President Trump tapped a conservative Texas lawyer who worked for his campaign to serve on the long-polarized Federal Election Commission, an appointment that comes as the panel is under pressure to examine whether a Russian company broke election laws by running politically themed Facebook ads during the 2016 presidential campaign.
The White House announced late Tuesday that the president has nominated James E. “Trey” Trainor III, a partner in the Austin office of Akerman LLP, to fill the remainder of a six-year FEC term that will expire in April 2021. That puts him on track to replace Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman, who said this spring that he was planning on stepping down by the end of year.
In an email, Goodman declined to comment on his plans, but said that he has known Trainor for nearly a decade, and called him “an excellent and thoughtful lawyer.”
“Trey Trainor will bring a principled libertarian perspective to the FEC,” Goodman said. " I believe President Trump has made an excellent choice for the future of the FEC.”
Trainor, who must be confirmed by the Senate, has pushed for less regulation of money in politics. In Texas, he fought efforts by fellow Republicans to require politically active nonprofit organizations to disclose their donors, saying that such a law “would have a chilling effect on anybody's ability to speak.” At the time, Trainor represented Empower Texans, a conservative advocacy group that targeted GOP sponsors of the measure and fought the Texas Ethics Commission's push for the group to reveal its donors.
Trainor did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
As a candidate, Trump lambasted the role of big-money PACs and called for more disclosure of political donors. “I want transparency,” he told Time magazine in August 2015. “I don’t mind the money coming in. Let it be transparent. Let them talk, but let there be total transparency.”
Advocates for more stringent regulation of political money said Trainor's opposition to donor disclosure raises questions about the approach he would bring to the FEC.
Meredith McGehee, chief of policy for the advocacy group Issue One, called on the Senate to “fully vet” Trainor. If he is confirmed, she said in a statement, “it is imperative that he recuse himself from pending matters before the FEC involving the 2016 Trump campaign and any allied super PACs with which he may have been involved.”
This is Trainor's second appointment in the Trump administration. Earlier this year, he was temporarily assigned to the Pentagon, where he served as a special assistant to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis in the Office of General Counsel. He also has worked as a lawyer for the Texas Republican Party, as general counsel for the Texas Secretary of State and as counsel for then-Texas Gov. Rick Perry's 2012 presidential campaign.
During the 2016 campaign, Trainor first backed Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.). When Cruz dropped out, Trump campaign lawyer (and former FEC commissioner) Donald McGahn asked Trainor to assist with legal issues at the Republican National Convention, Trainor told the Austin American-Statesman in January. There, he helped Trump fend off a last-ditch challenge from the party's “never Trump” wing.
“I think America is going to be great again,” Trainor said after Trump was elected.
If Trainor replaces Goodman on the FEC, the six-member panel would still be on track to have two vacancies unless Trump nominates replacements for Democratic appointee Ann Ravel, who left earlier this year, and Republican appointee Matthew Petersen, whom the president recently tapped to be a federal judge.
The White House did not immediately respond to questions about whether Trump plans to make other nominations to the FEC.
Ellen Weintraub, a Democratic appointee on the commission, said she does not know Trainor but is looking forward to working with him. “If the president is considering FEC nominees, I urge him to work with Democratic leaders to fill the open Democratic seat that has been vacant for over six months,” she added.