Based on what President Donald Trump hears on television about the Federal Election Commission, the nation’s cable news consumer-in-chief must be panicked.
Day after day, TV talkers squawk about how the independent government agency is poised to pounce. Their contention: A $130,000 hush-money payment in October 2016 from Trump lawyer Michael Cohen to porn actress and alleged Trump paramour Stormy Daniels could constitute an illegal in-kind campaign contribution to Trump’s presidential campaign — one that exceeds federal limits ($2,700 per election) and wasn’t properly disclosed.
CNN legal analyst Joey Jackson expects a robust FEC inquiry. “You know, they’re certainly in charge — the regulatory body,” he said.
Fox News political analyst Juan Williams predicted an FEC investigation will loom over Trump like a cloud. “It matters in terms of whether there was a Federal Election commission violation — that matters because that will drag out the story and keep it alive,” he warned.
“They’re worried about a Federal Election Commission violation,” CNN legal analyst Paul Callan said of Trump’s legal team. “I think they’re setting themselves up to defend against an FEC claim.”
Trump, however, has little cause to fear the FEC anytime soon, even if the agency, created by Congress in response to Watergate, is empowered to enforce federal campaign finance laws.
Complicated FEC investigations often take years
On Jan. 22, campaign finance reform organization Common Cause filed a complaint against Trump and Trump’s presidential campaign, accusing them of violating federal election law in relation to the Daniels payment.
Don’t be shocked if the FEC doesn’t rule on the complaint until after the 2020 presidential election, when it’s conceivable Trump is no longer president.
Statistics provided by FEC Commissioner Steven Walther indicated that the agency, as of Sept. 30, had 20 unresolved complaints more than two years old on its books. Of those, 11 were more than three years old.
One extreme example of FEC justice delayed involves a September 2009 complaint of allegedly illegal campaign contributions to then Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev. Only in December 2015 — more than six years later — did the commission close the complaint file following a mixed ruling. Were the FEC to take as much time deliberating on the Common Cause complaint as they did on the Reid campaign contribution complaint, they’d rule on it in April 2024.
And earlier this month, in a ruling seven-plus years in the making, a federal judge concluded the FEC acted “contrary to law” by dismissing a Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington complaint concerning how conservative nonprofit American Action Network disclosed election season advertisements ahead of the 2010 midterm election. The FEC must now comply with the ruling.