Democrats on Sunday renewed their attacks, accusing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce of using foreign money to influence midterm races, despite the Obama administration’s acknowledgment that it had no evidence the charge was true.
“I don’t know,” senior White House adviser David Axelrod said Sunday when asked on CBS’ “Face the Nation” whether the chamber was using dues from foreign chambers to finance attack ads, as the president implied twice last week.
Mr. Axelrod defended the administration’s attacks, along with a Democratic National Committee ad that began airing Sunday, by saying the answer can’t be known because of campaign-finance laws and First Amendment and privacy issues.
“Is that the best you can do?” host Bob Schieffer asked skeptically at one point.
The administration spokesman also implied that the chamber’s claims about being in compliance with campaign-finance law may not be true, though he also offered no specific cause for suspicion.
“No one knows, Bob. The point is … I can assert anything I want, but you have, as a good journalist, you would ask me, ‘Well, how do we know that’s true? Do you have documentation to prove that?’ ” Mr. Axelrod said.
Mr. Schieffer noted that accepting dues money from foreign affiliates does not distinguish the chamber from any number of conservative and liberal-leaning groups and that the dues amount to $100,000 toward the general fund of a group with a $200 million budget.
“But this part about foreign money, that appears to be peanuts, Mr. Axelrod. I mean, do you have any evidence that it’s anything other than peanuts?” the host asked.
Mr. Axelrod replied, “Well, do you have any evidence that it’s not, Bob?”
On trips Thursday for Democratic candidates in Maryland and Illinois, Mr. Obama suggested, while never exactly saying, that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce is funneling foreign money into the races.
“Just this week, we learned that one of the largest groups paying for [campaign] ads regularly takes in money from foreign corporations,” the president said to applause in Maryland, a day after a blogger posted the accusation against the chamber.
“So groups that receive foreign money are spending huge sums to influence American elections, and they won’t tell you where the money for their ads come from. … This is a threat to our democracy,” Mr. Obama said.
The blog is associated with the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning political opponent of the chamber. The center also was influential in providing talking points and strategy for Mr. Obama during his election campaign and during the health care debate.
Also appearing Sunday on CBS, Ed Gillespie, a former Republican National Committee chairman, ridiculed as “an unbelievable mentality” Mr. Axelrod’s “prove it wrong” defense of the administration’s charges. He noted that Sen. Al Franken, Minnesota Democrat, already had called for a criminal investigation of the Chamber of Commerce over its legal use of undisclosed money.
“If people want to change the [campaign-finance] rules and have that debate, that’s fine. But don’t accuse those who are playing by the rules of somehow doing something unethical or illegal. And the notion that David Axelrod … would sit on this set and say, ‘I’m going to lob these charges, and let them prove it’s wrong’ what if I accused the cameraman here of, ‘Hey, you’ve taken some foreign money; you know, prove that that’s wrong’ that is an unbelievable mentality,” he said.
He also noted the irony that Mr. Obama was picking up a report from the Center for American Progress, which is “a liberal, nonprofit advocacy group that does not disclose its donors.”
Mr. Gillespie also accused the president’s “threat to democracy” rhetoric as a betrayal of a sense of entitlement.
“These ads are not a threat to democracy, Bob. They may be a threat to their power, but their power and democracy are not the same thing, and it’s very revealing that they see it that way,” he said.
Also Sunday, the DNC aired a TV ad again accusing the Chamber of Commerce of taking “secret foreign money” and attacking it as a threat to democracy.
“The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, they’re shills for big business, and they’re stealing our democracy, spending millions from secret donors to elect Republicans to do their bidding in Congress,” the narrator says. “It appears they’ve even taken secret, foreign money to influence our elections. It’s incredible. Republicans benefiting from secret, foreign money.”
The ad ran despite the White House’s acknowledgment Friday that it had no evidence that any undisclosed money used to finance chamber-sponsored ads was foreign. Taking such money would be illegal.
“They have not one shred of evidence to back up that baseless lie,” Republican strategist Karl Rove, deputy chief of staff for President George W. Bush, said on “Fox News Sunday.” “How dare the president do this.”
Mr. Rove accused Mr. Obama of having an “enemies list.”
Thomas J. Collamore, a chamber vice president, said in a statement that the DNC was “going to exhaust itself trying so hard to change the political conversation.”
“Its ad attacking the U.S. Chamber is a blatant attempt to avoid a serious discussion of Americans’ top priority: creating jobs and growing the economy,” he said.
Last week was not first time the president has made such assertions warning of foreign influence. He suggested in a State of the Union speech that the Supreme Court’s ruling on campaign-finance regulations might result in foreign money finding its way into U.S. elections.
On that night, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. shook his head in open disagreement, a rare breach of the justices’ customary placidity, since the court was ruling on the free-speech rights of Americans and did not review that part of campaign-finance law that bars foreign donations.
Republican- and Democratic-leaning groups, including unions and environmental organizations, have foreign connections and take dues from foreign affiliates while spending millions of dollars on the midterm elections that will determine control of the U.S. House and Senate.
The chamber, which reportedly has spent $25 million on ads critical of the administration and Democratic candidates, has denied the accusations. The chamber reportedly has a $200 million annual budget and collects roughly $100,000 each year in membership dues from more than 100 foreign affiliates.
Segregating funds, even though all money is fungible, in order to comply with laws on the source or the use of such funds also is a widespread accounting practice, one accepted by the U.S. government. For example, federal agencies give millions of dollars to Planned Parenthood and other groups that provide abortions despite laws prohibiting federal money for the procedure.
Charges of accepting foreign money also dogged the 1996 re-election bid of Bill Clinton and Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign.
Several fundraisers - including James Riady, Maria Hsia, Johnny Chung, John Huang and Charles Yah Lin Trie - were convicted of, or pleaded guilty to, charges related to foreign money being funneled to the Clinton-Gore campaign or other Democratic groups during the 1996 election cycle.
In 2008, the Obama campaign did not use simple computer-verification technology to pre-screen Internet donations, including for whether they came from abroad or from U.S. citizens who hadn’t already donated the maximum legal amount. Instead, it attempted to verify the donations after they were deposited, which meets federal-law requirements. Some money was returned, and no criminal charges were filed.
Mr. Gillespie also noted, even apart from legal issues of disclosure, Mr. Obama was elected with no small boost from money that need not legally be disclosed.
“You know, $400 million was spent in 2008 to help elect Barack Obama. We didn’t hear Mr. Axelrod or others complaining about that. Much of that money was undisclosed. And this year, there are organizations on the right who are playing by the same rules,” Mr. Gillespie said.