NRA, Russia and Trump: How 'dark money' is poisoning American democracy

  • The FBI is investigating the National Rifle Association to determine whether Russians illegally funneled money through the organization to help the Trump campaign.
  • Beyond Russian meddling, this allegation illustrates a problem of even broader scope in our political system.
Getty Images
Donald Trump is introduced with Chris Cox (L), Executive Director of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action and Wayne LaPierre (R), Executive Vice President of the National Rifle Association, at the National Rifle Association's NRA-ILA Leadership Forum during the NRA Convention at the Kentucky Exposition Center on May 20, 2016 in Louisville, Kentucky.

As American communities continue to be victimized by gun violence — including the mass shooting yesterday, in Parkland, Florida — the National Rifle Association continues to wield immense influence over American legislators, primarily through enormous campaign contributions.

But when it comes to funding, the NRA may have finally gone too far: the FBI recently launched an investigation to determine whether a Russian central banker, and Putin ally, illegally funneled money through the organization to help the Trump campaign.

These allegations have prompted a complaint to the Federal Election Commission and an effort by Sen. Ron Wyden to obtain documents from the Treasury Department and the NRA. As shocking as other Russia-related revelations have been — attempts to hack voting machines, vast Internet propaganda, leaking of stolen campaign information — this allegation illustrates a problem of even broader scope.

Although much of the reporting on Russia has focused on whether there was "collusion" with the Trump campaign — a genuine concern — the investigation is also revealing another disquieting reality: that American democracy has a money laundering problem.

Both in their personal finances and in their campaign support, politicians are relying on money hidden to the public, money which threatens to make them answerable to interests beyond those of the citizens they represent. The only way to combat this problem is to start shining a light on the dark corners of our politics.

In the most conventional sense, money laundering describes the process by which illicit funds are made to appear legitimate in origin, so they do not attract the suspicion of law enforcement.

"Recent reports have shown that money continues to move into Trump-branded properties from obscured sources like anonymous LLCs and shell companies."

However, money is also laundered to facilitate future crimes, particularly where the source of the funds would reveal an illegal purpose, or where money would otherwise be subject to a state or federal disclosure requirement.

Because it is illegal for foreign nationals to spend money in U.S. campaigns, obscuring funds coming from, say, an agent of the Russian government — by funneling them through an organization like the NRA — would be akin to money laundering.

Growing evidence is showing that money from hidden sources could be influencing current political leaders via two avenues: through the obscured personal finances of the president, and other public officials; and through secret contributions to political organizations.

It has been widely reported that a vast amount of Russian money is tied up in President Donald Trump's assets and business interests — interests which Trump, breaking with longstanding precedent, refused to divest or put into a blind trust upon assuming office. Recent reports have shown that money continues to move into Trump-branded properties from obscured sources like anonymous LLCs and shell companies.

One such report found that since Trump secured the Republican nomination in 2016, the fraction of anonymous purchases of his properties through shell companies has "skyrocketed" from 4 to 70 percent. The public can only guess at the source of these funds, whether they be foreign governments or wealthy domestic interests—and to what extent unknown sums pouring into other Trump businesses are being used to curry favor with the president.

Moreover, in the case of the NRA, the FBI is now investigating whether illicit funds were spent in support of Trump's political campaign. We have long warned that our broken system of campaign finance disclosure creates opportunities for foreign governments to illegally influence American elections, undetected.

The NRA is among the largest "dark money" organizations, reporting the greatest amount of campaign spending without revealing the source of the funds — over $35 million in the 2016 election cycle alone. Still, this amount was just a fraction of the over $175 million in reported campaign-related spending that came from unknown sources.

As these examples demonstrate, the Russia investigation is not just relevant to allegations of collusion, or even just to Russia. It is revealing a fundamental vulnerability in our political system — one that is being exploited by Russia, but that is also being exploited by others, foreign and domestic, who want to see American government serve their interests instead of the interests of the American public.

Fortunately, we know how to expose these bad actors. There are simple, commonsense steps that Congress, and even individual states, can take to restore transparency, accountability, and trust in how our country is run.

For example, legislators should require tax returns and other financial disclosures from presidential candidates and other high-ranking public officials; enhance campaign finance disclosure and eliminate conduits for foreign money by passing the DISCLOSE Act and the Honest Ads Act; and require greater corporate transparency in secrecy-prone jurisdictions like Delaware, Nevada, and Wyoming.

These are only some of the ways to fight back against political money laundering, more of which are detailed in a new Center for American Progress report. The Trump campaign proved that these safeguards must be codified into law, rather than accepted as "norms" that candidates voluntarily comply with.

The thing all these solutions have in common is that they ask politicians and campaign organizations to answer a simple question: where is the money coming from? If they cannot or will not answer that question, then they do not deserve the public's trust.

But if civic leaders and politicians are willing to answer this call, they have a real opportunity to restore confidence in an American public that, though divided on many issues, is united on at least one: that American democracy is in need of a shot of reform.

Commentary by Alex Tausanovitch and Diana Pilipenko. Tausanovitch is the associate director, democracy and government reform at the Center for American Progress. Pilipenko is the associate director, anti-corruption and illicit finance at the Center for American Progress.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.

Click to show more