Federal Election Commission must not shy away from Russia probe
Two summers ago, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Democrat, boasted in her memoir that she “successfully manipulated the Republican (Missouri Senate 2012) primary so that in the general election I would face the candidate I was most likely to beat.”
Fast-forward to today, amid multiple investigations into whether and how the Kremlin successfully manipulated the presidential election so that its preferred candidate, Donald Trump, would win the White House.
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) carefully considered investigating the McCaskill gambit upon advice of its nonpartisan career attorneys, but deadlocked on whether to move forward. It ought not make the same mistake with Trump’s campaign and its possible connections to the Russian government.
First, a brief refresher on the McCaskill matter: During the Republican primary, she paid a pollster to assess the field of her potential GOP opponents for the general election. She then used an intermediary to share the information with the Republican candidate whom she most wanted to run against then-Rep. Todd Aiken.
With McCaskill’s unseen help, Akin won the Republican nomination. And as she had hoped, he was a disaster for his party in the fall. After famously claiming that “legitimate rape” is unlikely to result in pregnancy, he lost to McCaskill by 15 percentage points in a state that Mitt Romney won by 10 on the same ballot.
The FEC’s nonpartisan Office of General Counsel, acting on a complaint, recommended that the agency open an investigation. The question before the commission was whether McCaskill contributed something of value to the Akin campaign — the polling data analysis — that exceeded the law’s contribution limits. After five full months of deliberation, the commission deadlocked 3-3, with the Democratic commissioners voting for an investigation, and the three Republicans blocking any action.
The FEC — the only federal agency with civil jurisdiction to enforce campaign finance laws — has a duty to respond much more forcefully with Trump than it did in the McCaskill incident.
We now know from the emails Donald Trump Jr. released that he was eager to receive what he understood were “official documents and information that would incriminate Hillary (Clinton) and her dealings with Russia.” The person who offered to provide that information described it as “part of Russia and its government’s support for Mr. Trump.”
Trump Jr. answered the offer quickly. “I love it,” he wrote. Then he set to work arranging a meeting between himself, campaign chairman Paul Manafort, a Kremlin-connected Russian attorney, Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner, and others. He even admitted on Sean Hannity’s television show that he was “pressing” for information from the foreign national “because the pretext of the meeting was, ‘Hey, I have information about your opponent.’”
The emails outline a textbook case of solicitation of a thing of value from a foreign national. In this case, the solicitation was for opposition research conducted and to be provided as part of the Kremlin’s effort to help Trump win the presidency.
Last week, my organization, Common Cause filed complaints asking the FEC and the Department of Justice to investigate if the solicitation violated federal campaign finance law. Joining with the Campaign Legal Center and Democracy 21 three days later, Common Cause supplemented its complaint with new and more disturbing information.
Then last Thursday, FEC Commissioner Caroline Hunter, a Republican, said in an open meeting that the FEC should not “wedge” into the matter of foreign-government election meddling; she claimed, erroneously, that the agency has “no expertise whatsoever” in the subject. In fact, as Commissioner Ellen Weintraub said, the FEC has a “duty to respond, and to respond forcefully.”
Relative to the Russia investigation, Sen. McCaskill’s admitted “manipulation” of the Missouri Republican Senate primary is child’s play. Still, the FEC’s lawyers took it seriously, even if the Republican commissioners did not. Upholding the integrity of our elections against foreign interference is squarely within the FEC’s mission and mandate; the commissioners do not have the luxury of looking the other way.
Stephen Spaulding is chief of strategy at watchdog organization Common Cause and was special counsel to former FEC Commissioner Ann M. Ravel.
The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.
The Hill has removed its comment section, as there are many other forums for readers to participate in the conversation. We invite you to join the discussion on Facebook and Twitter.