Skip Navigation
Fellows

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.