Campaign Violations? The FEC Doesn’t Seem to Care

(The Bloomberg View) -- The Federal Election Commission would prefer not to know. On a party-line vote, the FEC has voted not to pursue enforcement action against the campaign of President Donald Trump for soliciting foreign contributions in the summer of 2016.

In a separate case, also released this month, the FEC opted not to pursue charges that former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort had illegally solicited campaign money for a super PAC that backed Trump. That vote was also on a party line, with two Republican commissioners pitted against one Democrat and a Democratic-leaning independent. (The commission, at full strength, consists of six commissioners, no more than three of whom can come from the same party.)

In June and July of 2016, the Trump campaign sent emails soliciting funds to members of the U.K. Parliament. News reports documented the emails, as well as others sent to lawmakers in Australia and elsewhere, which prompted watchdog organizations to file complaints with the Department of Justice and the FEC. It is unlawful for foreigners to contribute to U.S. federal, state or local campaigns. The parliamentary email addresses were obviously foreign. Despite the reports and the subsequent complaints, the Trump campaign continued sending email solicitations to foreigners.

The FEC’s general counsel found reason to believe that the Trump campaign, but not Trump himself, had violated the law. Apparently, the Republican members of the FEC are unimpressed.

Bear in mind, Trump lawyer Michael Cohen has already confessed in federal court to violating campaign-finance laws, among others. Manafort was convicted last month of tax fraud, bank fraud and failure to file a report documenting foreign bank and financial accounts. He pleaded guilty to additional federal charges last week. Bloomberg News has reported that federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether anyone in the Trump Organization, the president’s privately held company, violated campaign-finance laws. And, of course, special counsel Robert Mueller is continuing his investigation into the Trump campaign’s ties to Russian operatives, an investigation that so far has resulted in seven guilty pleas and numerous indictments.

Yet Republicans on the commission are sure that campaign-finance laws weren’t broken?

In 2017, then-commissioner Ann Ravel, a Democrat who resigned in February, issued a report detailing how partisan gridlock is increasingly employed to thwart the FEC’s mission. “For nearly every case of major significance over the past several years,” Ravel’s report stated, “the Commission has deadlocked on investigating serious allegations or has failed to hold violators fully accountable.” As a result, the FEC tacitly encourages violations of the very laws it was founded to uphold.

If Democrats take control of one or both sides of Congress in November, they should commence hearings into the FEC and campaign law, with the goal of devising a fix that both parties can live with. If a bipartisan solution proves impossible — and it well may — then Congress should consider a more drastic approach: winding down the FEC and transferring its functions to the Department of Justice. The status quo is a mockery of law. 

Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.

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