The recent guilty plea by Maria Butina for her scheme to use Russian money to impact U.S. politics — including, potentially, part of the $30 million that the National Rifle Association spent to support President Trump’s election — has led to a renewed discussion of the warnings that Hillary Clinton campaign’s gave about foreign influence during the 2016 campaign.
But perhaps it is also time to revisit a warning that came years earlier, on Jan. 27, 2010, in one of the most unusual moments of the Barack Obama presidency.
Even if you don’t recall the date, you probably recall the incident: During Obama’s first official State of the Union address, he criticized a Supreme Court ruling, and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr., sitting in the chamber, visibly challenged the president, shaking his head in disagreement and mouthing “not true” in response. It was considered a major “controversy” at the time (in a much gentler era).
Many remember the moment, but few remember what Obama said that caused such a ruckus. Obama’s comments were about the then-recent decision in Citizens United, in which the court de-fanged an already rickety campaign finance regulation system. Obama said:
“Last week the Supreme Court reversed a century of law that I believe will open the floodgates for special interests, including foreign corporations, to spend without limits in our elections. I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, or worse, by foreign entities.”
Check out the videotape: Alito’s “not true” was spoken specifically in response to Obama’s claim about the risk of foreign influence in U.S. elections.
Now — after Butina’s plea and this week’s Senate Intelligence Committee Report detailing how Russian money fueled social media efforts to promote the Trump campaign and suppress African American voting — the prescience of Obama’s warning seems particularly acute.
At the time, Alito was not the only one to wrongly call Obama wrong. Politifact rated Obama’s statement that night “mostly false” and said he had “overstated the ruling’s immediate impact on foreign companies' ability to spend unlimited money in U.S. political campaigns.” Perhaps the impact wasn’t “immediate,” but it was devastating in the first presidential election held without an incumbent after Citizens United was handed down.
Obama’s critics can claim that what happened in 2016 was not precisely what he warned about: His comments were drawn from Justice John Paul Stevens’ powerful dissent in Citizens United, which noted that many U.S. corporations have foreign parents that could, after the ruling, funnel unlimited amounts into American campaigns through U.S. subsidiaries. In the 2016 campaign, it’s not clear if it was Russian “companies” — or the Russian government — that was funding the efforts, but U.S. corporate subsidiaries have not yet been shown to be the intermediaries.
And, of course, the fact that special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s team is prosecuting people for the Russian influence scheme shows that such efforts remain illegal. So was Obama wrong when he said that Citizens United had opened “the floodgates” for foreign entities to influence our elections?
First, whatever mechanisms that were used — lawful and unlawful, subsidiaries or subterfuge — what is becoming increasingly clear about 2016 is there were a vast array of means in which foreign dollars were spent to try to affect the outcome of our presidential election. Some of those dollars (or more specifically, rubles) were spent overseas on “troll farms” and “meme farms” to pollute our social media, some bought ads in the United States, and some found their way into unregulated campaign coffers here, such as the NRA’s program to help Trump. Clearly, as Obama warned, “foreign entities” affected our elections.
What we know thus far may also just be the tip of the iceberg. Just days ago, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit sided with federal prosecutors (believed to be from Mueller’s office) seeking records of a foreign company in connection with their investigation of activities by that corporation that had “a direct effect in the United States.” Stay tuned.
Most important, the “wild west” of unlimited outside money unleashed by Citizens United — estimated at $1.4 billion in 2016, up roughly five times from just eight years before — helped 2016’s foreign incursion escape more widespread notice while it was happening. With so much money flooding into the system, the questions of how strange social media activity was being funded and who was paying for the NRA’s effort for Trump were just two more mysteries in our rapidly expanding dark money universe.
This is why the new House Democratic majority is wise to tackle campaign finance reform as part of the first bill they are submitting in the new Congress — H.R. 1, a package of reform measures to protect voting rights, strengthen electoral integrity and lessen special interest influence in our political system. It won’t fix everything — or even most — of what Obama worried about in the wake of Citizens United, but it is a step in the right direction.
And Justice Alito: President Obama is too polite to ask, but you can direct your apology note to Barack Obama, Obama Foundation, Chicago, Ill.