Trump’s GOP Nominee to the Federal Election Commission Has Ties to Dark Money

Senate Republicans will consider advancing President Donald Trump’s GOP nominee to the Federal Election Commission this week, potentially giving the watchdog the fourth member it needs to enforce election law.

Transparency groups are criticizing Trump’s pick — Texas election lawyer James “Trey” Trainor — over his opposition to campaign finance regulation. Democrats, meanwhile, are blasting Republicans for advancing a Republican nominee without an accompanying Democratic nominee, a longtime Senate tradition.

The Senate Rules and Administration Committee will hold Trainor’s confirmation hearing on March 10. From there he could be confirmed by a simple majority vote in the full Senate. Trump nominated Trainor, an advisor to Trump’s 2016 campaign, in September 2017. The Senate initially didn’t take up Trainor’s nomination after it was revealed he posted anti-Protestant messages on social media.

Trainor’s nomination is controversial in part for his criticism of campaign finance regulation. As the attorney for a powerful “dark money” group, he battled the Texas Ethics Commission to shield to the organization from disclosing its donors. Campaign finance watchdogs fear Trainor would undermine any efforts to uncover secret election spending, which totals nearly $1 billion over the last decade.

“It is unacceptable that the watchdog for our federal elections has been without a quorum to conduct even the most basic business for more than six months,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director at Issue One, which argues for stricter campaign finance laws. “But reopening the Federal Election Commission with a nominee who does not think we should enforce the nation’s campaign finance laws will only make matters worse.”

Trevor Potter, former Republican FEC commissioner and president of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, tweeted Wednesday that the current nomination process “produces commissioners who are opposed to the mission of the agency – resulting in an explosion in secret spending in elections.”

If confirmed, Trainor would replace former Republican commissioner Matthew Petersen. His departure last summer left the FEC with one seat short of the quorum needed to conduct meetings. As of March 2020, the FEC only has three members out of a possible six. Trump has not nominated anyone to fill the other two open seats.

Democrats on Wednesday blasted Republicans for considering Trainor, noting that the Senate typically nominates FEC members in bipartisan pairs. Trump has not nominated Senate Democrats’ pick to fill the Democratic vacancy on the commission. The FEC cannot have more than three members of the same political party.

Senate Republicans have said they want to replace the entire six-member commission rather than fill single vacancies, but they argue Trainor’s confirmation is needed to restore the FEC for now.

“Without a quorum, the FEC cannot hold hearings, issue advisory opinions, approve enforcement actions and more,” Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), chairman of the Rules and Administration Committee, said in a statement. “With the 2020 elections underway, it would be particularly irresponsible for Senate Democrats to stand in the way of a fully functioning FEC.”

The FEC has been without a quorum for more than six months. In that time, the commission’s backlog of unresolved cases has grown to around 300, according to FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat.

Even when the FEC could consider complaints last year, its members were unable to reach a consensus on most cases. Republicans often dismissed cases against members of both parties while the Democratic-aligned commissioners voted to further investigate allegations of campaign finance violations.