Close the avenues of foreign meddling

The Hill Illustration

In his farewell address, President George Washington warned about “the insidious wiles of foreign influence.” In Sen. Joe Manchin’s (D-W.Va.) recent statement supporting some provisions in the For the People Act (S. 1), he voiced a modern echo of Washington by warning that “the lack of transparency in many campaign finance rules provides multiple avenues for foreign and national adversaries to meddle in the American political system.” That is why Manchin supports the DISCLOSE Act and Honest Ads Act, which would impose financial transparency on “dark money” non-profits and online political advertisements, respectively.

Manchin is right.

The most comprehensive research on covert foreign money identified more than 100 cases — totaling more than $300 million over the past decade — of authoritarian regimes such as Russia and China funneling money into democratic processes as a geopolitical weapon. And the even greater scandal is how much of that is legal, as 83 percent of this activity was enabled by seven statutory loopholes.

The European Parliament is halfway through an 18-month process of using that comprehensive research study as a basis for policy reforms and common EU standards meant to close all of the loopholes through which foreign donors covertly fund political activities. The United States could do this too by leaning further in the direction that Manchin is pointing and incorporating lessons learned through recent encounters with autocrats — because foreign powers do not limit their meddling to non-profits and ads.

In addition to exploiting the remainder of the seven financial loopholes, foreign adversaries also deploy non-monetary tactics, often involving collaborators who enjoy legal protections within target countries. Indeed, the U.S. intelligence community recently assessed that deeper usage of American conduits was a key innovation in the Kremlin’s 2020 strategy. That is why bipartisan legal experts recommend outlawing participation in foreign attacks on U.S. elections.

Drawing from this extensive body of research developed over the past two years, a new report provides ten bipartisan ways Congress could strengthen legislation like S. 1 to more thoroughly defend American democracy from foreign interference.

Five of these proposals involve ways to more thoroughly approach interference issues already under consideration in S. 1, which is based on legislation drafted more than two years ago. In some cases, lawmakers have not yet updated it to address vulnerabilities revealed in the 2020 election season, like when then-President Donald Trump asked foreign presidents to announce investigations into political opponents and target purchases of farm products to affect the election result. Other issues unrelated to the 2020 election have become clear since the House version of S. 1 first came out in 2019, like the fact that big donors — whether they are Emirati agents funneling millions to Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign or elite Russian expatriates donating heavily in the United States — should be covered by reporting requirements around foreign contacts. A 2019 indictment showed how 501(c)(3) charities — not covered by the DISCLOSE Act — have been used by the Chinese government to advance the Belt and Road Initiative by bribing heads of state, United Nations officials, and other elites on four continents. Finally, authors and activists have increasingly shown how much Russian President Vladimir Putin hides his wealth in the hands of informal custodians, a risk that S. 1 would not protect against in the United States, because future U.S. presidents could evade any new financial disclosures by holding their businesses in blind trusts or temporarily selling them to loyal cronies or adult children.

Another five proposals in this new research introduce new resilience measures for consideration, again learning lessons from recent episodes. Trump was under no statutory obligation to disclose or hand over to Treasury his hotel fees paid by foreign officials, his kids’ dealings with foreign governments, the $10 million he may have received through an Egyptian state bank, his lucrative property sales to Chinese elites, his Chinese bank account, and other potential foreign emoluments. Special Counsel Robert Mueller had to rely on difficult-to-establish statutes like conspiracy and campaign finance because there is no U.S. prohibition against seeking collaboration with Russia (or Ukraine or China) to jointly influence an election.

In the 2020 election, that same statutory gap apparently allowed lawyers and lawmakers close to Trump to launder disinformation from Russian agents. Russia also established fringe media outlets targeting U.S. voters on the left and the right, a tactic that the Kremlin commonly deploys in Europe but is difficult to spot in the United States because news websites are not required to disclose their sources of funding.

All these proposals were crafted with experts from across the political spectrum at the table, so they could provide strong fodder for a bipartisan process.

This might be appealing to Senators who want to not only cherry-pick some provisions they prefer within a bill like S. 1 but also strengthen it as a comprehensive package of policy defenses against the many adversarial avenues of malign foreign influence.

Josh Rudolph is the fellow for malign finance of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, a bipartisan transatlantic organization with the stated aim of countering efforts to undermine democratic institutions in the United States and Europe. He formerly served at the International Monetary Fund, the National Security Council, the U.S. Treasury, and J.P. Morgan. Follow him on Twitter @JoshRudes 

Tags Campaign finance in the United States campaign finance laws China dark money Donald Trump emoluments foreign election meddling foreign influence foreign influence campaign Hillary Clinton Joe Manchin Loopholes Robert Mueller Russia Vladimir Putin

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