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Foreign governments use U.S. lobbyists to promote their efforts fighting the coronavirus outbreak

South Korea used lobbyists to argue against further travel restrictions. Japan wants to know how it is perceived amid the pandemic.
Concern In South Korea As The Coronavirus Continue To Spread
A South Korean worker disinfects an alley to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on March 18, 2020, in Seoul.Chung Sung-Jun / Getty Images file

WASHINGTON — Japan, Saudi Arabia and other foreign governments are using American lobbyists to promote their efforts to fight the coronavirus outbreak and safeguard their countries' reputations in the U.S. capital, according to public records reviewed by NBC News.

Even amid a pandemic that has locked down countries and sent the global economy into a tailspin, foreign governments have used U.S. lobbying firms on K Street to burnish their images as leading the battle against COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus.

For a fee of $45,600, Japan hired a Washington, D.C., lobbying firm, Marathon Strategies, on March 19 to look at how America's media is portraying Japan, according to Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA) filings. The lobbying firm was founded by Democratic operative Phil Singer, a former spokesman for New York Sen. Chuck Schumer, an adviser for Andrew Cuomo's gubernatorial campaigns and a veteran of Hillary Clinton's and John Kerry's unsuccessful presidential bids.

As part of the job, the firm planned to sift through coverage from close to 30 major news organizations, using computer "semantic" analysis to review the tone of reporting on Japan. The firm also planned to identify "influencers," including commentators, to target and sway, according to public records. For the future, the firm also proposed surveying American business leaders, politicians and others about how they perceive Japan's response to the coronavirus outbreak.

Japan so far has seen a lower death rate for COVID-19 than some other harder-hit countries but also has come under fire for waiting until last week to postpone the Summer Olympics, following a wave of criticism from athletes and sports federations around the world.

In its contract with Japan, the lobbying firm planned to "develop a communications strategy for engaging with influencers, politicians, and others who are critical of the Japanese government's coronavirus response" and to "identify third parties for engagement regarding Japanese response to coronavirus," according to public records.

Japan's lobbying effort is one of 20 foreign agent filings submitted to the Department of Justice, revealing how foreign governments are seeking to sway or gauge perceptions in Washington specifically related to the pandemic. The governments include South Korea, Azerbaijan, Libya and Saudi Arabia. Except for Japan, their relationships with the lobbying firms predate the coronavirus outbreak.

For South Korea, filings document how the government worked to head off further travel restrictions on its citizens. In February, amid growing concerns about the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration announced mandatory screening of travelers coming from South Korea and Italy, and raised warnings to Americans to the highest level discouraging travel to South Korea. Axios reported the Trump White House weighed possibly halting travel between South Korea and the U.S. but later dropped the idea.

Against that backdrop, South Korea's lobbyists sent a note to some lawmakers' offices touting Seoul's extensive efforts to limit the outbreak.

The note expresses concerns that South Korea could be unfairly penalized due to the country's extensive testing and quarantine measures that proved effective at containing the spread of the virus. They maintain the data produced by the testing, which showed a high number of infected patients, could be used to impose limits on travel for South Korean citizens.

"It is contrary to reason and scientific evidence to impose entry restrictions against travelers from Korea solely on the basis of the number of confirmed cases when there is a vast difference in the robustness of the diagnostic capabilities and the transparency with which governments have dealt with the disease. On both accounts, Korea has maintained the highest standard by far," according to a note produced by one of the lobbying firms hired by Seoul, Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough. The company, based in Columbia, S.C., includes Christopher Cushing, a former aide to former Republican senator and presidential nominee Bob Dole.

In a statement, a spokesperson for South Korea's embassy to the U.S. said the embassy has employed NMRS for more than a year, and said the firm does not assist the embassy with its "daily diplomatic activities vis-a-vis with the U.S. executive branch in any way," and was not employed "with the specific aim" of promoting South Korea's efforts to fight coronavirus.

A major Saudi state-owned company, the Saudi Basic Industries Corporation, employs the Edelman firm for public relations work, including promoting an international humanitarian conference last month in Riyadh, which included discussions on how best to respond to COVID-19.

The MSL Group also works for Saudi Arabia, and handled a press release noting Riyadh's pledge of $10 million to the World Health Organization "for urgent action needed to minimize the spread of COVID-19 and to support countries with vulnerable health infrastructures."

Azerbaijan's lobbying effort included placing an opinion column in The Jewish Voice of New York that touted the government's efforts to quarantine its population, stave off the pandemic and reaffirm ties to Israel.

The piece was written by Maayan Hoffman, identified as a Jerusalem Post news editor, but the published version makes no mention that the commentary was placed by Stellar Jay Communications, a lobbying firm representing the government of Azerbaijan, as a FARA filing shows.

In an email to the Jewish Voice, Jacob Kamaras, a lobbyist for Stellar Jay, wrote that the piece showed "how Israel and Azerbaijan can find common ground in the fight against coronavirus" and said it is written from "a timely and creative angle." The commentary was published three days after that email.

On behalf of Libya, a former Trump Organization representative placed an opinion column in UPI and in the online news site Issues & Insights. The column accused renegade Libyan general Khalifa Haftar of blocking Libyan oil exports, and argued that the move benefited Saudi Arabia and its allies as they try to keep oil prices from plummeting during the pandemic.

The lobbying firms did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

CORRECTION (April 4, 2020, 1:44 p.m. ET): An earlier version of this article misstated the relationship between lobbying firms and several foreign nations. Except for Japan’s hiring of Marathon Strategies, all of the relationships described in the article began before the coronavirus outbreak; the firms were not hired solely to promote the coronavirus responses of the countries.