WASHINGTON (CN) — A controversial nominee picked by President Donald Trump to fill one of three empty seats on the Federal Election Commission was met with heavy fire Tuesday from Democrats accusing him of past schemes to roll back voting rights.
“Weigh what a vote for or against his nomination would mean for efforts to limit the influence of big dark money in politics and root out corruption at all levels of our political process,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told his colleagues on the Senate Rules Committee in a hearing Tuesday.
The White House first nominated James “Trey” Trainor, an Akerman LLP partner in Austin, Texas, more than two years ago to fill the seat left empty by Republican Commissioner Lee Goodman in 2018. Former White House counsel, and a past FEC commissioner himself, Don McGahn recruited Trainor to serve as a legal adviser on Trump’s 2016 campaign team.
Senators on both sides of the aisle voiced frustration Tuesday that the commission, tasked with protecting U.S. elections, has sat handicapped in the lead up to the 2020 presidential election, even as U.S. intelligence agencies confirm that Russia is again out to interfere in the race after widespread efforts in 2016. Since August, the six-member commission has been without a quorum, unable to hold hearings, issue new rules or advisory opinions, improve enforcement actions or conduct investigations.
The three sitting members are all serving expired terms, with FEC Chair Ellen Weintraub, who was appointed in 2001 to serve until 2007, still presiding.
But Democrats protested that the Trump administration has abandoned bipartisan norms by pushing a heated nomination through, claiming the Senate has in the past confirmed 90% of FEC nominees in bipartisan pairs.
Senator Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said landing Trainor in an empty FEC seat for a six-year term does more harm than good.
“It ignores the fact that gridlock will persist and that Republicans have intentionally left a Democrat seat on the commission vacant for more than 1,100 days,” Klobuchar said.
But Republicans praised Trainor’s nomination, with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky saying it will restore a quorum and bring the FEC one step closer to a full slate.
McConnell tossed a staple question to Trainor before slipping out of the hearing, asking the nominee about his view on the role of the commission.
“I view the role of the FEC first and foremost as one of giving the American people confidence in our electoral system with the disclosure requirements we currently have,” Trainor responded with a cleanly prepared answer.
But that was one of few easy questions as Klobuchar, the ranking Democrat on the committee, and other liberal senators probed at his earlier career in Texas.
Klobuchar drilled the conservative lawyer on whether he supports disclosure and disclaimer rules for online political ads.
The nominee declined to respond, citing the commission’s ongoing work on the issue.
“I don’t want to sit here today and prejudge something that I may have to opine on as far as rulemaking is concerned,” Trainor said.
Later, when asked if he would recuse himself from election regulation matters involving the president, the former Trump campaign adviser said he would commit to having a conversation with FEC counsel on whether he should not be involved.
“So you’re not going to just recuse yourself from the beginning on a Trump matter?” Klobuchar asked, visibly surprised.
“No, not as a blanket recusal, and I don’t think that there is anyone at the commission currently who has a blanket recusal,” Trainor said. “I think we should all follow the same rules and guidelines.”
Schumer charged that the nominee was responsible for masterminding Republican gerrymandering schemes in Texas that hurt minority voters. The top Senate Democrat also quoted Trainor as saying in 2017 that political donations should be anonymous.
“The Republicans have nominated someone who wants to roll back Citizens United, which the overwhelming majority of the American people support, public disclosure of who’s giving,” Schumer said, adding: “It’s amazing.”
Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, D-Nev., meanwhile pressed Trainor on his role in Texas’ 2003 redistricting later deemed by the Supreme Court in 2006 to be unconstitutional.
In defense, Trainor said he was a staffer at the time for the Texas state representative leading the map redrawing and not a licensed lawyer until November 2003, after the redistricting legislation had passed.
“Obviously I worked closely with him, to bring in individuals that he needed advice from,” Trainor said of his former boss, noting the state legislator’s ties to Thomas Hofeller, a Republican strategist known for his mastery in redistricting. Documents released by Hofeller’s daughter after his death in 2018 revealed the consultant played a role in developing a legal rationale for adding a citizenship question to the 2020 Census.
“But it is true that the court found in that case that the legislature had illegally carved up Laredo, removing 100,000 Mexican Americans and adding a white population to shore up a Republican incumbent? Is that correct?” Cortez Masto asked.
In response, Trainor said: “I believe that to be one of the findings of that case.”
The Nevada senator also questioned why the nominee had supported defunding the Texas Ethics Commission, the state equivalent to the FEC. Trainor claimed his position is widespread in his home state, where the commission is viewed as a separation of powers issue because the body operates as an extension of the legislative branch.