Late last summer, after Hillary Clinton launched her presidential campaign in New York, undercover reporters from Project Veritas Action Fund (PVA) exposed some ranking members of Clinton’s team facilitating a foreign conduit contribution—that is, they assured the PVA reporter that she could purchase some Clinton gear for a Canadian citizen and then be reimbursed by the Canadian for the expense.* This was an illegal foreign contribution. But the campaign finance community—including so-called reformers—exercised a rare instance of discretion, arguing it was silly to enforce the law’s zero-tolerance policy against foreign contributions for campaign merchandise and deflecting by arguing that the PVA journalist committed the same or similar offense as the Clinton campaign.
Less than a year later, the reform community has rediscovered its zeal for zero-tolerance against foreign contributions, and then some. Late last month, the Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint against the Donald Trump campaign, not for accepting even a penny of foreign contributions, but for having an e-mail list that includes foreign nationals, or foreign government e-mail accounts, which receive Trump’s blasts including solicitations for contributions.
Yes, they’re complaining about an e-mail list. To save our democracy. Sure.
Did anyone in the press ask, “Is this a joke?” No. In fact, this issue has garnered a good deal of coverage, despite being baseless. Brendan Fischer of Campaign Legal suggests an e-mail list—undoubtedly millions upon millions of addresses—can be culled with “minimal diligence.” “Diligence” to filter these out for something so inconsequential adds unnecessary costs that simply are not worth it, even for presidential campaigns. To be sure, the reform community works diligently to get money out of politics by forcing as much campaign money to go to lawyers and accountants as possible, but this is ridiculous even by that standard.
Perhaps most silly is that Campaign Legal considers a generalized e-mail to fall within the realistic scope of a “solicitation” worthy of investigation and enforcement. What’s next, social media ads reaching the wrong IP addresses? What about all the foreign nationals undoubtedly receiving e-mails at innocuous “.com” domains? If Trump staff were making repeated phone calls to foreign nationals there would be fire; here, there’s not even smoke.
Finally, though the Trump campaign may send a lot of e-mails and thus a lot of general solicitations, those e-mails also include copious amounts of political speech unrelated to fundraising, which might be of interest even abroad. Maybe members of foreign governments aren’t interested in hearing about it. Fine; it’s called an “unsubscribe” button, and if that doesn’t work they may consult their spam filters.
The watchdogs’ selective or, at least, asymmetrical concern with foreign contributions does not end here. Turning back to that watchdog that the reform community only finds good for a giggle, earlier this year PVA exposed the Bernie Sanders campaign accepting what likely amounted to tens of thousands of dollars in illegal in-kind foreign contributions from the Australian Labor Party. This was way beyond a few items of campaign merchandise, which was already beyond an e-mail list, but Campaign Legal and the reform community at large offered only silence.
Of course they did. To complain about that might put Bernie Sanders in the crosshairs of rather serious campaign enforcement, and show that even campaigns righteously centered on more campaign finance reform have trouble following the laws we already have. This includes laws that a campaign could indeed follow with, to borrow a phrase, “minimal diligence.”
*Outside of my work with Pillar, I represent Project Veritas Action Fund in matters relating to free speech, including an ongoing lawsuit in Massachusetts. The views expressed in this post are my own.