Little FEC Consensus on Moves to Combat Foreign Influence

By Kenneth P. Doyle

FEC commissioners found little consensus during a lengthy July 13 meeting on new measures to combat foreign influence in U.S. elections.

Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub pressed her colleagues to be more proactive in dealing with possible foreign intrusion in future elections, but other members said the Federal Election Commission should bide its time and pursue its traditional function of working through enforcement complaints regarding past alleged campaign finance violations.

The day-long meeting also included a protracted discussion of an advisory opinion request (AO 2017-07)—ultimately granted by the FEC—to waive campaign finance rules and allow members of Congress to use campaign funds for home security systems.

The request from House Sergeant-at-Arms Paul Irving responded to heightened threats to lawmakers exemplified by a shooting last month that wounded House Majority Whip Steve Scalise (R-La.) and three others. The ruling adopted unanimously by the five FEC commissioners called for any payments from campaign funds for security systems to be reported on campaign finance disclosure forms.

FEC Republicans: Let Enforcement Process Work

The discussion of foreign influence issues was held at the end of the FEC meeting and quickly fell into a pattern established in earlier discussions. While Weintaub called for more aggressive action to deal with what she said has emerged as a leading threat to U.S. elections, other commissioners called for a more cautious approach.

“We believe that this agency’s enforcement process is the proper mechanism for addressing any allegations about foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election,” said a written statement issued by the FEC’s three Republican commissioners during the meeting.

The FEC handles enforcement complaints in strict secrecy and often takes months or years to resolve a case. Enforcement matters often require interpretation of campaign finance laws—a major issue in the current investigations involving alleged collusion between President Donald Trump’s campaign and Russia. However, the Democrats and Republicans on the FEC frequently have deadlocked on major enforcement matters, leading to dismissal of the cases.

FEC Chairman Steven Walther, a political independent who holds a Democratic seat on the commission, has said in the past the FEC has more than a dozen enforcement matters dealing with allegations of illegal foreign influence pending from the 2016 campaign. Walther suggested publicly in May that the FEC wasn’t moving through these cases fast enough, but he hasn’t complained more recently about stalled enforcement cases. Details of individual cases aren’t revealed until a matter is fully resolved.

Weintraub: FEC Should Reach Out

Weintraub said her proposals to deal with foreign influence weren’t focused on past allegations but on efforts to prevent future problems.

She said the FEC should be holding more discussions with other agencies that are also dealing with the issue and should consider getting security clearances for commissioners and staff to help with that process. Weintraub has said the FEC should be looking at possible new regulations or legislative recommendations to deal with any gaps in current rules and laws.

“We should reach out to other agencies and offer our help and ask if there’s anything we should know” about possible campaign finance violations they have uncovered, Weintraub said during the commission meeting.

Hunter: ‘No Intention of Calling Bob Mueller’

Caroline Hunter, the FEC’s Republican vice chairwoman, said it wasn’t the proper role of the FEC to get involved in other agencies’ efforts.

“I have no intention of calling up Bob Mueller and asking if he needs my help or asking what he’s working on,” Hunter said, referring to the special counsel appointed to conduct a Justice Department criminal investigation of possible violations related to the Trump campaign and Russia.

Hunter said the Justice Department historically hasn’t been interested in consulting with the FEC. She noted that she and others at the agency disagreed with a DOJ decision to prosecute former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) but weren’t consulted. Edwards was acquitted in a 2012 criminal case following a federal court trial on charges that he received illegal campaign contributions in the form of payments to his mistress.

Trump Jr. Meeting Spurs Interest

The FEC commissioners agreed earlier this year to expedite handling of enforcement cases dealing with alleged foreign influence, but no new foreign influence cases have been revealed by the FEC so far this year.

Interest in the possible campaign finance violations related to the Trump-Russia matter was heightened recently with reports that the president’s son, Donald Trump Jr., agreed to meet with a Kremlin-linked Russian attorney, Natalia Veselnitskaya.

The meeting, which the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner and then-campaign manager Paul Manafort also attended, occurred after Trump Jr. received an email from an associate who said it would yield “documents and information that would incriminate Hillary and her dealings with Russia and would be very useful to your father.”

Following reports of the meeting, new complaints were filed with the FEC and with Mueller by the watchdog group Common Cause. Follow-up complaints were filed July 13 by Common Cause and other nonprofits—Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center. The complaints charged that the agreement to hold a meeting with the Russian lawyer could represent an illegal solicitation of a campaign contribution in the form of promised information supposedly damaging to Democrat Hillary Clinton, Trump’s opponent in the 2016 presidential race.

Trump Jr. said subsequently that the meeting amounted to “nothing.”

Brendan Fischer, director of the Campaign Legal Center’s FEC program, said in a statement: “The evidence is clear that Don Jr. knew that the offer of opposition campaign research came from the Russian government, and the law is clear that giving such valuable research for free would have been a contribution to the Trump campaign.”

Others have argued that campaign finance law and FEC precedents aren’t clear about what type of information is valuable enough to count as a campaign contribution.

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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