On Thursday, a partially redacted letter was declassified from the U.S. intelligence community. The complaint letter filed by a whistleblower (later revealed as a CIA officer posted to the White House) described a call where President Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to launch a private investigation into Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter, the latter of whom was formerly on the board of a Ukrainian natural gas company.
The whistleblower also described how this call was placed in a classified storage system despite containing no sensitive information and how President Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani was used as a go-between for Trump and President Zelensky despite officials’ concerns about “circumvention of national security decision-making processes.” In response, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an impeachment inquiry into President Trump.
This scandal is concerning in many ways, but for the purposes of this column, the most important aspect is that President Trump’s action likely violated campaign finance laws. Campaigns are prohibited from accepting or soliciting any “thing of value” from foreign nationals or governments. Damaging information against a political opponent would certainly count as a “thing of value.” However, we can’t know for sure without a ruling from the Federal Election Commission. Here’s where we run into a big problem.
Under normal circumstances, the FEC oversees and enforces U.S. election laws, which would include illegal foreign contributions. However, four of the six commissioners must be present to take any enforcement action. Since August, the commission only has three members, making most of the FEC’s functions impossible. While Chairwoman Ellen Weintraub said campaign reports must still be filed, and the FEC will still investigate any complaints, it’s cold comfort when a quorum is required to act on those complaints. In short, the FEC is unable to do anything about even the most blatant violations, which includes Trump seeking assistance from Ukraine.
What does it matter if the FEC is able to function or not? Well, I would argue that the FEC is needed to preserve the integrity of elections. Ideally, elections are supposed to be unfiltered, with voters not being influenced by outside actors like other countries. While we don’t always reach that ideal state, we must strive to be as close as we can. Thus, by allowing other countries like Ukraine to intervene in our elections, or even for an American to push Ukraine to intervene, it dilutes your power as a voter. In the long term, if candidates can seek foreign intervention without punishment, what’s to stop another candidate from doing the same and perhaps succeeding?
Without the FEC providing clarity, the American political system is left in an awkward state. With the FEC unable to provide a fair and nonpartisan perspective on the Trump-Ukraine scandal, punishment and responses are left to the political sphere. The issue of being judged by partisans who are likely to base their decision on their opinions of President Trump rather than the letter of the law also remains. A new FEC commissioner would resolve this crisis.
Unfortunately, President Trump’s nominee Trey Trainor has yet to be given a hearing by the Senate yet, and even worse, transparency advocates have raised concerns that Trainor’s pro-Trump advocacy and history of fighting campaign finance laws would jeopardize his ability to fairly judge and enforce election laws. While Trainor is far from a perfect nominee, one way or another the FEC must reach its quorum.
We need to contact our senators and members of Congress and tell them that the FEC must have an additional member so it can resume normal operations. Regardless of what side of the political aisle you’re on, we should all agree that American elections should be fair and uncompromised and that those who violate that principle should be punished. That’s what makes our democracy work.
Jason Zappulla is a UF history senior
Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., leads other House Democrats to discuss H.R. 1, The For the People Act, which passed in the House but is being held up in the Senate, at the Capitol in Washington, Friday, Sept. 27, 2019. From left are, Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., a member of the House Judiciary Committee, Rep. Deb Haaland, D-N.M., Rep. John Sarbanes, D-Md., and Rep. Tom Malinowski, D-N.J. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)