Trump Settlement Admits Campaign Finance Crimes, Watchdog Says

Despite a signed settlement describing clear campaign finance violations, the FEC is unlikely to take action against President Trump because it lacks the quorum needed to make official decisions.

Trump Settlement Admits Campaign Finance Crimes, Watchdog Says
Then-candidate Donald Trump speaks during a campaign rally at the Adler Theatre on January 30, 2016 in Davenport, Iowa.

When President Trump was ordered by a New York judge to pay $2 million in restitution for misusing his charity, much of the news coverage focused on his use of charitable funds for personal expenses like settling lawsuits and purchasing a portrait of himself. But a document from the case provides more evidence that Trump could still be liable for another type of crime: raising and spending campaign funds in excess of federal contribution limits and in violation of disclosure requirements.

Trump acknowledged in his settlement with the New York Attorney General, which is signed by his attorney, that his 2016 campaign committee “planned, organized, and paid for” a Trump Foundation fundraiser held in Des Moines, Iowa, just days before the state’s Feb. 1, 2016 caucuses, and that his campaign “directed the timing, amounts, and recipients” of the foundation’s disbursement of the funds. The foundation’s grants were announced at Iowa campaign events in the days leading up to the Iowa caucuses via enlarged checks, some of which had the campaign’s “Make America Great Again” slogan emblazoned on them.  

According to a new letter from the watchdog Campaign Legal Center (CLC) to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the funds raised at the event should have been subject to federal contribution limits ($2,700 per election, per candidate in the 2015-16 election cycle), and reporting requirements. The Trump Foundation raised more than $2.8 million at the fundraiser, including multiple six- and seven-figure contributions, some of which were from anonymous donors. 

“Trump and his campaign misused millions of dollars of charitable resources to influence the 2016 campaign and violated campaign finance law in doing so,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at CLC, told Sludge. “Trump has paid a $2 million penalty and the Trump Foundation has agreed to dissolve, but Trump and his campaign might still be on the hook for campaign finance violations.”

Trump’s campaign directed the timing, amount, and recipients of checks, such as the one pictured above, that were given out by the Trump Foundation at fundraisers held in Iowa in the lead up to the state’s 2016 caucuses. The foundation’s check were emblazoned with the Trump campaign’s slogan. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

Former New York Attorney General Barbara Underwood sent a letter to the FEC in June 2018 calling on the agency to investigate the Iowa fundraiser for possible campaign finance violations. CLC filed its original complaint on the matter with the FEC in July 2018. 

If the FEC were to rule that Trump violated campaign finance laws with the Iowa fundraiser, it could require Trump to pay a monetary penalty in an amount it would determine based on a schedule that considers the amount of the violation involved, previous violations by the person, and other factors.

Despite the evidence of campaign finance violations, confirmed by Trump in the signed settlement, it’s not likely that the FEC will enforce the law. The FEC has been unable to fully function since Sept. 1, when vice chairman Matthew Peterson resigned, leaving the agency without enough commissioners to form the quorum required by laws for it to make decisions in any enforcement matter. Peterson joined the law firm Holtzman Vogel Josefiak Torchinsky, which specializes in advising PACs and “dark money” nonprofits on election spending.

Trump nominated attorney and former Defense Department official Trey Trainor to become a FEC commissioner in September 2017, but the Senate has not acted on the nomination. Senate Republicans prefer replacing the three current FEC commissioners with a clean slate of six new people, while Senate Democrats have recommended that Trump nominates attorney Shana Broussard to serve on the agency. The gridlock in confirming a fourth FEC commissioner might persist through the 2020 elections, as no vote has been scheduled.

“Even when the FEC was operating with a quorum, routine matters of enforcement often took months or years to resolve. So once the quorum is restored, the FEC will certainly have a host of important enforcement matters stacked up on their docket that they will have to address,” CLC’s communications manager, Corey Goldstone, told Sludge. “Given the amount of money that was raised and spent by Trump at his Iowa fundraiser and the details revealed through the New York Attorney General investigation, this is something they should take seriously and investigate.”

CLC also sent the letter to the Department of Justice, which it notes “has the authority to prosecute knowing and willful violations of federal campaign finance law.”

Related from Sludge:

What the Mueller Report Tells Us About Campaign Finance Law and Foreign Interference

Turning Point USA Blurs the Line Between Charity and Pro-Trump Political Group

Where the 2020 Candidates Stand on Campaign Finance