December 17, 2018
When President Donald Trump was sworn in on January 22, 2017, his first instinct was to place his right hand on his own book, The Art of the Deal, rather than the Bible. Looking back, some might say that the how-to book would have been the better choice, in light of the financial machinations that allegedly took place leading up to that day.
Federal prosecutors in New York now are investigating whether foreigners illegally funneled donations to Trump’s inaugural committee and to a pro-Trump super PAC in hopes of “buying influence” in the administration, The New York Times reports.
That would pose a big problem for the White House, because U.S. law prohibits foreign contributions to federal campaigns, political action committees, and inaugural funds.
The inquiry has focused in on money emanating from nations in the Middle East—including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Prosecutors are interested in finding out if entities from those nations used “straw donors” to disguise their donations to the two funds.
Thomas Barrack Jr., a billionaire financier and a longtime associate of Trump’s, raised money for both funds—but his spokesperson, Owen Blicksilver, told the news outlet, “Tom has never talked with any foreign individual or entity for the purposes of raising money for or obtaining donations related to … the campaign, the inauguration, or any such political activity.”
The super PAC, Rebuilding America Now, was formed in June 2016—during a period when the Trump presidential campaign reportedly was short of cash and out of favor with Republican donors. While Trump was adamant that he could finance his own campaign, he refused to dig too deeply into his own pockets.
According to several Times sources, Paul Manafort, the campaign manager at the time, suggested that Barrack step in to raise funds for the PAC, which could collect unlimited amounts of money as long as it avoided coordinating closely with the candidate.
However, in an interview with investigators a year ago, the Times said, Barrack commented that Manafort seemed to view the political committee as an arm of the campaign, despite laws meant to prevent such coordination, according to a person familiar with the interview.
In fact, Manafort asked two campaign aides, Laurance Gay and Ken McKay, to help run the operation. A press officer said at the time that the committee violated no rules because the campaign never paid the two men. Neither man returned repeated phone calls from the Times seeking comment.
According to filings with the Federal Election Commission, the committee raised $23 million and provided funds for Trump advertisements, polls, and other political expenditures. While most of the money came from U.S. donors, prosecutors have asked witnesses whether anyone from the Middle East also contributed to the kitty, perhaps using American intermediaries to cover the transactions.
After the election, the Trump campaign had money rolling in, raising an astounding $107 million for the inauguration—four times as much as the pro-Trump PAC and twice as much as the amount raised for President Barack Obama’s first inauguration.
Today, the question remains, how was that money used for Trump’s much smaller-scale inaugural event—and what happened to any unspent dollars?
Last week, for the first time, Ivanka Trump became publicly involved in the POTUS’s election probe. According to reports by Newsweek and ProPublica, she hiked the rates for the meeting rooms and the ballrooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington DC specifically during the days that visitors to the inauguration would be in the city. Any extra profits would have gone straight to the Trump Organization.
The inaugural committee complied with all laws and “has not been contacted by any prosecutors,” Blicksilver, who is also a spokesman for the fund, told The New York Times. Its finances “were fully audited internally and independently,” and donors were fully vetted and disclosed to the Federal Election Commission, as required, he said.
That remains to be seen. If there has been an audit, there is no external evidence of it. Although many news outlets, including the Times, have requested a copy of the financial analysis, none has been made available.
However, prosecutors certainly would be able to obtain those documents, if they exist.
Research contact: @nytimes