A revived bid by a top Federal Election Commission Democrat could lead to an "inquisition" against conservative media outlets like the Drudge Report, InfoWars and Breitbart that take political advertising and are overseen by right-leaning owners or editors, according to critics.
The plan, set for discussion at Thursday's FEC meeting, could open the door to political subpoenas targeting the websites, their editorial news decisions, and their owners, maybe even Matt Drudge and Alex Jones, according to an expert analysis.
In her effort targeting foreign influence in federal and state elections, Commissioner Ellen Weintraub would probe spending by overseas sources and even partially-foreign-owned U.S. firms on campaigns, including their media buys. Foreign influence is illegal in elections.
She said that tackling foreign influence in elections could be the FEC's finest hour, adding, "I believe that this Commission can indeed rise to the challenge of understanding what happened in the 2016 election and plugging any legal or procedural holes that could allow foreign actors to interfere with our future elections."
Politico recently reported that "Weintraub's interest was piqued by an article published last week by Time magazine that revealed intelligence officials had evidence that Russian agents bought Facebook ads to disseminate election-themed stories. It also indicated that congressional investigators were examining whether Russian efforts to spread such content were boosted by two U.S. companies with deep ties to Trump — Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica."
Weintraub told Politico, "if there are U.S. citizens involved in any way in spending foreign money to influence a U.S. election, then that would be something that we could and should pursue."
In her proposal, she cited the Time report of Russian ad buys on Facebook, drawing that enormous social media site into her focus. Several conservative sites like Drudge, InfoWars and Breitbart, take political ads.
That report also pointed to Russian ties to conservative ownership and funding as a potential target of investigators. Citing a McClatchy report, Time said, "FBI counterintelligence investigators were probing whether far-right sites like Breitbart News and Infowars had coordinated with Russian botnets to blitz social media with anti-Clinton stories, mixing fact and fiction when Trump was doing poorly in the campaign."
Liberal groups have also cited Drudge as a "peddler" of Russian propaganda, likely putting him in the bull's eye of an expanded FEC investigative authority.
A legal group endorsed her effort, explaining, "the FEC has broad investigative powers to subpoena witnesses and documents, and compel testimony under oath."
Weintraub has been fighting the Citizens United decision expanding corporate political spending and foreign ownership in politically active U.S. firms. And she has recently put a new focus on reports of Russian interference in the 2016 election. It is not clear that the FEC has any jurisdiction to join the probe of Russian influence.
But in her plan, which was shelved at last month's meeting due to last minute changes, she proposed increased spending for expanded enforcement.
An elections laws expert and critic of the Weintraub bid said, "It's pretty easy to see how this quickly becomes an inquisition into conservative media outlets."
He added, "Commissioner Weintraub appears to be laying the groundwork to subpoena people at Breitbart, Drudge, and Infowars - maybe even Matt Drudge and Alex Jones themselves."
In the past, she has dismissed claims of targeting or regulating the media or internet sites. In her proposal she wrote, "the American public is justifiably alarmed by the reports of foreign attempts to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election." She added, "This is an all-hands-on-deck moment for our democracy."
Republicans on the FEC, led by Commissioner Lee Goodman, have raised several red flags about Democratic efforts to target Drudge and other conservative media in broad probes of political spending on the internet.
Conservative media have also been targeted at the Federal Communications Commission. During a recent discussion on "net neutrality," there were protests against conservative media and signs targeting both Drudge and Breitbart.
Paul Bedard, the Washington Examiner's "Washington Secrets" columnist, can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org