the biggest possible stage.
Robert Mueller
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Robert Mueller

Let's all stop and give thanks to Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

Trump supporters and haters alike, I'm talking to you too.

We should thank him because he's finally shining a much-needed light on the worst kind of political corruption the D.C. swamp has to offer: Foreign lobbying.

And Monday's indictment of Paul Manafort shows just how extensive, lucrative, and potentially dangerous the business of foreign lobbying is in America. It shows how lobbyists from both major political parties engage in it en masse. And it exposes the incredibly lax enforcement of even the inadequate laws against foreign lobbying abuse.

How lax is it? Consider that Manafort has been a widely known lobbyist and consultant for decades for notorious foreign leaders like former Philippines dictator Ferdinand Marcos, former Zaire dictator Mobuto Sese Seko, and former Angolan guerilla leader Jonas Savimbi. And yet even with a resume as controversial and conspicuous as that, Manafort had never even registered as a foreign lobbyist as required by the law until just four months ago. You'd be hard pressed to find a foreign lobbyist in American history who needed to be properly registered more than Paul Manafort did by law years before he ever worked with Donald Trump. But he didn't bother and wasn't effectively forced to do so for so many years.

Manafort has plenty of company. A 2016 Justice Department report said that 62 percent of foreign lobbyists who did bother to register did so in a late or untimely fashion. And 15 percent of registrants had stopped filing altogether or were delinquent for more than six months.

"There's plenty for all Americans on all political sides to be worried about when it comes to the very big business and slippery slope to corruption foreign lobbying really is. The Manafort indictment is laying out all of these problems on the biggest possible stage."

That lack of legally required transparency is at the heart of the problem as it leads to free flowing cash and corruption. As NBC News is reporting, failure to register has also ensnared the left-leaning Podesta Group in this indictment. Mueller alleges that the group took $2 million in payments from Manafort-controlled offshore accounts to lobby on behalf of Ukrainian government interests. Podesta group founder Tony Podesta resigned from the firm Monday just as the indictments were coming to light. His brother John Podesta is not charged with any crime, but he of course was the chairman of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign.

But speaking of Hillary Clinton, the Clinton Foundation has long been the target of criticism for taking donations from foreign donors before and after Clinton was Secretary of State. Surely the Trump supporters remember that.

In other words, there's plenty for both partisan Republicans and Democrats to chew on when it comes to the foreign lobbying business. And there's plenty for all Americans on all political sides to be worried about when it comes to the very big business and slippery slope to corruption foreign lobbying really is. The Manafort indictment is laying out all of these problems on the biggest possible stage.

Now it's up to Congress and the Trump team to make sure the clearly needed changes to the laws and serious enforcement of them really happens. A good place to start is obviously enforcing the lobbyist registration rules by actually fining or even jailing the worst offenders.

Another good tactic would be to address the elaborate persuasion schemes launched by foreign government funded news networks like the Russia Television network (RT). A bipartisan Senate bill sponsored by Democrat Jeanne Shaheen and Republican Todd Young would give the Justice Department the authority to investigate organizations like RT, and to demand information on their funding sources and foreign connections.

And another thing that must change are the laws that allow American citizens working as foreign lobbyists to act as de facto couriers for political donations to U.S. campaigns. That's right, it's perfectly legal for lobbyists to meet with members of Congress or other elected officials to advocate for foreign clients, and then give the exact same representative a campaign contribution that very same day. And lobbyist reform advocate Ben Freeman documented dozens of instances where that actually happened in his book "The Foreign Policy Auction."

Now if all the public wants from Mueller is either slam dunk proof of a crime committed by Donald Trump or Mr. Trump's complete exoneration, then they're going to be disappointed right now and maybe forever.

But what we do have now, thanks to Mueller, is the most egregious proof that unchecked foreign lobbying is rampant and is a serious problem in this country. Mueller has pulled the lid off its cover in a significant way. Remember, Mueller's official title is "Special Counsel investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections." That makes Monday's indictment relatively germane to his stated mission. It's not like the Whitewater investigation of President Bill Clinton that began as a probe into a real estate deal and led to the revelation of the Monica Lewinsky affair.

And sure, one could argue that the charges against Manafort had been in the works for years and a special counsel was not needed to finally bring them to a grand jury. But would those charges and the entire foreign lobbying racket get the extreme exposure it's getting now in almost any other way? That's doubtful.

Of course it can't be ignored, that Mueller's exposure of the foreign lobbying operations in America could also help to expose an actual crime committed by President Trump and/or the Clinton team during the 2016 election. When and if that happens, the value of Monday's charges will be obvious to everyone.

But if nothing else, the Mueller team has done America a favor by alerting us to this crucial lobbying problem. And for that alone, he already deserves our thanks.

Commentary by Jake Novak, CNBC.com senior columnist. Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.