The days following President Donald Trump's widely criticized July 16 joint press conference with Russian President Vladimir Putin saw a flurry of sternly worded statements and blustery interviews, but little action. Two North Coast lawmakers, however, seized the opportunity to announce legislation aimed at bringing greater transparency to presidential elections.
Standing behind a podium in Helsinki, Finland, with Putin by his side, Trump stunned much of the country and the world when he refrained from saying anything critical of the Russian dictator and openly cast doubt on whether his country interfered with the 2016 presidential election. (The White House later attempted to walk back Trump's remarks, saying he "misspoke," but that did little to dampen the firestorm the press conference created.)
Standing on the House floor two days after the press conference, North Coast Congressman Jared Huffman, clad in a charcoal suit with a red striped tie, called what he saw in Helsinki a "stunning betrayal" and openly questioned whether Trump is being blackmailed.
"What does Putin have on President Trump?" Huffman asked. "Is he literally being blackmailed? Do we have a Manchurian candidate as our president? It's hard to imagine any other explanation for Trump's constant bowing and scraping at the feet of the Russian dictator or of his refusal to hold Putin accountable for his election interference, even after numerous indictments, including 12 Russian military officials, and even after the arrest of a Russian national who was caught trying to use the NRA as a tool to change U.S. policy toward Russia. ...
"Now on Monday, our security interests of this country demanded that our president speak out and seek accountability from the foreign adversary who attacked it. But instead the American people witnessed a Manchurian moment exposing that President Trump is so deeply compromised on Russia that he's willing to alienate our European allies, to blame our country for the strains in the relationship with Russia and to betray our intelligence and law enforcement communities by casting doubt on their conclusions and accepting Putin's self-serving denials. And so the world wonders, what does Putin have over Trump?"
Huffman went on to say we should all think about how we "got into this surreal situation in the first place," saying, "there's a clear public interest in ensuring that presidential candidates are not deeply compromised or vulnerable to blackmail, and that's why today I introduce the Protecting Access to Classified Information in Elections Act."
According to a press release from Huffman's office, the act would "authorize and encourage" presidential candidates to voluntarily go through a federal background investigation vetting process — akin to a security clearance. If they pass the vetting process, the candidates would then be allowed to make that information public. The vetting process would include reviews of foreign investments and business ties, bankruptcies, financial problems, legal judgments and "other potential liabilities and vulnerabilities to blackmail."
While the act wouldn't mandate candidates go through such a process, the idea is that public pressure would make it difficult for a candidate to decline as voters would see it as a red flag.
Stephanie Burkhalter, an associate professor of politics at Humboldt State University who interned in Congress and worked for the U.S. Department of Justice, says it may be tempting to see Huffman's rollout of the legislation as little more than "a political jab" at Trump. But, she says, it can also be seen as "common-sense policy reform that might be necessary to protect U.S. intelligence secrets."
While Huffman cast the legislation as a tool to help voters vet candidates, Burkhalter says it can also be seen as a national security issue. Because a president-elect only has about 11 weeks from Election Day to his or her inauguration to prepare for the job, sitting presidents have, as a courtesy, historically allowed candidates in the final stages of an election access to some intelligence. But these candidates haven't been vetted and their staffs have yet to go through the process of getting security clearances.
"(Huffman's legislation) would help codify the process such that the sitting-president does not have discretion to give access to intelligence to politicians who have not been vetted through a security clearance process," Burkhalter says.
Burkhalter says she is a bit concerned about the potential cost of the bill, noting that security clearance investigations are costly and time-consuming. According to the United States Office of Personnel Management, background investigations for positions that require Top Secret access cost about $5,800. Burkhalter points out that it's important to remember that while only a few candidates advance to the general election, it's not uncommon for party primaries to each start with 10 or more candidates.
Burkhalter agrees with Huffman that, in addition to protecting secret intelligence, the legislation would also give voters another data point to consider when casting their ballots.
"There is no question that this would provide voters with important information about a candidate's fitness for office vis-à-vis foreign investments and dealings," she said, adding that it's unlikely a candidate would make it through an "intelligence-level" security clearance screening without releasing his or her tax returns in the process.
But if North Coast state Sen. Mike McGuire has his way, it won't take a security clearance to get candidates' tax returns into public view.
On July 18, McGuire announced that after Trump's "shamefully submissive behavior" in Finland, "with Trump showing more allegiance to Russian than America's own intelligence agencies," he is gearing up to reintroduce legislation that would require presidential primary candidates to release five years of tax returns in order to appear on the California ballot. McGuire, along with state Sen. Scott Wiener, introduced the same legislation last year after Trump bucked decades of precedent and refused to release his tax returns during the campaign, at one point promising he would do so if elected — a promise he has yet to fulfill.
The legislation was passed by the Assembly and the Senate but was vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown in October, with the former attorney general questioning the legality of the bill and expressing worries "about the political perils of individual states seeking to regulate presidential elections in this manner."
"Today we require tax returns but what would be next? Five years of health records? A certified birth certificate? High school report cards? And will these requirements vary depending on which political party is in power?" Brown wrote in his veto message.
But McGuire is ready to give the legislation another run, apparently hopeful that recent events will have swayed Brown's view.
"While it's clear Trump is willing to sell out our country and values, it's unclear if he's doing it to satisfy his personal financial interests, since he refused to be transparent as a candidate," McGuire said in a press release. "The American people should not be in the dark about our President's finances and conflicts of interest, and we must ensure they never are again. Requiring presidential candidates to disclose basic financial information is a common sense measure that builds trust between the American people and their elected leader."
It seems both bills face uphill climbs. As noted above, McGuire is counting on Brown having a change of heart or being able to convince two-thirds of his colleagues in both the Senate and Assembly to override another veto. (It's interesting to note, floor votes on McGuire's bill last year received 70 percent of the vote in both chambers.) Huffman, meanwhile, is introducing his legislation into a Republican-controlled House and it seems unlikely party leadership will let it proceed to a vote in the current political climate. Even if passed, it would require Trump's signature to become law.
Thadeus Greenson is the Journal's news editor. Reach him at 442-1400, extension 321, or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @thadeusgreenson.