A presidential campaign is not for the faint of heart. Everyone involved – including the campaigns, the press and voters – understands that a campaign for the presidency is a bare-knuckles brawl. And while that can be ugly, it’s understandable – we are, after all, talking about two individuals trying to become the most powerful person on Earth. The stakes are high.
This has led to a certain cynicism on the part of voters, who often assume that all’s fair in love and presidential elections. There’s a belief that campaigns will, as a matter of course, simply accept any help offered to them during election season.
But as Federal Elections Commission Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub recently reminded Americans – including, pointedly, the President of the United States – this isn’t the case. Campaigns are not, in fact, allowed to solicit any assistance from foreign actors – that’s against the law.
Why did Weintraub feel compelled to tweet this fact? Because Donald Trump again made clear that he was more than happy to accept such assistance from foreign governments. On the other hand, it’s arguably no more than we should have expected from a man who was elected with the help of the Russian government.
Saying the Quiet Part Out Loud
This was not the first time Weintraub – who was first appointed to the FEC by President George W. Bush – has made this point on Twitter. In fact, her October 3 tweet was a re-tweet of a statement she had shared in June, which she prefaced with “I would not have thought that I needed to say this.”
Weintraub was compelled to make her original June statement in response to an interview with ABC News in which the President said he would accept incriminating information about a political opponent even if it was provided by a foreign government. Trump also expressed reluctance about going to the FBI in such a situation.
Four months later, Weintraub reacted to a presidential statement that was decidedly less hypothetical.
With the Trump Administration embroiled in an existential impeachment fight with House Democrats, the President took to the front lawn of the White House (his favorite location for press conferences) and openly urged China to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, one of the leading contenders for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination. In the President’s words, “China should start an investigation into the Bidens, because what happened in China is just about as bad as what happened with Ukraine.”
The remarks represented a startling public escalation of a crisis that began when an intelligence community whistleblower filed a complaint alleging that Trump had attempted to leverage the Ukrainian President into providing him with damaging information about Biden. Trump and his defenders have insisted that the conversation with the Ukrainian President was completely legitimate, as Trump was simply urging the Ukrainians to clamp down on “corruption.”
That is a difficult argument to credit, considering both Trump’s extensive record of corruption and the fact that the conspiracy theory alleging that Joe Biden had improperly intervened to protect his son’s business interests is utterly without evidence.
The Law Around Soliciting Foreign Help
As Weintraub pointed out (both in June and last week), it’s actually not normal or acceptable for a campaign to accept help from a foreign national, government or company. Weintrab’s statement in June explicitly said, “It is illegal for any person to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S election. This is not a novel concept.”
“Anything of value” is actually a crucial phrase in this context, as it would otherwise be easy to figure that the law simply forbids campaigns from accepting money from foreign nationals. Indeed, “anything of value” includes things like damaging information about one’s opponent. The relevant statutory text can be found here.
The complication in this case is that the candidate in question is also the President of the United States, and the controversial phone call with Ukraine was part of the President’s official duties. No one denies that the President has the right to urge foreign governments to prosecute corruption, or that foreign policy often includes bartering and other assorted trade-offs.
However, attempting to coerce a foreign country into helping the President’s re-election campaign and using military aid as a cudgel in that effort is decidedly not legitimate. And as support for impeachment grows, it’s becoming clear that many Americans simply don’t buy the White House’s explanation.