Today we probe propaganda on TikTok, investigate Ted Cruz’s latest side hustle, check in on political spending in the Georgia runoff and look at the contenders to lead GOP fundraising.
On TikTok, Chinese State Media Pushes Divisive Videos About U.S. Politicians
“TikTok accounts run by the propaganda arm of the Chinese government have accumulated millions of followers and tens of millions of views, many of them on videos editorializing about U.S. politics without clear disclosure that they were posted by a foreign government,” report Emily Baker-White and Iain Martin.
The accounts are managed by MediaLinks TV, a registered foreign agent and Washington D.C.-based outpost of the main Chinese Communist Party television news outlet, China Central Television. The largest of them are @Pandaorama, which features cute videos about Chinese culture, @The…Optimist, which posts about sustainability, and @NewsTokss, which features coverage of U.S. national and international news.
In the run-up to the 2022 elections, the @NewsTokss account criticized some candidates (mostly Republicans), and favored others (mostly Democrats). A video from July began with the caption ‘Cruz, Abbott Don’t Care About Us’; a video from October was captioned ‘Rubio Has Done Absolutely Nothing.’ But @NewsTokss did not target only Republicans; another October video asked viewers whether they thought President Joe Biden’s promise to sign a bill codifying abortion rights was a ‘political manipulation tactic.’ Nothing in these videos disclosed to viewers that they were being pushed by a foreign government.
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Ted Cruz’s Podcast Deal With iHeartMedia May Violate Ethics Laws, Watchdog Says In New Complaint
Ted Cruz may have violated a federal law barring senators from receiving gifts from registered lobbyists when he accepted podcast production services from iHeartMedia, according to a complaint that government watchdog Campaign Legal Center filed with the Senate Select Committee on Ethics on Wednesday.
The Texas Republican and his co-host announced in the Oct. 7 episode of “Verdict with Ted Cruz” that their three-year-old, bootstrapped podcast—originally recorded in a dingy D.C. basement—had recently received an intriguing offer from iHeartMedia: “iHeart can fund the whole thing, fund production, dump a whole bunch of money into marketing,” said co-host Michael Knowles of the Daily Wire, sitting across from Cruz in a mirrored Las Vegas studio typically used to train showgirls. “This is incredible. It will make this show sustainable, not just for the next few months going into the midterms but for the next years.” The deal also calls for iHeartMedia to market and air the show on some of its 860 radio stations, supply Cruz with a new co-host and increase production from once to three times a week. “This thing for the podcast is just a big damn deal,” Cruz said. “iHeartRadio is a monster.” Unfortunately for Cruz, iHeartMedia is also a registered lobbyist, which could make the whole arrangement illegal. The Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 bars lawmakers from “knowingly accept[ing] a gift from a registered lobbyist,” and according to Senate rules, services can qualify as gifts.
In disclosures filed with the Senate, iHeartMedia has reported spending $48 million lobbying members of Congress since 2003, trying to influence federal legislation around issues like data privacy, radio ownership and the Communications Decency Act. Campaign Legal Center’s complaint points out that concerns about conflicts of interest are not just theoretical here: iHeartMedia lobbied on two bills that appeared before one of Cruz’s committees last quarter.
Senators also are barred from accepting honoraria for oral presentations transmitted electronically, according to the chamber’s ethics manual. CLC’s complaint claims that Cruz’s deal with iHeartMedia could not be qualified as a political contribution either, because corporations are banned from donating directly to campaigns, even via in-kind contributions.
Cruz’s office argues that there is nothing wrong with his deal. “Senator Cruz receives no financial benefit from Verdict,” said a campaign spokesperson. “There is no difference between Sen. Cruz appearing on a network television show, a cable news show or a podcast airing on iHeartMedia.” A spokesperson for iHeartMedia confirmed that its Premiere Networks subsidiary is partnering with Cruz and said the senator is volunteering his time but declined to share details about the agreement.
Cruz’s unpaid status does not alleviate the ethics concerns, said Kedric Payne, CLC’s vice president, general counsel and senior director for ethics. “The same way they couldn’t give him a ticket to the Super Bowl and say, ‘He wasn’t paid to go,’ they can’t provide free production services that are invaluable,” Payne said. “He is [now] able to reach an audience that is broader than any cable station or radio network for free.”
Independent ethics experts noted another reason that Cruz might be able to maintain the arrangement: the pact could be considered a contract rather than a gift. “It can be a bit of a challenge to apply gift rules to contractual arrangements,” said Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University in St. Louis, who specializes in government ethics. Sure, iHeartMedia is giving Cruz’s podcast a bundle of services, but in return, he is supplying the company with Ted Cruz—a famous, sharp-tongued podcast host with the proven ability to attract listeners and, therefore, advertisers. “I might argue that the member is providing something of value in return for what iHeartMedia is presenting,” said Clark.
Even if the Senate ethics committee were to agree that the services iHeartMedia is providing qualify as gifts, Cruz still might not be breaking any laws, according to another expert in government ethics. “The Senate ethics committee will then have to wrestle with the issue of whether the deal fits within one of the many exceptions to the gift rule,” said Brett Kappel, an attorney at Harmon, Curran, Spielberg & Eisenberg. For example, Senate rules allow members to accept benefits resulting from outside business or employment activities, “if such benefits have not been offered or enhanced because of the official position of the member, officer, or employee and are customarily provided to others in similar circumstances.”
Cruz likely would have to reveal the terms of any deal on an annual financial disclosure. Senators are required to report any agreements they enter into that result in compensation, as well as when a single source provides them with gifts worth more than $335. Cruz’s filing for 2022 is due in mid-May, although he’s likely to get an extension that will push it back to August. (His previous disclosures make no mention of the deal.) The Senate’s six-member ethics committee oversees lawmakers’ compliance with ethics rules. Punishments for accepting a gift from a lobbyist can include reprimand and censure, but an inquiry may never be made public, said Payne.
As for iHeartMedia, by Jan. 30, it is required to file a semiannual lobbying compliance report certifying that it has read, understood and not knowingly violated the Senate’s rules on gifts. Gift-giving lobbyists are subject to possible criminal penalties of up to $10,000 in fines and five years in prison, while failing to comply with the Lobbying Disclosure Act can bring fines of up to $200,000 and five years imprisonment.
According to the complaint, Cruz’s situation appears to be unique. “Although Senator Cruz is not the only member of Congress to host a podcast, he is the only member who is apparently violating federal law, because there is substantial evidence that an illegal source finances the podcast.”
“No one is this bold to accept a deal like this,” Payne said of Cruz. “You just don’t do it.”
Watch: Inside The Millions Spent On The Georgia Runoff Election
MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell Will Run For GOP Chair—Here’s Who Else He May Be Up Against
“MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell will run for Republican National Committee chair next year, he announced Monday, in a bid to make election denial the party’s core focus, a longshot challenge to current RNC chair and Trump ally Ronna McDaniel’s quest for reelection after a worse-than-expected GOP performance in this year’s midterms,» reports Joe Walsh.
Lindell argued the party didn’t lend enough support to candidates who made false voter fraud allegations the centerpieces of their campaigns this year, including Arizona gubernatorial candidate Kari Lake, Arizona secretary of state nominee Mark Finchem and Michigan attorney general candidate Matt DePerno—all of whom lost.
The RNC’s 168 members—three per state or territory—are expected to elect a chair to a two-year term during the party’s winter meeting in January.
Lindell will likely face an uphill battle, however: McDaniel is reportedly planning to run for a fourth term as chair, and just over 100 of the party’s voting members endorsed her reelection in a letter obtained by The Hill earlier this month.
Updates on Checks & Imbalances’ previous reporting
In February, the Great American Patriot Project PAC recruited participants for American truck convoys to protest Covid-19 lockdowns and mandates. The PAC, which raised just $6,000 in 2021, went on to bring in $1.8 million for the midterms, mostly from small donors. But the PAC contributed nothing to political candidates, opting to spend the funds on things like bouncy houses and country western bands instead, Mother Jones reported on Thursday.
Watch: First Gen. Z Member Of Congress, Maxwell Frost—Will He Join The Squad?
“The House Ways and Means Committee has received six years of former President Donald Trump’s federal income tax returns, one week after the Supreme Court denied Trump’s request to block his tax returns from being turned over, thwarting the former president’s three-year effort to keep his tax returns confidential,” reports Brian Bushard.
A federal appeals court has cut short a special master’s review of White House documents the Department of Justice seized at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, siding Thursday with the DOJ, which means the federal government will now be able to review the Mar-a-Lago documents and can potentially bring charges in the Trump investigation sooner,” reports Alison Durkee.
“Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) on Tuesday became the latest top Republican to slam former President Donald Trump for holding a dinner with white supremacist Nick Fuentes, suggesting the meeting makes it ‘highly unlikely’ Trump will be able to win back the presidency in 2024,” reports Nicholas Reimann.
“The world’s most influential golfer Tiger Woods called for the removal of LIV Golf’s brash CEO Greg Norman on Tuesday, as PGA Tour loyalists increasingly pin the blame on Norman for the ongoing civil war splintering the sport,” reports Derek Saul. Trump has business connections to the Saudi-backed LIV Golf, having hosted two of the fledgling tourney’s early tournaments.
- “FTX billionaire Sam Bankman-Fried funneled dark money to Republic” (The Guardian)
- “Congressmembers Tried to Stop the SEC’s Inquiry Into FTX” (American Prospect)
- “Kahele Faces Ethics Probe For Allegedly Misusing Social Media During Campaign” (Civil Beat)
- “FEC scales back digital ad transparency rule after backlash” (Axios)
- “Candidates recoup $5M in old campaign loans so far thanks to Ted Cruz’s $555K court win” (The Dallas Morning News)
- “Inside the Billionaire-Backed ‘Hub for Election Denial’” (The Daily Beast)
- “Ex-[State] Sen. Brian Kelsey pleads guilty to two counts of federal campaign finance violations” (Tennessee Lookout)
- “Herschel Walker Only Recently Stopped Renting Out Georgia Home He Claims as His Residence” (The Daily Beast)
- “Nancy Pelosi’s husband recently sold 20,000 shares of Visa worth up to $5 million” (Insider)
- “Perceptions of political Self-Dealing? An empirical investigation of market returns surrounding the disclosure of politician stock purchases” (Strategic Management Journal)
- “How Republicans and Democrats spent their money during 2022 midterm elections” (OpenSecrets)
- “This California brine shrimper bankrolled a pro-Mike Lee super PAC” (The Salt Lake Tribune)
- “Real Estate Tycoon Exposed as ‘Boogeyman of Porn’” (The Daily Beast)
Tell me lies
Tell me sweet little lies
(Tell me lies, tell me, tell me lies)
Oh no, no you can’t disguise
— Fleetwood Mac, “Little Lies”