The social media platform is one of her last remaining tools.
“The only thing she has left, given that everything else is crumbling underneath her, is the bully pulpit,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, an organization that advocates for more regulation of money in politics.
Weintraub’s public comments, which often target President Trump, and the attendant political tug-of-war have magnified the dysfunction at the top level of the elections watchdog. They’ve also underscored the polarization of its remaining three commissioners — one short of the four needed to conduct business.
The fracas is unfolding at a crucial time for the agency that enforces campaign finance laws, as threats of foreign interference loom over the run-up to the 2020 election.
Some criticize Weintraub, a Democrat, for being an unusually outspoken FEC commissioner; others say they can’t blame her, citing the surreal political moment. In interviews, Weintraub has chosen her words carefully. She has avoided direct comment on specific allegations of electoral wrongdoing, including those concerning Trump, his personal attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani and Giuliani’s associates.
But online, she has sparred with her Republican co-commissioner and has become a vocal critic of the Trump administration from inside the independent federal agency she leads. In one post, she quoted the president’s call for voter identification laws and added “Not this again.” In another, she affixed a mocking “SAD” to an official letter asking Trump to prove his repeated allegations of voter fraud.
“They don’t want me saying these things because they don’t want people to hear what I have to say,” Weintraub said of her critics, who have also accused her of bias that would compromise her ability to rule on matters involving the president.
“What have I done that they object to?” she said. “I have asked for facts — facts aren’t partisan, just saying. I have explained the law — I have said over and over again that it is illegal for anyone to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election. That is black letter law, that is not my political opinion.”
A key part of her job, Weintraub said, is to communicate with the public. But some of the harshest criticism toward her has come from her colleague, Republican commissioner Caroline C. Hunter.
“She has a First Amendment right to speak, but once she uses FEC letterhead and her title as chair to troll the president of the United States and to grandstand, it’s really outrageous,” said Hunter, who recently tangled with Weintraub over the release of a foreign activity memo.
Weintraub has endeared herself to the activist left — she said she’s been inundated with letters and emails thanking her for fighting; one fan suggested putting her face on a T-shirt. But she said she wouldn’t have spoken out if her agency were running smoothly. With the FEC in disarray, she said, her voice is her power.
“If it takes Twitter or going on television or op-eds or making speeches — any mechanism that I have available to me to get the word out about what the law is — I am willing to get creative,” she said.
Since the commission’s vice chairman, Matthew S. Peterson, resigned in August, the six-person panel has had just three members: Weintraub, Hunter and Steven T. Walther, an independent. Without a quorum, it can’t enforce regulations, issue advisory opinions or approve audit reports. By law, no more than three commissioners can belong to the same political party.
It’s the second time in the agency’s history the commission has lost its quorum, and the first time since 2008, the year some believe rang in a new era of intractability at the FEC. Issue One has called it “unacceptable” and set up a website titled “FEC M.I.A.” to count the number of days it remains shorthanded.
But even when the commission did have enough members to meet, its gatherings often devolved into a quarrel that reflected a deep divide over interpretations of the law and visions for the agency: One side sending dire warnings about the risks of “dark money” and pushing for more reform, and the other side advocating for fewer restrictions on campaign finance.
A graduate of Harvard Law, Weintraub worked in private practice and as a counsel to the House Ethics Committee before joining the FEC in 2002, when she was appointed by President George W. Bush. She’s the longest sitting of the remaining three commissioners, all serving on expired terms and are years overdue for replacements.
During her 17 years on the commission, Weintraub said she’s seen a dramatic shift away from compromise in favor of party-line votes.
“She’s been there at a time when it’s kind of like watching the Wicked Witch of the West melt: this long, tedious process of watching the agency melt,” McGehee said. “It really galvanized her.”
The problems started in 2008, Weintraub said, when the commission dwindled to two and lost quorum for six months. The three Republicans who joined the reconstituted panel — one who was former White House counsel Donald McGahn — were loud proponents of deregulation and voted as a bloc, she said, making it difficult to get the required four votes on a given issue.
“When I first started here, I always thought that was the best part of the job, trying to find a deal,” Weintraub said. “It just got to be almost impossible to do that. Because those three didn’t want the agency to be doing much, that was fine with them.”
Trevor Potter, a Republican and former FEC chair who was appointed by George H.W. Bush, defended Weintraub and applauded her leadership, saying conservatives have for the past 10 years prevented the commission from enforcing the law.
“Today’s commission is riven by a deep, philosophical divide over whether they should do their job or not,” said Potter, now the president of Campaign Legal Center, which advocates for stricter regulation of money in politics.
“If they had their way, they wouldn’t have an FEC,” he said of Republicans.
But Hunter has rejected that criticism, saying the FEC should “enforce campaign finance laws as written and as interpreted by the courts, not as the speech police wish them to be.”
“If you don’t interpret the law the way they do, you’re wrong and you’re not enforcing the law,” she said.
The upshot to this deep ideological disagreement, Weintraub said, is that enforcement actions, fines and rulings have all slowed down. It’s the same story as the one that has played out in Congress and in other corners of American governance over the past several years — institutions crippled by gridlock.
“We got there first,” Weintraub said of the FEC. “We were the canary in the coal mine on this.”
Weintraub said the news cycle has pushed her to become more vocal.
“We’re in a moment where understanding campaign finance law is critically important,” Weintraub said. “You pick up the newspapers almost any day and campaign finance issues are on the front pages, and I just want people to understand what the rules are — and, hopefully, to follow them.”
In June, after Trump told ABC News that he would accept information on a political opponent from a foreign government, Weintraub tweeted out a statement, reiterating that “Electoral intervention from foreign governments has been considered unacceptable since the beginnings of our nation.”
“I would not have thought that I needed to say this,” she added.
Then two weeks ago, Trump both defended his request that Ukraine investigate his potential 2020 campaign rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter and called on China to investigate the family, too.
Weintraub retweeted her June statement, writing “Is this thing on?” next to a microphone emoji.
Those tweets prompted more criticism from the right, including Brad Smith, chairman of the Institute for Free Speech and a former outspoken Republican FEC chair who worked with Weintraub on the commission in the early 2000s.
“It’s not her job to be tweeting that out,” said Smith, who has publicly called for Weintraub’s resignation.
Her timing suggests she’s accusing Trump of breaking the law, he said.
“That’s a dangerous thing for her to be doing in her position,” Smith said. “She’s supposed to be a relatively impartial quasi-judicial officer.”
Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.) asked the FEC’s inspector general to investigate Weintraub, accusing her of using her office to advance a political agenda. But Weintraub has maintained that she’s been more of an educator than a political rabble-rouser, saying she’s trying to defend the country’s democracy from the threat of foreign adversaries.
“I will not be silenced,” she said, responding to Davis’s Oct. 10 letter.
Even though the FEC remains open with three commissioners and its regular staff, the lack of a quorum will continue to make it more difficult for the agency to monitor compliance with election law ahead of the 2020 election.
But, perhaps unsurprisingly, the way forward is politically fractious.
One option, said a senior GOP Senate aide, is to nominate a slate of six appointees and completely remake the panel, which means Democrats would also have to recommend a replacement for Weintraub.
“A clean slate of members will go a long way toward fixing some of the perceived dysfunction at the Commission,” said the aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about the deliberations.
The office of Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said in a statement that, “We are working to restore a quorum as quickly as possible.” Schumer wants a fully functioning FEC before the 2020 election, the statement said.
In 2017, Trump nominated Texas attorney James E. “Trey” Trainor III to the commission, but the Senate has not held a confirmation hearing.
A quorum would be a good start, McGehee said of Issue One. But there are longer-term fixes she said would make the FEC more effective, like requiring an odd number of commissioners to promote action, or outsourcing enforcement to administrative law judges.
“There’s no silver bullet to fix it,” she said. “But everybody knows it’s beyond repair."