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The Sheer Weirdness of an Illegal Inaugural

Trump’s team may have violated some of the few campaign finance regulations that still apply to inaugural committees.

I’ve been work­ing on campaign finance issues for four­teen years. I’ve never seen an illegal inaug­ural. Until now, poten­tially.

Pres­id­en­tial inaug­ur­a­tions are at the very edge of campaign finance regu­la­tions. That means most of the typical campaign finance restric­tions during an elec­tion, includ­ing on the size and sources of dona­tions, simply don’t apply to an inaug­ural commit­tee.

For example, during an elec­tion, a U.S. citizen can give $2,800 to a candid­ate running for pres­id­ent. But once that candid­ate wins, a U.S. citizen can give an unlim­ited amount to an inaug­ural commit­tee to celeb­rate their candid­ate’s assump­tion of power. Here’s another example: Corpor­a­tions cannot give directly to a federal candid­ate during an elec­tion, but they can give an unlim­ited amount to an inaug­ural commit­tee.

Plenty of wealthy people and corpor­a­tions took advant­age of this increased abil­ity to spend in 2017. NBC News found that 14 indi­vidual donors to the inaug­ural, who gave around $350,000 on aver­age, were nomin­ated to be Ambas­sad­ors by Pres­id­ent Trump.  Many compan­ies gave at the $1 million mark to the Trump 2017 inaug­ural. Many of the same compan­ies also gave to Obama’s inaug­ural. Corpor­a­tions with regu­lat­ory matters pending before the federal govern­ment often use such dona­tions to butter up the new guy in charge. It’s a little unnerv­ing from the outside since it looks like curry­ing favor, but gener­ally it’s perfectly legal.

Federal prosec­utors in the South­ern District of New York are look­ing into what was going on in the Trump inaug­ural commit­tee, includ­ing asking one of the vendors, a friend of Melania Trump named Stephanie Wolkoff, about the commit­tee’s expendit­ures accord­ing to press reports.

So why are there crim­inal invest­ig­a­tions into the Trump inaug­ural? Because it looks like the commit­tee may have viol­ated some of the few campaign finance regu­la­tions that still apply. For instance, inaug­ural commit­tees are not allowed to accept money from foreign nation­als. As the controlling regu­la­tion states:

A foreign national shall not, directly or indir­ectly, make a dona­tion to an inaug­ural commit­tee…. No person shall know­ingly accept from a foreign national any dona­tion to an inaug­ural commit­tee.

This regu­la­tion appears to have been viol­ated at least once by Sam Patten, who acted as a straw donor for a Ukrain­ian who paid $50,000 for tick­ets to the 2017 inaug­ural. (We know about this because of a plea by Mr. Patten.) Then there is the CITGO dona­tion of half a million dollars, which raises another poten­tial foreign donor issue. CITGO is owned by Venezuela. While the FEC does­n’t have a partic­u­larly strong record for enfor­cing elec­tion laws, it did recently rouse from its slum­ber to hit Jeb Bush’s super PAC Right to Rise with a hefty $1.3 million fine for accept­ing money from a foreign-owned company. And because federal prosec­utors already invest­ig­at­ing, any alleged malfeas­ance may actu­ally have some legal consequences.

The other basic require­ment for an inaug­ural commit­tee is trans­par­ency. While there are not many restric­tions on where the money comes from, there is a require­ment to report accur­ately to the FEC where the money came from 90 days after the inaug­ur­a­tion. And here the Trump inaug­ural commit­tee seems to have failed again. When the commit­tee first filed its report, it had a number of bogus entries, which were fact-checked by a crowd-sourced effort spear­headed by journ­al­ist Christina Wilkie.

The most strik­ing “error” filed by the Trump inaug­ural commit­tee was an alleged dona­tion from Hidden Figures star, and real-life person, Kath­er­ine John­son, which listed NASA as her address. The real Kath­er­ine John­son is 90 and does­n’t, you know, live at NASA. Also, when report­ers tracked down the real Kath­er­ine John­son’s family, they said she had not given $25,000 to the Trump fête. Another bogus entry for $400,000 listed an empty lot in New Jersey as the address. Prosec­utors may be invest­ig­at­ing whether these bogus entries were mask­ing illegal dona­tions.

Then there’s the alleg­a­tion that the Trump inaug­ural commit­tee deputy chair Rick Gates was trying to get donors to directly pay vendors, as repor­ted by Pro Publica. This would be another way to short-circuit the required disclos­ures to the FEC, since the commit­tee only reports money that it received.

On top of all that, there’s the open issue of where the money went. There has been report­ing that the Trump Organ­iz­a­tion was bene­fit­ing from the inaug­ural by over­char­ging for event space at the direc­tion of Ivanka. That’s just one more poten­tial conflict of interest that could have easily been avoided.

Not only are the feds look­ing into what happened to the $107 million donated to the Trump inaug­ural commit­tee, where it really came from and where it was spent, the D.C. attor­ney general Karl Racine is also check­ing to see if any local laws were viol­ated.

After these invest­ig­a­tions are over, Amer­ica may discover some­thing nearly unheard of and hard to pull off — an illegal inaug­ural.

(Image: Pool/Getty)

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.