Mar 9, 2022 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: RNC to sue Jan. 6 committee over Salesforce subpoena

Animated illustration of a manila folder being slowly covered by red tape.

Illustration: Maura Losch/Axios

The Jan. 6 select committee has subpoenaed Salesforce, the customer relationship management giant and a major Republican National Committee vendor, for sensitive information about the RNC's fundraising, Axios has learned.

  • The RNC plans to sue to stop the disclosure, according to three sources with direct knowledge of the dispute. An advance copy of the complaint filed was reviewed by Axios.

Why it matters: It's the most significant legal confrontation so far between the GOP's official apparatus and the congressional committee investigating the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol.

  • The Feb. 23 subpoena, reviewed by Axios, shows the intensity of the panel's efforts to link the assault with official fundraising and engagement efforts — and to learn precisely who was crafting and sending emails and how they impacted supporters who read them.
  • Former President Donald Trump and other witnesses have also sued to try to block committee subpoenas.

Details: The substance of the Salesforce subpoena seeks documents from the RNC's fundraising platform vendor, owned by Salesforce, that the committee says could contain evidence of fundraising practices based on falsehoods that may have contributed to the attack.

  • The RNC lawsuit characterizes the subpoena as a political ploy that is "staggeringly broad and unduly burdensome" and a "fishing expedition" designed to expose confidential information about donors and fundraising practices.
  • Salesforce did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

What they're saying: "The RNC and its millions of supporters face an unprecedented threat that will undoubtedly chill their First Amendment rights and expose the RNC’s supporters to reprisals and harassment," the document says.

  • Turning over the data would provide political opponents "with an all-access pass to confidential RNC political strategies and the personal information of millions of its supporters."
  • The RNC says it violates the First and Fourth amendments and claims the committee is not properly constituted and therefore lacks the authority to subpoena records.
  • Whether or not it wins in court, the RNC could try to draw out the process long enough, hoping that November's midterm elections make it a moot point.

The Select Committee said in a statement that the subpoena has "nothing to do with getting the private information of voters or donors."

  • The subpoena was issued "to help investigators understand the impact of false, inflammatory messages in the weeks before January 6th, the flow of funds, and whether contributions were actually directed to the purpose indicated," spokesperson Tim Mulvey said.
  • He added that the RNC and Trump campaign solicited donations through the false claims and the messages "encouraged supporters to put pressure on Congress to keep President Trump in power."

How we got here: Salesforce is a market-leading customer relationship management platform. In 2013, it acquired a digital marketing company, ExactTarget, that allows clients to send mass-email communications.

  • The RNC used that platform to blast out numerous fundraising emails for a joint Trump-RNC fundraising account.
  • That means Salesforce has extensive data about Trump and RNC fundraising campaigns.

The committee wants a full accounting of RNC email data from Election Day through Jan. 6, 2021, including data on how many emails were sent, when they were sent, and how often recipients opened them and clicked through to donation pages.

  • The committee is also seeking Salesforce data that could identify who at the RNC was actually logging into its software to craft and send those emails.
  • It also wants any documentation on any internal Salesforce investigations into the RNC’s use of its platform, as well as the company’s communications with RNC employees.
  • The RNC says the committee's subpoena would give it "unprecedented access to the RNC’s internal political strategies and to private, personal information regarding its supporters."

The big picture: The subpoena is part of a sprawling investigation by the Jan. 6 committee into the finances and fundraising practices of the Trump campaign and its GOP allies.

  • The committee is examining whether the people who drafted fundraising appeals that invoked false claims about fraud in the 2020 election or pledged to use that money to fight election results in court knew those claims were false at the time, the Washington Post reported on Tuesday.
  • As part of its investigation, the committee has interviewed former campaign and RNC staffers and examined hundreds of the two groups’ fundraising emails, according to the Post.
  • It's trying to determine whether those behind the emails knowingly lied in order to raise more money and whether that might constitute wire fraud.
  • The committee is also examining whether those emails' frequent and baseless claims of widespread fraud in the 2020 election helped drive Trump supporters to storm the Capitol.

Between the lines: Legal experts say the RNC's effort to block the subpoena will be an uphill battle but is not futile.

  • "Courts have traditionally given congressional oversight bodies broad leeway in conducting investigations, absent any constitutional or procedural defenses by the subpoenaed party," said Christopher Armstrong, a partner at Holland & Knight who specializes in congressional investigations.
  • "That said, it's not necessarily an unwinnable one, especially when there are constitutional claims involved," he told Axios in an email.
  • "Given the expectation that Republicans could win control of the House of Representatives in November, and what that would mean for the Select Committee, whether the suit is victorious might be secondary to whether it pushes the process beyond the 117th Congress."

The RNC’s lawsuit is slated to elevate legal disputes over Jan. 6 committee tactics that, the New York Times reported last month, more closely resemble a criminal investigation than a congressional inquiry.

  • The committee does not have the power to prosecute individuals it’s probing. But its investigation appears geared toward establishing criminal predicates that could pique the interest of the Justice Department.
  • Republicans have disputed the committee’s legal authority to issue subpoenas at all, a position reiterated in the RNC’s lawsuit.
  • "If companies still choose to violate federal law [by complying with committee subpoenas], a Republican majority will not forget and will stand with Americans to hold them fully accountable under the law," House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) said last year.

Behind the scenes: McCarthy’s statement underscores a political dilemma for Salesforce and other companies targeted with committee subpoenas.

  • Disputing their legal obligation to comply with those document requests would likely mean going to court against a congressional committee, not an appealing prospect for most large companies.
  • Salesforce has attempted to balance its long-standing relationship with the RNC with calls to crack down on election-related misinformation. In the wake of the Capitol attack, it pledged to "take action" to prevent Trump and RNC emails from inciting violence.
  • According to a source familiar with the situation, the company proactively informed the RNC of the subpoena seeking its Salesforce data.
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