When the Trump campaign received outreach from Russian officials, they never reported it to law enforcement. Should they have been required to?
By now it’s well established that officials with connections to — or working on behalf of — the Russian government made overtures to Donald Trump’s 2016 campaign, with promises of information, assistance, or dirt on his opponent.
There’s a grey zone legally. While it’s a federal crime for a campaign to receive “anything of value” from a foreign national, loopholes in the law relegate that term primarily to things like actual monetary contributions.
Campaign manager Paul Manafort and Donald Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting with Russians, or Russian-hacked emails from the Hillary Clinton campaign that were publicly released? Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report determined that there was no judicial precedent for classifying such non-monetary help as something “of value” to a campaign under a literal interpretation of current law.
Regardless, when such materials of dubious legality are provided to a campaign — or attempted to be provided to a campaign — longstanding practice was that the campaign is supposed to report it to law enforcement like the FBI. Democrat Al Gore’s campaign did in 2000. However, that’s not actually a law.
What the bills do
The Duty to Report Act and Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections (FIRE) Act are bills which would require a campaign to report any attempt of contact by foreign nationals offering services or information.
The bills would require any such meeting be reported to both the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) and the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
The Duty to Report was introduced in the House on May 20 as bill number H.R. 2853, by Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA15), also a longshot presidential candidate. It was introduced in the Senate that same day as bill number S. 1247 by Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT).
The FIRE Act introduced in the Senate on April 30 as bill number S. 1562 by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), top Democrat on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
What supporters say
Supporters argue the bills help prevent foreign interference in our elections and campaigns, and codifies a longstanding norm that had been generally practiced but never officially in law.
“Most Americans already know that if a foreign adversary reaches out about interfering in our elections, you should report that contact,” Sen. Warner said in a press release. “But after Special Counsel Robert Mueller identified at least 140 contacts between Trump associates and Russian nationals or WikiLeaks, it’s clear that some Americans haven’t taken that responsibility seriously.”
“In fact, the Trump campaign welcomed the help, and sought to hide that from the American people,” Sen. Warner continued. “This bill would protect the integrity of our democracy by requiring future campaigns to report attempts by foreign nationals to coordinate or collaborate during a political campaign, and by putting campaigns on notice about their obligations.”
What opponents say
Opponents counter that these bills don’t draw a distinction between official government representatives specifically and foreign nationals in general.
Even Trump’s Attorney General William Barr acknowledged in recent Senate testimony that a campaign should report to the FBI contact by a foreign intelligence service, when asked by Sen. Chris Coons (D-DE). However, Barr specifically only said so about a foreign intelligence service and not about _any_foreign nationals.
This implies that (for example) Manafort and Trump Jr.’s Trump Tower meeting shouldn’t rise to that level of mandatory disclosure. They were meeting with Russian attorneys with _ties _to the Kremlin, but who didn’t officially work for the Kremlin itself. Under this bill, the Trump Tower meeting would have to be reported to law enforcement.
Odds of passage
The House version of the Duty to Report Act has attracted one Democratic cosponsor, although a prior version attracted 24 cosponsors, all Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the House Judiciary Committee.
The Senate version has attracted two cosponsors, both Democrats. It awaits a potential vote in the Senate Rules and Administration Committee.
A comparable Senate bill called the Foreign Influence Reporting in Elections (FIRE) Act, introduced by Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA), has not yet attracted any cosponsors.
Most Republicans are unlikely to support legislation which they view as primarily targeted as an attack against President Trump.