Weintraub’s interest was piqued by an article published last week by TIME magazine that revealed intelligence officials had evidence that Russian agents bought Facebook ads to disseminate election-themed stories. It also indicated that congressional investigators were examining whether Russian efforts to spread such content were boosted by two U.S. companies with deep ties to Trump — Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica.
Representatives for the two companies did not respond to requests for comment.
It’s unlikely that the FEC would be able to build much of a case against Russia, partly because the Justice Department would have primacy on any criminal investigations.
However, Weintraub said, “if there are U.S. citizens involved in any way in spending foreign money to influence a U.S. election, then that would be something that we could and should pursue.”
Yet, the issue is not cut-and-dry, both because Facebook told TIME that it hasn’t found evidence of Russian agents buying ads on the social media platform and because, even if there were proof that Russian agents had paid for the ads, it’s not clear how the FEC would apply the law.
That’s partly because it could be argued that merely paying to disseminate news articles might not qualify as trying to influence an election. And it’s partly because the commission, which is currently comprised of three commissioners nominated by Republicans and two nominated by Democrats (with one Democratic seat vacant), has been famously divided on partisan lines, and its Republican appointees may be disinclined to pursue a case that would embarrass a president of their own party….
Paul Ryan, litigation director for Common Cause, said that if the Russian government paid to disseminate anti-Clinton content “then the activity would seemingly be covered by the ‘expenditure’ prong of the foreign national ban, rather than by the ‘contribution/donation’ prong of the ban.”
Debates about the specifics law aside, Ryan added that “common sense certainly suggests that Russia spending money to influence our elections should be covered by a statute that prohibits foreign nationals from spending money for the purpose of influencing a federal election.”