In-Depth: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) introduced this bill to help protect our elections from foreign interference by requiring federal campaign officials to notify law enforcement if agents of another government offer them assistance:
“A duty to report foreign sabotage of our democracy is a matter of simple patriotism and common sense — but now needs to be an explicit legal duty too. If a foreign adversary offers a candidate for U.S. office illegal assistance, the first call should be to federal law enforcers not to criminal co-conspirators. The faster the FEC and FBI know a foreign adversary is attempting to interfere in an election, the more quickly they can respond and guard against further attacks. Protecting the integrity of our elections – the pillar of our democracy – should be bipartisan priority.”
In a separate statement, Sen. Blumenthal called this bill a “direct response” to Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election:
“It’s a direct response to the attack by the Russians on our 2016 elections and the prospect of their continuing attempt to undermine our democracy. It very simply imposes a clear and indisputable legal duty on federal campaigns and candidates and others to avoid what happened in the Trump campaign.”
House sponsor Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), who has introduced this bill in both the 115th and 116th Congresses, says:
“When foreign adversaries seek to meddle in our elections, silence is not an option. The most basic function of government is to protect its people from foreign attack. If we neglect that obligation - or flat out refuse it - then we are not actually a government. This is part of a series of reforms to demonstrate we are a government that will respond to foreign interference. This isn’t a Democratic or Republican issue – any of our nation’s foes could try to tip the scale on behalf of any party’s candidate. We’re all Americans, and we have to behave that way. Most of us probably hoped this would be common sense, but unfortunately, it seems we must specify it. This isn’t meant as a rebuke to President Trump or as an effort to relitigate the 2016 election—it’s a preventative, defensive measure for the future.”
Opponents of this and similar bills argue that they don’t draw a distinction between official government representatives specifically and foreign nationals in general. In testimony to the Senate, Attorney General William Barr acknowledged that a campaign should report contact by a foreign intelligence service — but he specifically said so only about a foreign intelligence service, and not about any foreign nationals, regardless of their ties or lack thereof to foreign intelligence services.
In a June 2019 interview with ABC’s George Stephanopolous, President Trump argued that accepting foreign countries’ “dirt” on opponents is information-gathering, not an act of foreign interference in elections. Considering information offered by foreign agents, he said, “I think I’d take it. If I thought there was something wrong, I’d go maybe to the FBI. When you go and talk, honestly, to congressman, they all do it, they always have, and that’s the way it is. It’s called oppo research.”
The Federal Election Campaign (FEC) prohibits foreign nationals from either “directly or indirectly” making “a contribution or donation of money or other thing of value” to a campaign. It also makes it illegal for people associated with political campaigns to “solicit, accept, or receive a contribution or donation” from a foreign national. Under current law, people who “knowingly and willfully engage” in prohibited activities with foreign nationals may be subject to an FEC enforcement action, criminal prosecution, or both. David Sklansky, a criminal law professor at Stanford, say this means that “[s]oliciting campaign assistance from a foreign agent is illegal.” However, the definition of “anything of value” is usually applied only to things like actual monetary contributions. Offers of information — such as opposition research — aren’t covered.
This legislation has 21 Senate cosponsors, including 20 Democrats and one Independent. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA), has 48 Democratic House cosponsors. As of August 30, 2019, neither bill had received a committee vote.
Most Republicans are unlikely to support this legislation, as they view it as primarily targeted as an attack against Trump.
This legislation was filed as an amendment to the Senate’s version of the Fiscal Year 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) (S.1790). However, it ultimately wasn’t included in the legislation.
Of Note: After a lengthy investigation of interactions between the 2016 Trump presidential campaign and Russia, special counsel Robert Mueller concluded that while Russia sought to help Trump win the presidential election, the Trump campaign didn’t directly assist in the process. In his report, Mueller wrote:
“Although the investigation established that the Russian government perceived it would benefit form a Trump presidency and worked to secure that outcome, and that the Campaign expected it would benefit electorally from information stolen and released through Russian efforts, the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.”
However, while the Mueller report didn’t establish that the Trump campaign “criminally conspired on illegal Russian election interference” or “coordinated with Russia through either an active or tacit agreement,” it did prove that the Trump campaign was actively seeking to cultivate a relationship with the Russian government, and was willing to work with it to get damaging information about Trump’s political opponents.
In April 2019, FBI Director Christopher Wray warned that Russia will attempt to interfere in the 2020 presidential election. In a speech at the Council of Foreign Relations (CFR) in Washington, Wray said that 2018 was the “dress rehearsal for the big show in 2020.”
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Moussa81)