'I am very concerned': FEC chairwoman on 2020 election interference

PHOTO: Ellen L. Weintraub, Chair, U.S. Federal Election Commission, speaks at a panel discussion on disinformation and the 2020 campaign co-hosted by PEN America at the FEC in Washington, D.C., Sept. 17, 2019.PlayPaul Morigi/Getty Images for PEN America, FILE
WATCH News headlines today: Nov. 19, 2019

The Federal Election Commission Chairwoman, Ellen Weintraub, told ABC News she fears that foreign entities could interfere in the 2020 election.

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"I think we should be very concerned. I am very concerned. We saw foreign entities trying to take a role in the 2016 election," Weintraub said.

While Weintraub, a Democrat, did not go into any specifics or comment on recent cases, her comments come as two men with ties to Rudy Giuliani were arrested on campaign finance violations.

Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman, two Soviet-born businessmen based in Florida, have been charged with four counts, including conspiracy to commit campaign finance fraud, false statements to the Federal Election Commission, and falsification of records. Both Parnas and Fruman have been tied to the work done by the president's personal attorney, Rudy Giuliani, in Ukraine, where Giuliani has had significant business interests.

"I can only tell you that from the FEC perspective as I understand the law, if a foreign government is investing resources in producing something that will be a value to a campaign here in the United States, that's a problem," she stressed.

Weintraub said it is "illegal" for anyone to solicit, accept or receive anything of value from a foreign national in connection with a U.S. election.

She would not discuss the president calling for China to investigate Joe Biden, but said that any foreign interference is unwelcome and on the issue of Trump's alleged involvement in asking Ukraine to investigate Biden, Weintraub wouldn't comment but defined what the law said.

"I'm not going to comment on what any individual may have done but I can just tell you 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," she said.

"Well, without commenting on the decision that the Justice Department made in any particular instance just talking about the law in general, I can tell you that the FEC has looked at things of value in a variety of context and sometimes they're not even ascertainable when you're talking about money that could be coming from foreign sources. The bar is pretty low on what you would want to investigate. I think because any interference at all is going to be illegal," she said.

"So we have looked at in the domestic context ... things like mailing lists, contact lists, opposition research things that people sometimes pay for. I mean that is one issue that is a thing of value that something that people normally pay for. We would also look at whether somebody spent money in order to acquire the information in order to produce the information that would also be a relevant factor for us," she said.

Her analysis directly contradicts the decision the Justice Department rendered about President Donald Trump's phone call with the president of Ukraine because it didn't amount to a thing of value.

"Well, I think it's really important for candidates to know where the money is coming from that's coming into their campaigns and where any resources are coming from that is coming into their campaigns. One of my longstanding concerns about our current system is that there's too much dark money, there's too much obfuscation of where the money's really coming from. This applies to all resources," she said.

"Every candidate should be 100% clear with everyone they're dealing with that they are fully on board with complying with every law including and especially the law against accepting foreign money and foreign assistance."

Weintraub's 18 years on the FEC has not been without controversy -- especially as of late.

In June, Weintraub seemingly subtweeted the president, by releasing a statement saying that it's illegal to get help from a foreign government during an election.

The tweet came after President Trump told George Stephanopoulos in the Oval Office in June, asked whether his campaign would accept such information from foreigners -- such as China or Russia -- or hand it over the FBI, said, "I think maybe you do both. I think you might want to listen, there isn't anything wrong with listening. If somebody called from a country, Norway, [and said] ‘we have information on your opponent' -- oh, I think I'd want to hear it."

Weintraub resurfaced the statement when the president seemingly asked China to investigate Joe Biden earlier this month.

The FEC chairwoman has also been under scrutiny from congressional Republicans and Republicans on her own Commission.

Just last week, Ranking Member of the House Administration Committee sent a letter to the FEC inspector general alleging that "since at least February 2017 Chair Weintraub has used FEC resources to publish her personal opinion on political matters."

In response, she tweeted that she "will not be silenced."

Weintraub, who was nominated by George W. Bush, also took aim at her Republican colleague Caroline Hunter on Twitter over the blocking of an unpublished rule.

"GOP FEC Commissioner Caroline Hunter took the altogether unprecedented step of objecting to its being added to the Digest and blocked publication of the whole Digest as a result," Weintraub tweeted in the series of posts. "I always thought these anti-regulatory people liked the First Amendment well enough. I guess they think it's just for corporations," she continued. "I'm not fond of anyone trying to suppress my speech."

"And I think the public should absolutely not miss out on this week's Digest. So! Because Commissioner Hunter has blocked the Commission from publishing the FEC's Weekly Digest, I have decided to publish the information myself here on Twitter," Weintraub explained.

The memo she tweeted summarized the FEC's interpretation of foreign national contributions.

Hunter denies the claims.

"Again, Ellen Weintraub blocked publication of the Weekly Digest in order to publish a document that she didn't collaborate with me on and can't be acted on while Commission doesn't have a quorum," Hunter told ABC News in a subsequent interview.

"...we all agree that federal law clearly prohibits a foreign national from making a contribution, donation, expenditure, or disbursement in connection with a Federal, State, or local election, and no person may solicit such a contribution or donation from a foreign national. For decades, the Commission has enforced this ban, and I stand by my votes to do so," Hunter said in a statement.