All three Republicans on the Federal Election Commission in April ruled in favor of a Democratic National Committee contractor accused of colluding with the Ukrainian government to hurt the Trump campaign, according to documents released Wednesday.
Ellen Weintraub, the Democratic chairwoman of the FEC, joined the three Republicans on the commission in voting to clear Ukrainian-American activist Alexandra Chalupa of violating campaign finance laws during the 2016 presidential campaign. A conservative watchdog group in 2017 accused Chalupa of colluding with the Ukrainian embassy to conduct opposition research on Trump campaign official Paul Manafort.
Republican FEC commissioners accused their Democratic counterparts of trying to keep the April ruling from going public. Weintraub broke with the Republicans by voting to keep the case file from being released. Evidence obtained in the investigation could open the Democratic Party up to charges of hypocrisy because of its contacts with Ukrainian officials. The decision could also undercut the position of FEC Democrats, who have accused the Trump campaign of accepting illegal donations from foreigners.
"The ruling hurts the Democrat position on all the cases against Trump. It hurts [Weintraub's] position to say that the DNC asking the Ukrainians for something is not a thing of value," said James Trainor, a Republican FEC commissioner.
"It's full-on Trump derangement syndrome at the Commission," Trainor told the Washington Free Beacon.
The Foundation for Accountability and Civic Trust accused Chalupa in August 2017 of working with the Ukrainian embassy to conduct opposition research on the Trump campaign and Manafort, who had been an adviser to former Ukrainian president Viktor Yanukovych. The allegation was based on a Jan. 11, 2017, Politico report that Chalupa solicited help from Ukrainian officials. Chalupa acknowledged that she researched Manafort but denied receiving information from the Ukrainian government.
But emails uncovered in the investigation show that DNC officials did seek contact with the Ukrainian embassy.
In one email from March 2016, DNC communications director Luis Miranda asked Chalupa to contact the Ukrainian embassy in an attempt to plant a question with ABC News at a press conference for then-Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko.
Chalupa contacted Ukrainian embassy official Oksana Shulyar suggesting that she arrange for Poroshenko to accept a question about Manafort. Chalupa notified Miranda that she had contacted the embassy regarding a planted question, writing in an email that "The Ambassador has the messaging."
The DNC efforts to plant a question with Poroshenko failed after handlers for the Ukrainian leader said they wanted to avoid weighing in on U.S. politics.
With its 4-2 vote, the commission overrode FEC lawyers' recommendation to find Chalupa and the DNC in violation of regulations barring solicitation of foreign help. The three Republican commissioners and Weintraub disagreed with the lawyers' assessment, saying that Chalupa did not explicitly request that Poroshenko issue a comment about Manafort.
The Republicans said that even if Chalupa had been successful, commentary from Poroshenko criticizing the Trump campaign would not constitute a political contribution. They decried the "pernicious implication" that a statement from a foreign leader could constitute a campaign finance violation. Weintraub said that the investigation should never have been opened, claiming that the initial allegation against Chalupa in the 2017 Politico article was based on "Russian disinformation."
Republicans say their vote on the DNC case shows they are consistent on the issue of foreign help for political campaigns. Republicans on the commission voted against opening an investigation into whether the Trump campaign violated FEC regulations by meeting in June 2016 with a group of Russians who claimed they had information on Hillary Clinton.
Republicans say that the Chalupa-DNC ruling only saw the light of day because of an "extraordinary" procedural move they took to secure its disclosure. GOP commissioners also blasted Democrats for going against the FEC's mission of providing transparency.
Weintraub did not respond to a request for comment.