The 2016 presidential campaign is one of the strangest I’ve witnessed in a lifetime obsession with politics. I thought there was nothing new under the sun, but then the Donald Trump campaign walked into my life.
On the night he won the Michigan Republican primary, Trump spoke to the press from Florida standing in front of a pile of Trump wine, Trump vodka, Trump water and Trump steaks. He said, “Trump steaks. Where are the steaks? Do we have steak? We have Trump steak,” and then he went on to extol the virtues of Trump wine, Trump water and even Trump magazine. Suddenly, the event seemed morphed from a victory speech into a cheesy late night infomercial or QVC segment. (Never mind that “Trump Steaks” has been defunct for about eight years and “Trump Vodka” stopped production in 2011.)
Trump is not the first candidate to hawk his wares. Several presidential candidates have seemed as if their campaigns were really glorified book and speaking tours — think Herman Cain in 2012 and his book, “This Is Herman Cain!” And Ben Carson’s sleepy 2016 effort and his book, “A More Perfect Union.” A 1996 Federal Election Commission advisory opinion allows campaigns to hand out candidate books, as long as the candidate does not profit from the transaction. Although the candidate won’t benefit from books distributed by the campaign, that’s not to say the candidate can’t make money from greater sales in other outlets (such as Amazon) or more lucrative lecture fees or book deals once the campaign ends.
But Trump seems to be taking product placement to a whole new level. The Trump steaks incident was a more public version of what the campaign as been doing all along: paying Trump and Trump-owned businesses with campaign funds.
Trump’s campaign is remarkable for all the money it funnels to Trump-owned enterprises. If you look at the February 2016 FEC expenditure filings for “Donald J. Trump For President, Inc.” (the most recent month available) you’ll see payments to Trump National Doral, Trump Old Post Office LLC, Trump Payroll Corp., Trump Restaurants LLC, Trump Soho, Trump Tower Commercial LLC, Trump CPS LLC, and $31,748 to the Donald himself. And those are just the self-evidently eponymous businesses the Trump campaign is using as vendors.
As Olivia Nuzzi has written in The Daily Beast, from the time Trump announced his candidacy in mid-June until the end of 2015, the campaign spent $2.2 million on Trump businesses. “The majority—$2 million — was spent on Tag Air Inc., where Trump is CEO. Trump owns a commercial-sized plane, a Boeing 757-200, which is equipped to safely transport 43 passengers in seat belts plated with 24-carat gold — although they might prefer to sit in the dining room, one of two bedrooms, or in the shower, (or they might prefer to travel in his smaller jet or one of his two helicopters). His aircraft ferry him around the country, from New York to Des Moines to Manchester to Biloxi, at a steep cost.” (The campaign spent $537,436 on Tag Air in January 2016, according to the most recent FEC filing.)
If you ever wondered if the campaign rules were written by the rich for the rich, here’s one of the more glaring examples. Usually, a presidential candidate flying on a private plane has to pay the “normal and usual charter rate for travel…” But if the candidate owns the plane, such as Trump, the campaign only has to pay the operating costs.
Trump can also give himself a salary from the campaign, but it is based on the lesser of his salary last year or the salary of the President ($400,000). If he gives himself more, then he runs into the personal use rules. Federal candidates are not supposed to financially benefit from their campaign money under 52 USC 30114. As the FEC explains, “if the expense would exist even in the absence of the candidacy or even if the officeholder were not in office, then the personal use ban applies.” These “personal use” rules are supposed to keep candidates from dipping into their campaign coffers as a personal piggy bank.
Personal use of campaign funds is what landed former Chicago Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. in trouble in 2013. As the original indictment stated: “The goal of the conspiracy was for Defendant Jesse L. Jackson, Jr. and his co-conspirator 1 to enrich themselves by engaging in a scheme to defraud in which they used funds donated to the campaign for their own personal benefit.” Jackson spent $750,000 in campaign funds on personal items such as a cashmere cape, a mink parka and Michael Jackson memorabilia. He was sentenced to 30 months in jail.
When Trump was the only source of his campaign funds – he’s spent about $18 million so far -- the money flowing from his campaign to his businesses was not so troubling. But Trump has also raised about $7.5 million from outsiders, and nearly 75 percent of these contributions are less than $200, indicating that those who can afford it least are supporting his campaign. (It remains to be seen how much Trump will rely on his own money should he become the GOP nominee.) And it is other people’s money, which is not supposed to be for Trump’s personal financial gain.
When Trump uses campaign funds to sell the “Donald Trump” brand instead promoting his candidacy, it takes the concept of a “conflict of interest” to a whole new Trumpian level.
The views expressed are the author's own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center for Justice.