Last week, the White House released a declassified phone transcript of a conversation between Donald Trump and Ukranian President Volodymyr Zelensky. The transcript included a discussion of investigating Trump’s potential 2020 presidential rival Joe Biden. NPR reports that, while some in Congress question whether Trump committed an impeachable crime, another question has also arisen. Did Trump violate campaign finance law as well?
Given that U.S. Attorney General William Barr seems to have unquestionable allegiance to Trump over justice and the welfare of the country, it’s no surprise that the Department of Justice (DOJ) doesn’t believe there was a campaign finance violation committed and thus an investigation is not warranted.
But Brendan Fischer, an attorney with the Campaign Legal Center, believes there was a violation law. The question is whether or not Trump “solicited a ‘thing of value’ and how that term is defined.” Fischer says there is a long list of examples by the Federal Election Commission (FEC) that “finds intangible items like opposition research, that can constitute a thing of value for purposes of campaign finance law.”
The Federal Election Commission (FEC) Chair, Ellen Weintraub, tweeted the day after the transcript between Trump and Zelensky was released. In that tweet of September 26, 2019, Weintraub says,
On “things of value” @FEC:
“Indeed, the Commission has recognized the ‘broad scope’ of the foreign national contribution prohibition and found that even where the value of a good or service ‘may be nominal or difficult to ascertain,’ such contributions are nevertheless banned.”
On “things of value” @FEC:
“Indeed, the Commission has recognized the ‘broad scope’ of the foreign national contribution prohibition and found that even where the value of a good or service ‘may be nominal or difficult to ascertain,’ such contributions are nevertheless banned.” pic.twitter.com/iCHKczPuif
— Ellen L Weintraub (@EllenLWeintraub) September 26, 2019
Former FEC senior counsel Dan Weiner says he believes that intangibles such as opposition research is a thing of value and that is “fairly well-settled.” He thinks the FEC should get involved. The problem is that it will take the Senate to open up any new investigations and like Barr, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has proven to also have an undying allegiance to Trump.
Fischer says he would be “very surprised” if the FEC would issue civil penalties against Trump because his campaign as the president carrying out foreign policy has a wide latitude to conduct diplomacy.
But Fisher raises a much larger issue regarding the conduct of Trump. “The fact that the president used the power of his public office for his personal political gain is a matter that should be of immense concern to Congress regardless of whether campaign finance laws might be implicated.”
Now with the Brennan Center for Justice in New York, Weiner agrees. He says there are relatively few instances where “we’re confronted with a situation that the founders literally anticipated with some specificity.” But Weiner adds that asking a foreign government to meddle in our election could be an instance much greater than just a violation of campaign finance law—if that’s what took place. He adds that he thinks it’s an “extraordinary abuse of power and yes, it’s incumbent on Congress to investigate it.”
With Barr and McConnell resistant to prosecute Trump for anything, the FEC will most likely have a long uphill battle to find justice within the traditional channels. But as “they” say, where there is a will—there is a way.