The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.
It seems Donald Trump’s 2020 run for the White House will look a lot like his 2016 bid – the campaign will patronize Trump-owned enterprises -- ensuring the candidate and his family will profit.
For instance, the campaign has already paid $395,000 for space in New York’s pricey Trump Tower, according to spending reports for the first six months of the year filed with the Federal Election Commission. Whatever logic may have existed in 2016 for housing the campaign in the same place where Donald Trump conducted his business, does not obtain in 2020 when the candidate is 230 miles away in the White House. Overall, the campaign has raised $15 million and spent $10.7 million.
Of course, staffers stay in Trump hotels. For instance, the campaign has dropped $12,400 alone in lodging costs at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. And to the degree one can tell which charges are for a one-night stay, the campaign usually paid more than the advertised rate for the cheapest room, which is now $319 per night. One can question why aides must stay in a five-star hotel in the first place, but if that type of luxury is required, Trump’s digs would not be the first choice. For instance, Washington’s venerable five-star The Hay-Adams not only has rooms that are $40 cheaper per night than Trump’s, it is ranked higher by consumers in Tripadvisor (no. 3 vs. no. 11), but is even closer to the White House.
This is all business as usual for Trump. A $13,800 payment for “Facility Rental/Catering Services” to Trump International Hotel Las Vegas, a total of $7,700 to New York’s “Trump Restaurants LLC” for rental and catering, and $3,000 in total to the same entity for “rental.” (Maybe no one ate.) No expense is too trivial for an opportunity to line his pockets. For instance, on March 13, 2017, the campaign paid “Trump Ice LLC” $940.50 for “office supplies.” The campaign must have had a busy 48 hours using yellow highlighters because on March 15, they paid another $940.50 to the same entity for more “office supplies.”
Yet, even by Trump standards, there are certain expenditures that standout. For instance, the Trump Corporation collected nearly $90,000 from the campaign in June for “legal consulting.” Just what this “legal consulting” was for is left unspecified. And the Trump Corporation is not to be confused with the Trump Organization, the holding company for the president’s business ventures. The Trump Corporation is the president’s real estate management company, from which he collected $18 million in the 12 months preceding June 2017, according to Trump’s disclosure to the Office of Government Ethics.
Perhaps these payments are in some way tied to Michael Cohen, who is inevitably described as “Trump’s personal lawyer.” Cohen used to have the title of executive vice president and special counsel to Trump at the Trump Organization, but Cohen quit these posts in January so he could work full-time for the president and the president alone. But Cohen does not work for the White House Counsel’s office; in fact, the only payroll he is on, so far as is known, is Donald Trump’s.
Naturally, Cohen is caught-up in one small tentacle of the Trump/Russia investigation, and has hired his own lawyer. In late January, Cohen met with an opposition lawmaker from the Ukraine who handed him a “peace plan” to settle Ukraine’s conflict with Russia. Part of the plan included the U.S. lifting sanctions against Russia. Not surprisingly, the legislator said he was encouraged to make the overture from top aides to Russian President Vladimir Putin. Then, in February, when Cohen was visiting his client in the Oval Office, he left a sealed envelope with the plan in the office of Michael Flynn, then-Trump’s national security adviser. Flynn resigned the next week because he lied about his own discussions with the Russian ambassador about lifting sanctions.
While the $89,000 “legal consulting” payment is murky at best, there is another payment to a lawyer that appears crystal clear. In June, the campaign cut a $50,000 check to Alan S. Futerfas, the New York white collar criminal defense lawyer who represents Donald Trump Jr. in the Russia investigation. The nice, round number suggests that the payment was a retainer agreement. Interestingly, the records show no payments to other lawyers known to be involved in the Russia probe.
The Futerfas payment raises an obvious question. Why is Trump’s 2020 campaign paying for an expense stemming from Trump’s campaign four years ago? This takes the notion of a permanent campaign to new heights. And why is the campaign – be it 2016 or 2020 – paying the legal fees of the candidate’s son? To the extent the FEC and the courts have considered whether campaign funds can be used for atypical legal fees, their rulings have always involved the candidate.
What is remarkable, but hardly surprising, is Trump’s own self-mythology about the 2016 campaign. In an interview last month with The Wall Street Journal, the transcript of which was published by Politico, loyal aide Hope Hicks reminded the president that he had “self-funded” his campaign. Trump readily agreed, saying that he had “self-funded much” of his 2016 bid. Uh, not exactly. According to OpenSecrets.org Trump gave his campaign $66 million, which represented about 20 percent of the total expenditures of $333 million. Yet, the campaign shelled out about $13 million to various Trump businesses. The self-dealing reduces Trump’s contribution by about 20 percent to $53 million, and shaves Trump’s personal share of the campaign’s expenses down to about 16 percent.
The tragedy in all this does not rest with right-wing billionaires such as James Mercer whose Renaissance Technologies hedge fund gave Trump $15 million. It lies with the small donors – those who gave less than $200. Small donations totaled $87 million four years ago, representing 26 percent of all donations. If one assumes the average contribution was $100, these 870,000 people most likely cannot afford to stay at Trump’s hotels, eat at Trump’s restaurants, hire Trump’s lawyers, or even buy Trump’s office supplies. Yet, they have faith that a man who uses their money as a personal piggy bank will Make America Great Again.