Democratic senators grill FEC nominee, who represented Trump campaign

Attorney won’t offer ‘blanket recusal’ on matters involving Trump

James E. Trainor III testifies before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on his nomination to be a member of the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
James E. Trainor III testifies before the Senate Rules and Administration Committee on his nomination to be a member of the Federal Election Commission on Tuesday. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call)
Posted March 10, 2020 at 4:08pm

James “Trey” Trainor III, a lawyer who represented Donald Trump’s successful 2016 presidential campaign, told senators Tuesday that he would not commit to a “blanket recusal” from matters involving the president if he is confirmed to the Federal Election Commission.

The Senate Rules and Administration panel held its confirmation hearing for the GOP election lawyer, whom the White House first nominated in 2017. Senators are likely to vote on his nomination in the coming weeks.

Democrats have objected to the nomination, citing Trainor’s past work for Trump and on Texas redistricting at the beginning of the last decade, as well as his previous comments expressing skepticism about the merits of political disclosures.

The panel’s ranking member, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, and others said they not only opposed his nomination but also were unhappy that Republicans were moving forward with it without also considering a Democrat at the same time. Traditionally, FEC nominees have moved in bipartisan pairs.

If Trainor were confirmed, though, the FEC would have two Republicans and two Democrats and would have a sufficient number of commissioners for a quorum. Currently down to three commissioners out of what should be six, the agency cannot even conduct meetings. It is, however, carrying on with public disclosures.

Trainor said with Trump or any matters involving his former clients, he would approach them with objectivity.

“With regard to the issue of recusal, I have already had conversations with the ethics advisers at the commission,” he told senators Tuesday. “I have entered into an agreement with regard to recusals at the commission, and I intend to follow the same recusal regime that every other commissioner has followed. When matters regarding President Trump come up, I will approach the ethics officials at the agency and have that discussion with them, to see when it’s appropriate to recuse and when not.”

[FEC pick sparks backlash from Democrats]

The hearing over the FEC nominee attracted the attention, and attendance, of both Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer.

McConnell reminded the room of his long-standing interest in campaign finance matters, including his legal challenge to the 2002 campaign finance overhaul known as McCain-Feingold. McConnell noted that the three remaining commissioners are all operating on expired terms, and he said he’d like to “aim for a new clean slate of commissioners on both sides” of the aisle.

Schumer said Trainor’s past comments questioning the merits of political disclosure should be disqualifying for an FEC nominee.

“Unfortunately, Mr. Trainor appears to fit with the pattern in the Trump administration,” Schumer said. “The administration has a habit of nominating persons to staff or lead federal agencies, despite holding views that are very opposite of the mission of the agency: oil and gas lobbyists or climate skeptics for EPA, chemical industry lobbyists for the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”

Trainor said that, in his view,  the role of the FEC is to give American voters confidence in their electoral system.

“That is a critical role,” he said. “It helps to deter corruption in our governmental system.”

Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto, a Democrat from Nevada, questioned Trainor about his work as a chief of staff to a Texas state representative who took a lead on redistricting in 2002. She quoted his bio from his former law firm describing his being “intimately involved” in the state’s controversial redistricting.

Regarding the bio, he told senators, “I think that’s probably some marketing license by the marketing individuals at the firm,” and he downplayed his role in that redistricting effort.

“I have concerns about the misinformation,” Cortez Masto said, noting that she didn’t support his nomination.

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