Officials clash at FEC over confronting Russian influence in 2018 elections
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) is sharply divided over how the election watchdog agency should respond to Russian interference in the U.S. election as more revelations come to light about foreign meddling during 2016.
Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee, believes the FEC should play a more active role and consider rulemaking proposals to prevent foreign influence in future U.S. elections. She advocates a forward-looking, “prospective” approach focused on preventing future influence in the 2018 midterm elections.
Federal election law prohibits foreign nationals or entities from making campaign contributions or influencing U.S. elections.
“This is a great opportunity for the commission to take on an issue that is of great concern to the public,” Weintraub said at Thursday’s open meeting.
But the divide within the agency spilled out into the open at their latest public meeting with three GOP commissioners saying they want to follow the FEC’s current enforcement procedures and avoid acting “prematurely” while multiple government agencies still have ongoing investigations into 2016 election interference.
This was the first time Weintraub discussed potential rulemaking proposals to prevent foreign election influence since January.
She said the agency should be doing its own information gathering and requesting public and private briefings about the findings from other government agencies’ investigations so they can “assess whether there are steps that we could take to tighten our rules to ward off future problems.”
“Nothing that would come of any of these proposals would affect anyone who did or didn’t do anything in the 2016 election,” Weintraub said.
“I really don’t want us to find ourselves two years from now looking back and saying despite everything that we read in the newspaper, we decided to delay taking any proactive action and then we find ourselves facing a new round of allegations coming out of the 2018 election,” she warned.
Meanwhile, the three GOP commissioners want more of a wait and see approach to avoid an “overreaction” and argue that the FEC’s enforcement process is sufficient.
“We believe that this agency’s enforcement process is the proper mechanism for addressing any allegations about foreign interference in the 2016 presidential election,” Vice Chair Caroline Hunter and FEC Commissioners Lee Goodman and Matthew Petersen said in a joint statement.
“The enforcement process must be conducted in an impartial and deliberative manner, free of prejudgment, bias or politicization.”
In their statement, the three commissioners argued that issuing new rulemakings or making legislative recommendations would currently be “premature and counterproductive” and said they would reconsider whether to do so “if new evidence emerges that changes this factual predicate.”
The heated clash over the topic comes as lawmakers and watchdog groups have been mounting pressure on the FEC to look into Donald Trump Jr.’s emails after recent reports that he accepted a meeting with a Russian lawyer during the 2016 campaign in exchange for compromising information about Hillary Clinton.
Several government watchdog groups filed a complaint with the FEC and Department of Justice, arguing that Trump Jr. violated campaign finance laws by accepting that meeting. And earlier this week, Rep. Grace Meng (D-N.Y.) sent a letter to the FEC that calls on the agency to investigate whether Trump Jr. violated those laws.
But Weintraub never brought up Trump Jr.’s email exchange and when the meeting wrapped up, the commissioner told reporters that she tried to restrain from talking about any individuals or current events.
“I was trying to hard to keep this prospective and not talk about current events and not in any way raise anybody’s hackles that I was trying to use this as a platform to attack anybody,” Weintraub told reporters.
Weintraub also proposed asking their staff for recommendations about skillsets missing in-house and reaching out to agencies to offer any expertise and ask if anything they’ve learned in their investigations is related to campaign finance.
She said the commissioners and some staffers should seek security clearances to be able to hear more about investigations that contain sensitive information.
There appeared to be a bit of agreement between Weintraub and Goodman about in-house skillsets and opening up lines of communication with sister agencies like DOJ. The two noted that they differ on how to go about that.
“Where I think we may disagree, I think this should be done through the ordinary mechanisms and procedures we have in our enforcement process,” Goodman said. “I think we can handle these issues, these approaches that you discuss, in the context of our normal enforcement procedures and mechanisms.”
Weintraub pushed back that the agency should go beyond its normal enforcement procedures given “the current circumstances” and argued that the FEC “need[s] to up our game and not just follow the tried-and-true.”
Some commissioners also poured cold water on the idea of obtaining security clearances and sitting in on other agencies’ investigations. Hunter had some of the fiercest pushback to Weintraub’s proposals and Chairman Steven Walther also appeared hesitant about seeking security clearances.
“Now we want to come along, get security clearances and participate in investigations that we absolutely have no expertise in whatsoever,” Hunter said. “I think we should mind our own house. I think we should do the things that we have more expertise in.”
Hunter also countered that DOJ would be very unlikely to share information with the FEC. “The odds of their sharing any information with us are not small, they’re zero,” she said.
The commissioners debated the matter for nearly an hour and a half with no resolutions or votes. The commission currently has five commissioners serving and one vacancy.
Weintraub is the only Democrat who currently sits on the commission.
At the end of the meeting, Walther asked if Weintraub had anything else to add to the discussion since “this is your baby.”
“It does seem to be my baby,” Weintraub responded, with a laugh. “It’s not clear that anyone’s interested in sharing custody on this.”