Piece by piece, we continue to learn about Russia’s assault on the 2016 election: cyberattacks on voting systems in 39 states; troll farms that pushed divisive political messages to millions of viewers on social media; and likely involvement in the leaking of information to influence the outcome of the election, potentially including the information shared directly with Donald Trump Jr. by WikiLeaks. Just this week, we’ve learned that the FBI is now looking into dozens of money transfers sent by the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs to its embassies across the globe, totaling more than $380,000 and bearing the subject line “to finance election campaign of 2016.”
We don’t know for what purpose the funds were spent – innocent or otherwise. Indeed, there is a chance this money went toward administering Russia’s 2016 parliamentary elections. But while we await the outcome of the investigation, we should be taking a hard look at all of the avenues of Russian influence in our democracy. One avenue that has gone relatively unexplored is the money flowing directly to candidates, including the President.
Which brings us to a troubling question: is Russian money helping to pay for the legal defense of the President and his family against allegations they colluded with Russia?
According to filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) the Republican National Committee (RNC) has paid over $400,000 in personal legal fees for Donald Trump and Donald Trump Jr. in connection with the investigations into the Trump campaign’s collusion with Russia in the 2016 election. At least $12,000 of those funds came from a Ukrainian-born billionaire with ties to Vladimir Putin.
How did this happen?
Let’s start with the Russian connection. It was first reported in September that three Americans with substantial Russian business ties contributed almost $2 million to the RNC. Unless these donations were directed by a foreigner, they are not illegal. But we know, for starters, that all three men are connected to Viktor Vekselberg one of the richest men in Russia and a close associate of President Putin. In fact one man, Andrew Intrater, is Vekselberg’s cousin and CEO of the American subsidiary of Vekselberg’s firm. Furthering suspicion, two of the three men do not have a significant history of donating to prior campaigns. The three men declined to comment to ABC News or could not be reached. Special counsel Robert Mueller is reportedly now investigating their 2016 contributions.
Two pieces of context should deepen our suspicion. The first is that in Putin’s Russia, business, politics, and the security establishment are inextricably linked. In 2003, Vladimir Putin sent a message to his country’s oligarchs with the televised trial of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, then Russia’s richest man, who was placed in a cage for the broadcast. Since then, any major business deals in Russia essentially require the approval of the Kremlin. Secondly, this type of conduct fits into a broader pattern of Russian interference with other countries’ domestic politics. Russia has even offered legal assistance to political allies before; last year Lukoil, the Russian oil giant, paid the fines for a Russian-connected advisor to the President of the Czech Republic, allowing him to retain his influence.
In addition to raising deep concerns about Russian interference, this development should also raise alarms about the state of our campaign finance system. Americans are deeply concerned that anyone—Russian or otherwise—could funnel millions of dollars into the political system. Here, for the first time in recent history, we are seeing a major portion of six and seven-figure contributions to a political party being funneled toward the personal legal expenses of the President and his family.
The money that the RNC has used to pay Trump’s legal fees came from a special account permitted by a change to the law in 2014. That change allowed political parties to raise money into three separate accounts, each with their own contribution limit, including an account for “election recounts and contests and other legal proceedings.” As a result, a single donor in the 2016 election could give up to $2.5 million to the state and national committees of one party—about 35 times higher than what they could give in 2014.
Although it is unlikely that the Russia defense is the kind of “legal proceeding” envisioned by Congress, the RNC has decided to interpret the language broadly enough to include not only the President, but his son. Thanks to a dysfunctional FEC, there’s little chance that such uses will be restricted or penalized.
As the next election cycle approaches, Congress should be taking steps to prevent meddling in our campaigns, and to close the gaping loopholes in our campaign finance system. That includes eliminating multi-million-dollar contribution limits that provide avenues for wealthy donors, foreign and domestic, to ingratiate themselves to political leaders. It also includes taking specific steps like preventing corporations from being used as conduits for foreign money—a proposal advanced in the latest iteration of the DISCLOSE Act. Finally, it demands renewed enforcement by the chronically lax FEC, to ensure that the money flowing through our campaigns is not coming from foreign sources.
The authors of this article come from two very different backgrounds—one focuses on the rules of our political system, and the other focuses on foreign policy. This story concerns us both because of what it reveals about our democracy, and because of the threat it poses to our self-governance. The United States should be run by and for the American people—not the wealthiest few, and certainly not our foreign adversaries.
Alex Tausanovitch is the associate director of Democracy and Government Reform at American Progress. James Lamond is Manager of the Moscow Project at American Progress.