Rep. Eric Swalwell’s campaign website features ominous photos of President Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner. It warns about Russia’s attacks on last year’s presidential election and asks visitors to sign a petition demanding that a bipartisan commission investigate.
Those who sign are then asked to contribute $5, $10, $25 or more to the California Democrat.
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Swalwell is one of the junior members of the House Intelligence Committee, which has long had an unspoken rule against engaging in partisan fundraising related to the panel’s secretive work.
But the panel’s high-profile Russia investigation is now putting that rule to the test, and experts are warning that some committee members’ recent appeals for campaign cash could undermine everyone’s credibility.
California Democractic Rep. Eric Swalwell's campaign website features a photo of President Donald Trump, Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner, warning about Russia's attacks on last year's presidential election. | POLITICO screen shot.
“If you’re trying to fundraise in a way that whips up partisanship, that’s going to make the important work of the committee that much harder, if not impossible,” said Michael Bahar, who until last May was the panel’s Democratic staff director.
Fundraising appeals from Intelligence Committee members have so far avoided detailed references to the panel’s investigation, but there is undoubtedly a connection. And these fundraising appeals come as outside groups, including some with ties to the Trump administration, are capitalizing on the highly charged issue to bolster their own war chests.
Rep. Adam Schiff, the House panel’s top Democrat , last month sent a fundraising request tangentially related to his involvement in the House investigation that is looking into potential collusion between the Trump campaign and Russia.
Trump last month took to Twitter to call Schiff “sleazy,” blasting him for spending “all of his time on television” talking about the investigation.
The California Democrat responded with a tweet of his own, saying Trump had attacked him for doing his job and asking his supporters to “chip in to stand with me.” His post included a link to a fundraising website for Schiff’s campaign.
Democrats aren’t alone in mixing the Russia probe with raising cash. House Intelligence Chairman Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) and Rep. Trey Gowdy have also done it. Gowdy’s request for campaign cash came last month after Schiff told Bloomberg News the South Carolina Republican was acting like a “second attorney” for Kushner during a closed-door committee interview with the president’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser.
In an email to supporters, Gowdy boasted that he had “ticked off” Schiff and Democratic leaders.
“Nancy Pelosi and Adam Schiff are lining up the Democratic machine to take me down next election,” he wrote, adding: “Please consider making a financial contribution of whatever amount you are able to afford.”
Nunes, meanwhile, has repeatedly talked about the investigation during private fundraising events, even though he stepped back from the probe this spring after the House Ethics Committee announced it was investigating his handling of classified information.
“The Democrats don’t want an investigation on Russia. They want an independent commission,” Nunes said at an April dinner where attendees paid $75 per plate, according to the Los Angeles Times. “Why do they want an independent commission? Because they want to continue the narrative that Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump are best friends, and that’s the reason that he won, because Hillary Clinton would have never lost on her own; it had to be someone else’s fault.”
Spokespeople for Swalwell, Gowdy and Nunes declined to comment on their fundraising efforts tied to the Russia investigation. A spokesman for Schiff, Patrick Boland, said in a statement: “President Trump attacked and personally smeared Congressman Schiff for his efforts to push back publicly on the president’s destructive agenda, both domestically and around the world. Congressman Schiff encourages members of both parties to refrain from politicizing the Russia investigation in any way.”
The House members’ actions contrast with those of Senate Intelligence Committee members investigating Russia’s election meddling. Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr (R-N.C.) and top Democrat Mark Warner of Virginia have sought to present a united front, avoiding the kind of partisan spats that have characterized the House probe. Burr and Warner do not appear to be fundraising off their investigation.
Lawrence Noble, an expert in campaign finance and ethics with the Campaign Legal Center, said it was inevitable the Russia investigations would become a fundraising tool — a fact he considers unfortunate.
“It undermines public faith in the investigation and makes it look more partisan,” Noble said. “It helps further politicize the issue, and that I think is not healthy because I'd like to think everybody would agree there are serious allegations of Russian involvement that need to be investigated.”
Outside the House and Senate intelligence committees, the Russia investigations have been a fundraising boon — on both sides of the issue.
Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign declared it had set a one-day fundraising record on May 17 — pulling in more than $314,000 — for the campaign and joint fundraising committee with the Republican National Committee. What was going on to prompt the flood of cash? A cascading series of bad headlines centering around Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey, and the public disclosure of the president’s request that Comey shut down the investigation into his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. All of that ultimately culminated in the Justice Department’s appointment of special counsel Robert Mueller.
Trump’s campaign team nudged donors with a series of fundraising emails that didn’t mention the Russia scandal specifically but hit on the moment’s zeitgeist. They used the word “SABOTAGE” as a subject line and asked for donations as low as $1 to “DRAIN THE SWAMP."
The Russia probe has been a moneymaker in other ways.
The RNC sent out a June 8 plea from “Trump Headquarters” on the same day Comey testified before the Senate Intelligence Committee seeking donations of $1. The messages opened with this note: “James Comey stated under oath that President Trump was NOT under investigation by the FBI. … So why has the Fake News Media spent so much time reporting on the so-called ‘Russia investigation?’”
Campaigns aren’t the only ones trying to make money off the Russia probe. Roger Stone, one of the many Trump associates who is under federal scrutiny over his activities during the presidential campaign, has been selling $9.99 “Comey Nut Job” T-shirts on his website since the spring. In an email, Stone said the Comey shirts are being sold “commercially” and are “not being used for fundraising.”
The efforts have struck some as off base. “It’s crazy,” Nick Akerman, a former Watergate prosecutor and assistant U.S. attorney, said of Stone’s fundraising efforts. “This guy is right in the middle of the whole thing and here he is doing all this.”
Controversy has followed other lawmakers who try to raise money off congressional investigations and other hot-button issues. The National Republican Congressional Committee in 2014 used the deadly attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi, Libya, to raise money for House Republicans. Gowdy, who was featured in one message, later criticized the effort and asked that the NRCC stop the ads.
Bahar, who left his Capitol Hill staff job to work at the law firm Eversheds Sutherland, said the House Intelligence Committee has long had an unwritten understanding that members don’t issue appeals for campaign cash trading on their work for the committee.
“Because of the often classified nature of what the Intelligence Committee does, there are few opportunities to fundraise,” he said. “And that carries over into the Russia investigation too. ... A lot of this stuff is classified or sensitive.”
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