FEC Delays Discussing Plans to Combat Foreign Influence in Elections

By Kenneth P. Doyle

The Federal Election Commission has delayed a public discussion of new measures to deal with the threat of foreign influence in U.S. elections, suggesting commissioners may work behind the scenes to try to forge consensus on a thorny issue that has preoccupied the FEC and other agencies since the 2016 elections.

Proposals for action to combat foreign influence are now set to be discussed at the FEC’s next open meeting July 13, FEC Chairman Steven Walther announced at a June 22 commission meeting. A discussion of specific proposals from Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub regarding a range of possible new FEC regulatory and investigative options and action on pending enforcement complaints was on the agenda for the June 22 meeting but was held over.

The only action at the meeting was a unanimous vote of the commissioners allowing two associations representing urologists to “disaffliate” and form their own political action committees. The vote responded to competing requests from the associations, which disagreed over whether they should remain affiliated for purposes of campaign finance law and have a single PAC. The FEC voted to approve two advisory opinion requests, both resulting in disaffiliation, which were designated AOs 2017-01 and 2017-03.

Trump Minimizes Russian Intervention

The FBI and other U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Russia sought to intervene in last year’s presidential election to help elect President Donald Trump. The intelligence agencies have warned the U.S. needs to determine exactly what happened last year and act to prevent such interference in the 2018 midterm elections and 2020 presidential election.

Trump and some other Republicans, however, have minimized the issue. Trump has denied allegations that his campaign may have colluded with Russia and repeatedly suggested on Twitter that the reports about Russia’s impact on the election are a “hoax” or “fake news” intended to excuse Democratic shortcomings that cost Hillary Clinton the election.

Among the questions faced by the FEC and the other agencies dealing with the matter is exactly what the Russians did to try to affect the 2016 elections and how U.S. laws may apply to those actions.

Federal campaign finance law has long outlawed foreign spending to influence U.S. elections—a prohibition that has been upheld by the Supreme Court. Previous cases involving this prohibition, however, have focused on money being funneled into campaigns from foreign sources, not the type of computer hacking, online propaganda and other efforts reportedly at the center of the ongoing Russia probes.

Facebook Ads Said Bought by Russia

Weintraub suggested, for example, in a memorandum released shortly before the June 22 FEC meeting that the prohibition on foreign campaign spending would apply to Facebook ads reportedly purchased by Russia in hopes of swaying the election. In addition, she said, Russian spending on computer hacking efforts aimed at state voter registration and campaign finance databases could count as illegal campaign spending.

Weintraub suggested the FEC should receive briefings from other law enforcement agencies such as the Justice Department or Financial Crimes Enforcement Network in order to get the most up-to-date information on “whatever foreign interference occurred in our elections and how foreign money may have financed it.”

Weintraub also suggested the FEC should examine possible new agency rules or legislative proposals for Congress to deal with issues highlighted by Russian interference in the election. Specifically, she has pushed for new rules to curb foreign campaign money coming in through corporate contributions to super political action committees and other campaign spending groups, but new restrictions on corporate money have met resistance from FEC Republicans, who argue that existing rules are adequate.

FEC’s Role Unclear

Even if the commissioners could agree on an approach, it remains unclear what role the FEC may have in sorting out the Russian-influence allegations that have roiled the 2016 campaign and its aftermath. The FEC has civil enforcement authority over federal campaign finance laws, including the responsibility to determine which, if any, of these laws may have been violated. In the past, however, the FEC often has deferred action if the Justice Department is pursuing criminal campaign finance charges on a matter that is also being investigated by the FEC.

The Russia matter already has led to a special counsel investigation headed by Robert Mueller, a former FBI director, who could ask the FEC to defer any action on related matters. Mueller took over the Russia probe from the DOJ following widespread condemnation of Trump’s move to fire FBI Director James Comey and Trump’s subsequent comments that he fired Comey because of concerns about the FBI’s handling of the Russia matter.

Recent news reports have indicated Trump, himself, may now be under investigation for possible obstruction of justice due to Comey’s firing.

Also ongoing are the congressional investigations of Russian influence, including a high-profile probe by the Senate Intelligence Committee. At a June 21 hearing of that committee, Bill Priestap, the assistant director for the FBI’s counterintelligence division, presented Russia’s efforts in the 2016 election in dire terms—as a threat to weaken the United States through “information warfare.” He told the Senate committee that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategic aim is to restore the global position of the former Soviet Union not through direct confrontation with the U.S. and its allies but instead through subtler efforts to erode public faith in democracy.

Priestap suggested Putin may have already succeeded, to some extent, by preoccupying America with questions about the last election, but he added that it was beneficial to Americans to understand the threat posed by Russia.

To contact the reporter on this story: Kenneth P. Doyle in Washington at kdoyle@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Paul Hendrie at pHendrie@bna.com

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