Citizens United Muddles What Is Legal In Trump's Foreign Money Case It's illegal for candidates to ask for money from non-citizens, which watchdog groups say Trump has done. But what's legal has been clouded by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling known as Citizens United.

Citizens United Muddles What Is Legal In Trump's Foreign Money Case

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In the tangled laws governing political money, there is one point that nearly everyone agrees on - foreign interests should not influence American politics. The law says candidates can only solicit or accept donations from U.S. citizens and green card holders. But as NPR's Peter Overby reports, that hasn't stopped foreign money from trying to sneak into the country.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: This story starts in London...


JOHN BERCOW: Order, order

OVERBY: ...In the House of Commons. Donald Trump's campaign blasted out fundraising emails last month to every lawmaker in the United Kingdom - also Scotland, Iceland and Australia. It went down badly.


ROGER GALE: Mr. Speaker, members of Parliament are being bombarded with electronic communications from Team Trump on behalf of somebody called Donald Trump.

OVERBY: Sir Roger Gale assured other MPs he's pro-free speech.


GALE: But I didn't see why colleagues on either side of the House should be subjected to intemperate spam.

OVERBY: Speaker John Bercow agreed.


BERCOW: I do not think it's acceptable that members should be bombarded with emails of which the content is offensive.

OVERBY: Lawyers mobilized. The Federal Election Commission was asked to investigate. An email service provider cut off the Trump email consultant who supplied the list. But it's a far cry from 20 years ago when Bill Clinton was running for re-election. Some fundraisers for the Democratic National Committee went too far, legally and geographically. Here's fundraiser Johnny Chung at a congressional hearing, recounting in two languages what one would-be donor told him.


JOHNNY CHUNG: I will give you $300,000. (Foreign language spoken). You can give it to the president and the Democratic Party. (Foreign language spoken).

OVERBY: The person offering the $300,000? The head of intelligence for the People's Liberation Army in China. The DNC scandal had many other episodes. It ended with hearings, indictments and plea agreement. Nowadays, though, the problem isn't blocking foreign money. It's finding out if it's there at all. That's because of the Supreme Court Citizens United ruling. Corporations and tax-exempt groups got the latitude to move political money through secret channels.

FEC Commissioner Ellen Weintraub, a Democrat, recently held a small conference to talk about foreign money and secrecy.


ELLEN WEINTRAUB: One of my colleagues actually asked me when I was walking around with the agenda, saying - so did you invite any pro-foreign money speakers? And I said, are there any? I don't know anybody who advocates that, yeah, what we really in our election is more foreign money.

OVERBY: But on Capitol Hill, Republicans don't want more disclosure. The House voted last month to reduce the prospects of disclosure by tax-exempt groups. Republican Steve Stivers of Ohio spoke in the floor debate.


STEVE STIVERS: To argue that, you know, this information that's not allowed to be made public is somehow going to lead into a flood of foreign money is nonsense.

OVERBY: Outside the Beltway, some conservatives call for more sunlight. John Pudner heads up an Alabama-based group called Take Back Our Republic.

JOHN PUDNER: Even if there are problems with winners and losers being picked based on contributions within the country, if you start letting foreign entities put money in and basically get taxpayer benefits out of it, that would seem to me the worst of all scenarios.

PUDNER: Pudner said everybody should be able to agree on keeping out foreign money. So far, they can't agree on how to do that. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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