DeSantis spokeswoman belatedly registers as agent of foreign politician
Christina Pushaw’s disclosure of work for Mikheil Saakashvili came after contact from the Justice Department, her attorney said
By Isaac Stanley-Becker
June 8, 2022 at 6:00 a.m. EDT
A spokeswoman for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) this week registered as a foreign agent of a former president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, belatedly detailing work she performed for the politician between 2018 and 2020.
The spokeswoman, Christina Pushaw, made the disclosure following contact from the Justice Department, according to her attorney, Michael Sherwin. She began her work in 2018 as a volunteer in the post-Soviet country, Sherwin said, and was ultimately paid $25,000 over the course of two years. She received her first payment, of $10,000 in October 2018, in cash, according to her filing. She stayed for free for six weeks in an apartment owned by a Saakashvili associate in Tbilisi, the Georgian capital.
“Her efforts included writing op-eds, reaching out to supporters and officials, and advocating on his behalf in Georgia and in the United States,” Sherwin said. “The work ended in 2020. Ms. Pushaw was notified recently by the DOJ that her work on behalf of Mr. Saakashvilli likely required FARA registration. Ms. Pushaw filed for the registration retroactively as soon as she was made aware.”
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
The episode reflects standard enforcement practices under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA), said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, an expert on the 1938 law at D.C.-based Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein and Birkenstock. A letter of inquiry may prompt a voluntary registration, he said, to “short-circuit a more formal determination of a failure to comply.”
Enforcement can take place years after the activity in question if authorities receive a complaint or simply act on a public news item, he said. Though the methods are standard, Rosenstein added, there is an increased willingness to use them.
Last month, the Justice Department sued Steve Wynn, a developer and Republican megadonor, seeking to compel him to register as an agent of China. Days before that, a Washington lobbying firm said a probe into its work for Burisma Holdings concluded when it submitted a new filing retroactively detailing its activities on behalf of the Ukrainian oil and natural gas company, which once counted Hunter Biden as a board member.
Pushaw, a year into her tenure as DeSantis’s press secretary, has become a prominent protector of her boss and a fierce critic of the media. Twitter briefly locked her account last year after the Associated Press said the criticism she directed at a reporter caused him to receive death threats.
She has written openly on social media of her work for Saakashvili, who was arrested last year when he returned to Georgia after eight years in exile. Associated with factions critical of the Kremlin, Saakashvili led Georgia from 2004 until 2013 and entered Ukrainian politics after that country removed a pro-Russian president in 2014.
A court in Georgia, now controlled by Saakashvili’s political opponents, convicted him in absentia in 2018. He faced arrest three years later when he made a theatrical return to his country, posting a copy of his plane ticket on social media.
According to Pushaw’s LinkedIn profile, she joined the governor’s office in May 2021 after her time as director of a nonprofit “focused on empowering youth through education and professional development opportunities” based in Tbilisi. She also lists experience as a campaign strategist for a Georgian opposition party and, on other social media, has identified that party as the United National Movement, which Saakashvili once chaired.
In her filing with the Justice Department, dated June 6, she wrote that her activities “included perception management, public relations, and preparation and dissemination of informational materials to an international audience, including U.S. persons and entities.”
Pushaw’s work for Saakashvili involved going toe-to-toe in 2018 with W. Samuel Patten, a political consultant who had just pleaded guilty to not registering as an agent of a Ukrainian political party. As part of his plea deal, Patten agreed to assist special counsel Robert S. Mueller III in his investigation of foreign influence in the 2016 election.
In communication reproduced at the time by George Washington University law professor Jonathan Turley, Pushaw claims to have contacted the Justice Department about messages allegedly sent by Patten to a former aide to Saakashvili before the Georgian exile’s appearance on CNN. In the appearance, which included discussion of Patten’s case, Saakashvili read aloud the messages said to have come from Patten, including a warning to “call off your trolls now, or I’ll start releasing things about Misha he’d prefer I didn’t.”
“Today, I contacted the DOJ to report Sam’s threat and send over the screenshots,” Pushaw wrote to Turley, who appeared on CNN after Saakashvili. “I believe Sam knew [Saakashvili] would talk about the case on CNN yesterday, since I announced it on Facebook a few hours beforehand. I think Sam sent the threat right before the interview to coerce him into silence.”
Patten called the suggestion that he was bullying Saakashvili or his associates “absurd, backwards and disproven.” Turley said he reproduced Pushaw’s message with her permission. Sherwin, her attorney, did not respond to a question about the 2018 episode.