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Power Up: 'Just the tip of the iceberg.' FEC chair warns charges against Giuliani associates highlight big dark money problems


with Brent D. Griffiths

Welcome to week four of the impeachment inquiry. Stay up to date with us — reach out & sign up

In the Agencies

'TIP OF THE ICEBERG': It's a particularly busy time for the Federal Election Commission to be out of commission.


FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub warns that the charges brought against two associates of President Trump's personal lawyer highlight the flow of dark money in the U.S. political system -- which she says is just the "tip of the iceberg."

  • “There may well be a lot of money that is slipping into our system that we just don’t know about,” Weintraub said in a Friday interview, a day after prosecutors accused Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman of scheming to funnel foreign money to U.S. politicians.

And the question of whether Trump acted inappropriately by pressuring the Ukrainian government to investigate 2020 political rival Joe Biden is at the core of the House's impeachment inquiry.

But the FEC is effectively paralyzed: The agency in charge of enforcing campaign finance laws has not been able to conduct any formal business since the departure of its Republican vice chair in August. It needs a quorum to function — and Trump has yet to appoint a fourth commissioner. Weintraub, a Democrat who has chaired the commission three times since her 2002 appointment by President George W. Bush, is very concerned — and says voters should be, too. 

  • “When campaign finance issues are on the front pages of the newspaper every single day, this is a particularly bad time for the FEC not to have a quorum and not be able to respond to enforcement matters, not to be able to have new rulemaking or issue advisory opinions,” she told us.

But Weintraub isn't going quietly. She wouldn't comment on the specifics of the charges against Parnas and Fruman, who also assisted in Rudolph W. Giuliani's shadow agenda on behalf of the president in Ukraine, but she stressed that “the ban on foreign money, obviously, is needed to make sure we have American elections for Americans.” 

  • The Russia connection: It remains a mystery where Parnas and Fruman got their money, our colleagues Roz Helderman, Josh Dawsey, Paul Sonne, and Tom Hamburger report. But “prosecutors alleged that Parnas and Fruman were backed in part by an unnamed Russian national who used them to funnel donations to state and federal candidates.”
  • Parnas and Fruman were active GOP donors: “At least 14 Republican candidates and groups directly received a total of $675,500 in campaign contributions last year … from the Soviet-born Florida business executives, per the Wall Street Journal's Julie Bykowicz.
  • And six of their donations, according to federal prosecutors in Manhattan, involved “either a shell company used to hide the men’s identities or foreign money meant to curry favor with U.S. politicians.” This total includes the $325,000 a pro-Trump super PAC received from the pair's company, Global Energy Producers. 
  • Why this matters: “Every single one of these contributions is suspect because they were made with an ulterior motive,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told the Journal.

Weintraub slammed the idea of straw donors: “The ban on contributions in the name of another … is at the core of the FEC’s mission to ensure that the voters are informed about where the money is coming from and where it’s going and who politicians are indebted to.” 

  • Value in transparency: “If we have people giving in other people’s names then we lose that valuable information about who is the true source of the money,” she added. 

Weintraub also refused to answer whether Trump's calls for governments to investigate Biden actually broke any rules: “I’d rather not answer that question because it’s too close to the facts of an actual thing that could come before the commission in an enforcement context,” she said.

  • But she says the laws surrounding foreign national cases are clear: “It is certainly illegal to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election,” Weintraub told us. “That’s just black letter law.” 

The FEC chair had sharp words for Republicans lawmakers: Last week, the ranking Republican on the House Administration Committee requested an ethics investigation into Weintraub. Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) who was named honorary state chair for Trump's reelection campaign earlier this month, accused her of using government time and resources for “ideological, and at times political, purposes” — and to disparage the president.

  • Weintraub, who originally responded that she would “not be silenced,” told Power Up: “It’s really remarkable how these supposedly deregulatory advocates suddenly don't like it so much — free speech isn’t so appealing when they don't like what you’re saying.” 

Weintraub warned that the FEC will eventually be back in action — and no politicians or would-be campaign violators should feel secure in the lull of enforcement power: “There is a five year statute of limitations so people should not think they can get away with everything,” Weintraub said. 

Update: This story has been updated to reflect that Weintraub did not comment specifically on the charges against the Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman.

Global Power

THE LATEST ON SYRIA: America’s policy for Syria and the region is in upheaval, our colleagues Karen DeYoung, Dan Lamothe, Missy Ryan and Kareem Fahim report.

Over the weekend: Cabinet secretaries denied that Trump's decision to withdraw all 1,000 troops from northern Syria meant the U.S. "had 'abandoned' its Syrian Kurdish allies to invading Turkish forces and threatened severe sanctions against Ankara." 

  • Key quote: “We obviously could not continue,” a senior administration official told our colleagues, who called the situation “a total s---storm.”

On the ground: “This is total chaos,” per the official. Turkey "gave guarantees" to the U.S. that its forces would not be harmed, the official said, but noted Syrian militias allied with them "are running up and down roads, ambushing and attacking vehicles." This, per our colleagues, is "putting American ­forces — as well as civilians — in danger even as they withdraw. The militias, known as the Free Syrian Army, 'are crazy and not reliable.' At the same time, the official said, the Islamic State is active in the area, and there are reports that Russian and Syrian forces are moving in as well."

And the Kurds strike a deal: Kurdish forces previously allied with the U.S. concluded that they could no longer count on U.S. forces and needed to reach a pact with the Iran- and Russia-backed government of President Bashar al-Assad.

  • The deal that the Syrian Democratic forces made “will bring forces loyal to Assad back into towns and cities that have been under Kurdish control for seven years," our colleagues Liz Sly, Louisa Loveluck, Asser Khattab and Sarah Dadouch write
  • Background: “The deal followed three days of negotiations brokered by Russia between the Syrian government and the SDF, which had reached the conclusion that it could no longer count on the United States, its chief ally for the past five years in the fight against the Islamic State, according to a Kurdish intelligence official." 

What this means for ISIS: “The fighting has raised concerns that Islamist militants detained in the battle to defeat ISIS could escape, facilitating the reconstitution of the Islamic State,” the New York Times’s Ben Hubbard, Charlie Savage, Eric Schmitt and Patrick Kingsley report. “As American troops were redeployed, two American officials said the United States had failed to transfer five dozen 'high value' Islamic State detainees out of the country,” per the Times. 

  • We don't know how many escaped: “One official said that multiple Kurdish-run detention facilities were now unguarded and that the U.S. military believed hundreds of detainees had escaped,” our colleagues Karen, Dan, Missy and Kareem report. The Times cites U.S. officials as saying that the Kurds refused to let the retreating U.S. forces take any more ISIS detainees from their makeshift prisons.
  • But it's too early to tell whether ISIS will be resurgent, according to The Times. “The likelihood ... remains hard to gauge, since the Syrian Kurdish leadership may have exaggerated some incidents to catch the West’s attention.”

On The Hill

Back at home: Trump continued to endure a bipartisan shellacking for his decision to withdraw U.S. troops, our colleague Felicia Sonmez reports

  • Key stat: Only two Republicans on the Sunday morning news shows — Sens. Rand Paul (Ky.)  and Kevin Cramer (N.D.) — defended Trump’s decision, our colleague writes. 
  • GOP congressman blasts Trump for claiming his policy will curtail “endless wars”: “You hear the president and people like Rand Paul talk about endless wars all the time, and it’s kitschy. But actually, we were preventing an endless war,” Rep. Adam Kinzinger, an Air Force veteran said on CBS's Face the Nation. He added that “for me — as a guy that served in the military and really got into politics because I believe in the role America plays — to see this yet again, you know, leaving an ally behind … is disheartening, depressing.”
  • Kinzinger took particular issue with how the Kurds found out about the policy shift: “The Kurds found out on Twitter, for goodness’ sake,” he said. “We have left them to the wolves.”
  • Graham changes his tune: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a Trump ally, excoriated the president last week for what he deemed “the biggest blunder of his presidency.” But he praised Trump’s support of potential sanctions against Turkey. 

Trump is not backing down, despite the pressure from the Hill, the Pentagon and various administration officials, according to our colleagues Seung Min Kim and Josh Dawsey

  • “The officials, granted anonymity to describe internal deliberations, described Trump as 'doubling down' and 'undeterred,' despite vociferous pushback from congressional Republicans who have been loath to challenge the president apart from a few issues, such as national security." 

  • Key quote: “I’ve always looked at the approach the administration takes as very transactional and very short-term in nature,” former senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), who chaired the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Seung Min and Josh. “It’s almost seeking headlines for the very next day, but not really thinking through the longer-term impact on our ­country.”

The Investigations

A JAM-PACKED WEEK FOR IMPEACHMENT: Four witnesses are expected to be deposed. Key players including Vice President Pence, Energy Secretary Rick Perry, the Defense Department and the White House are facing deadlines to turn over documents and information.

But it remains to be seen just how much — if anything — the administration will turn over given the White House's stated “full halt” on cooperation with the impeachment inquiry. 

As always, we check in on our colleagues' helpful calendar on what you need to look out for:

What you need to know: Hill is expected to tell lawmakers that European Union ambassador Gordon Sondland and Giuliani "circumvented the National Security Council and the normal White House process to pursue a shadow policy on Ukraine," NBC News's Josh Lederman, Carol E. Lee and Kristen Welker reported last week.

  • A Giuliani associate is also expected to testify: Semyon “Sam” Kislin, a Ukrainian-born businessman, is also scheduled to be deposed by lawmakers. BuzzFeed's Michael Sallah, Tanya Kozyreva and Aubrey Belford reported. Kislin served on a business advisory council for then-Mayor Giuliani. 

Later this week: Sondland will testify it was Trump who told him there was no "quid pro quo." Sondland "intends to tell Congress this week that the content of a text message he wrote denying a quid pro quo with Ukraine was relayed to him directly by [Trump] in a phone call, according to a person familiar with his testimony," our colleagues Aaron C. Davis and John Hudson scooped over the weekend.

  • Sondland will tell House investigators Thursday he doesn't know if Trump was telling the truth: "It’s only true that the president said it, not that it was the truth,” said the person familiar with Sondland’s planned testimony, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic matters. "The call lasted less than five minutes, and Trump appeared to be in a foul mood, according to the person, who spoke to The Post with Sondland’s permission, an intermediary said," our colleagues write.

The ambassador will also offer an alternative theory: A scenario where Trump ditches the scheme amid mounting pressure to release the $400 million in security assistance. 

And Adam Schiff indicates the whistleblower may not testify at all: The House Intelligence Committee chairman said "that protecting the identity of the whistleblower who raised the alarm about President Trump’s communications with Ukraine is 'our primary interest,' in a sign that House Democrats may not press the individual to testify before Congress," our colleague Felicia reports.

In the Media

VIDEO OF FAKE JOURNALIST SHOOTING SHOWN AT TRUMP RESORT: "A video depicting a macabre scene of a fake President Trump shooting, stabbing and brutally assaulting members of the news media and his political opponents was shown at a conference for his supporters at his Miami resort last week, according to footage obtained by The New York Times," the Times's Michael S. Schmidt and Maggie Haberman scooped last night.

  • More on the video: "The video depicts a scene inside the 'Church of Fake News,' where parishioners rise as Mr. Trump — dressed in a black pinstripe suit and tie — walks down the aisle," the Times reports. "Many parishioners’ faces have been replaced with the logos of news media organizations, including PBS, NPR, Politico, The Washington Post and NBC.
  • Several top surrogates were scheduled to appear at the conference: Donald Trump Jr., former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders and the governor of Florida, Ron DeSantis — "were scheduled to speak at the three-day conference, which was held by a pro-Trump group, American Priority, at Trump National Doral Miami," the Times reports. Sanders and a source close to Trump Jr. said they did not see the video.
  • Some organizations have already condemned the video including: The White House Correspondents' Association and CNN.

2020 candidate Beto O'Rourke said the video could incite real-world violence:

The Campaign

HUNTER BIDEN LEAVES CHINESE COMPANY'S BOARD: "Hunter Biden, facing increasing questions about his work for a Chinese investment company, will step down from his position as a board director this month and promised not to do any work for foreign firms if his father, Joe Biden, is elected president, his lawyer said," our colleagues Michael Kranish and Anna Fifield report.

  • This signals Hunter Biden's foreign ties have become a major issue in the campaign: "Hunter Biden served, starting in 2014, as a paid board member for a Ukrainian gas company, Burisma Holdings, at a time when his father was shepherding U.S. policy in that country, including advocating for increased gas production," our colleagues write. "He left that position when his father announced his presidential candidacy earlier this year but has retained his role as a director and part owner of the Chinese company."

It's only a day away: The next Democratic primary debate is on Tuesday in Westerville, Ohio. It will be the largest of the four so far with 12 candidates on the same stage.