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Casino mogul Steve Wynn is fighting a DOJ demand that he register as a foreign agent

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The Justice Department is trying to crack down on foreign influence operations inside the U.S. Real estate investor Tom Barrack, a friend of former President Donald Trump, is on trial in Brooklyn, N.Y. He's accused of working secretly for the United Arab Emirates. And in D.C., there's another foreign influence case involving China and a big name in the casino industry. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson reports.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Five years ago, hotel mogul Steve Wynn had a message to pass to the White House. Wynn reached out to Trump's secretary, the president's chief of staff and Trump himself, calling from a yacht off the coast of Italy. To hear the Justice Department tell it, Wynn was acting at the behest of the Chinese government. The Chinese wanted Trump to cancel the visa of a businessman who sought political asylum here at a time when Wynn was trying to protect his casinos in Macao, a part of China. DOJ sued Wynn, demanding he register as a foreign agent. Wynn is fighting the civil case.

ROBERT LUSKIN: And so for him to sign a piece of paper that says I was an agent of the Chinese is something that is - it is wrong, and it is personally abhorrent to him to sign such a statement.

JOHNSON: His lawyer, Robert Luskin.

LUSKIN: He wasn't under the control or direction of the Chinese, and he wasn't trying to influence policy. He didn't care one way or the other whether or not what they were requesting came about. From his perspective, he thought that he was conveying useful information to President Trump and the administration about what was important to the Chinese.

JOHNSON: Wynn's lawyers say the case is about a request from the Chinese, who didn't hire or pay him. They say it's not the kind of relationship that would turn him into a foreign agent under the law. This civil lawsuit is being watched closely. It's been 30 years since the Justice Department used a civil lawsuit in a foreign agents registration case. Brandon Van Grack once ran the FARA unit at the Justice Department.

BRANDON VAN GRACK: The judicial branch has not weighed in on this issue, except for one 1986 case, and so it's going to be a big deal.

JOHNSON: David Laufman, who led a task force about the foreign agent law, says the Wynn case is part of a steady drumbeat to intensify enforcement of the law. The Justice Department has been trying for years to get Wynn to register. They sent letters to his legal team starting in 2018 but didn't sue over the issue until this year. Laufman, a former career prosecutor, says he has some questions about the timeline.

DAVID LAUFMAN: It makes me wonder, in light of everything else we've learned about the politicization of the Justice Department under Bill Barr, whether political considerations delayed the National Security Division from acting upon its judgment that Mr. Wynn had an obligation to register under FARA.

JOHNSON: A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment about the pending case. Wynn's lawyer says it's not a political case, just a bad one. Both sides told the judge this week a settlement is unlikely.

Carrie Johnson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.