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Analysis

Obama Was Right About Citizens United

The Supreme Court’s 2010 decision has opened the door to foreign money in U.S. elections.

April 12, 2022

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In Janu­ary 2010, just days after the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United, Pres­id­ent Obama stood before Congress to deliver his State of the Union address. Six justices sat berobed in a front row. “With all due defer­ence to separ­a­tion of powers,” he scol­ded, the decision “will open the floodgates for special interests — includ­ing foreign corpor­a­tions — to spend without limit in our elec­tions.”

As lawmakers applauded, Justice Samuel Alito angrily shook his head. Able lip read­ers noted he was saying, “Not true!”

Well, it’s been 12 years. A recent fine levied by the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion suggests that Obama was right — and that court rulings and admin­is­trat­ive para­lysis have made our elec­tions ever more vulner­able.

Cana­dian steel tycoon Barry Zekel­man has agreed to pay $975,000 to the FEC after steer­ing corpor­ate dona­tions to a pro-Trump super PAC, in viol­a­tion of a federal prohib­i­tion on foreign influ­ence in U.S. elec­tions.

Super PACs can receive unlim­ited funds, includ­ing from corpor­a­tions, if the group’s spend­ing is done “inde­pend­ently” of the candid­ate it supports. This would have been illegal before Citizens United.

Typic­ally Zekel­man’s largesse would have gone unnoticed and unpun­ished. But he was invited to dine with the pres­id­ent at Trump Hotel in thanks for his gift, and while there he inveigled for eight minutes, urging Trump to tighten tariffs against his compet­it­ors. Other tablem­ates included two shady busi­ness­men work­ing with Rudy Giuliani. The conver­sa­tion was recor­ded (oops!) and released as part of the impeach­ment proceed­ings in 2019. (That’s Trump’s first impeach­ment — the one where he tried to extort Vladi­mir Zelensky into smear­ing Joe Biden in exchange for milit­ary aid against Russia. The insur­rec­tion was the second impeach­ment.)

When the New York Times contac­ted the Cana­dian busi­ness­man about the record­ing, he admit­ted he parti­cip­ated in the decision to donate to the super PAC. Federal law clearly forbids foreign nation­als from enga­ging in such conver­sa­tions.

All of which led to the recent fine. The billion­aire will barely notice the dent in his bank account, of course. Appar­ently the FEC will also let him ask the super PAC to return the money he gave.

Aptly, the meal took place at the Trump Hotel, jammed as it was with fixers, lobby­ists, and fundraisers. That’s the world the Supreme Court made. Campaign spend­ing essen­tially has been dereg­u­lated. The law is in tatters. The Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion is weak, dead­locked, and rarely able to act.

The Free­dom to Vote: John Lewis Act would address some of this, by ending dark money in elec­tions and requir­ing full disclos­ure of campaign spend­ing. It passed the House and had a Senate major­ity — as did an earlier bill just focused on campaign finance — but was killed by a Repub­lican fili­buster, this time aided, as we know all too well, by Sens. Joe Manchin (D-WV) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).

The recent bill was best known for its protec­tion of voting rights. That’s under­stand­able, as the Big Lie of a “stolen” 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion contin­ues to sweep the states, threaten voters of color, and under­mine integ­rity. It can be easy to forget how new, and how destruct­ive, the current world of campaign cash can be as well.

Only occa­sion­ally do we learn about the deals cut, the tax loop­holes claimed, and the favors traded. Polls show voters are savvy and angry. Corrup­tion remains a sleeper issue in Amer­ican polit­ics. The campaign reform provi­sions were among the most popu­lar in the recent bills, popu­lar with Repub­lic­ans and Demo­crats alike.

A previ­ous Repub­lican pres­id­ent iden­ti­fied the stakes. At an earlier moment of corrup­tion and reform, Pres­id­ent Theodore Roosevelt vowed, “Sooner or later, unless there is a read­just­ment, there will come a riot­ous, wicked, murder­ous day of atone­ment.” Now, that’s a tweet for the ages.