By Viveca Novak,
We’ll stipulate that President Trump’s problems with the Federal Election Commission don’t rise to the highest tier of his concerns these days, not by a long shot. In his hierarchy of hazards, newly appointed Special Counsel Robert Mueller must loom rather large, while he might think of the FEC staff as a lowly mosquito — if he thinks of it at all.
Much like the mosquito, though, the agency’s Reports Analysis Division finds any vulnerabilities, and is very hard to get rid of.
Illegal corporate contributions, donations over the $2,700-per-election limit, anonymous gifts, double-counting, totals that should match but don’t. FEC analysts have kept the questions coming in a steady flow of letters to Brad Crate, treasurer of the campaign and of two joint fundraising committees (JFCs) Trump formed, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee and Trump Victory.
More than six months after the election, the campaign and the JFCs are still answering questions from the agency, filing amended reports and making refunds.
Take the campaign’s September monthly report, covering Aug. 1-31, 2016. It has gone through four iterations. The first version, filed by the Sept. 20 deadline, was 25,625 pages long. But when it was amended for the first time — eight days after the election, and after an FEC request for more information — it came it at more than twice that length. The original report had failed to correctly identify hundreds of contributions that were routed to the campaign through the two JFCs.
Many of those contributions were illegal — for instance, they were made by LLCs that were ineligible to donate to candidates or parties. The same report was amended twice more, including this week, about nine months after the donations came in.
In fact, a week ago (May 12), the Trump campaign filed more than 189,000 pages of amended FEC reports — five reports in all, covering the months of July and September and including the post-general (Oct. 20-Nov. 28) and year-end (Nov. 29-Dec.31) periods.
That included fixes prompted by a 53-page list sent by the FEC in April of possibly “excessive, prohibited and impermissible” contributions in his 2016 year-end report.
Trump’s original filing for the month of September was 11,764 pages. Its amended report, issued after another lengthy missive from the FEC? 16,951 pages.
The campaign and JFCs had vetting systems in place to screen contributions and make sure they were legal, according to responses Crates sent to the FEC. But experts say that while it’s normal for some questionable donations to slip through the cracks, Trump’s operation was like a sieve, only leakier.
“It appears they didn’t try to fix [the reports] until they started getting letters from the FEC,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer at Akerman LLP.
Kappel noted that the Trump committee reported barely any debt throughout the campaign — but after Election Day, began soliciting contributions for “debt retirement.”
Then, as soon as he was inaugurated, Trump formally filed to run for re-election in the 2020 election. His campaign committee’s next report redesignated tens of thousands of donations that had been given for debt retirement for the 2020 race instead — after a complaint had been filed by a watchdog group.
Other problems: One donor was allowed to contribute a total of $18,400 for Trump’s general election campaign over several months. The limit is $2,700. In March, the campaign admitted that it counted the same contributions from 14 different donors three times.
And we’ve previously reported on a 253-page letter the agency sent Trump’s campaign in January questioning large numbers of contributions on its post-general (Oct. 20-Nov. 28) report, as well as missives sent to his joint fundraising committees around the same time saying the committee had accepted anonymous contributions over the $50 limit for such gifts.
Let’s not even get started on Trump’s inaugural committee; its FEC filing was shot through with mysterious and incorrect information, as we, Huffington Post and others discovered. The Campaign Legal Center filed a complaint with the agency about the report, saying the inaugural committee had shown “reckless disregard” for the law.
The errors in that report were “obvious and avoidable,” noted the Campaign Legal Center’s Brendan Fischer. “It appears they didn’t engage in even the minimal level of diligence.” Overall, Fischer said, the campaign finance reports filed by the Trump network have contained “an exceptional number of errors.”
Other FEC letters to Make America Great Again, the JFC, have questioned the accuracy of year-to-date total contributions it listed for individual donors and pointed out that it appeared to be accepting contributions from foreign nationals, which the group only refunded in April.
Kappel noted that he campaign’s reporting problems appeared to begin around the time the JFCs started up in mid-2016 and began allocating some of the funds they raised to the campaign, apparently without proper controls. Make America Great Again “is one of the worst JFCs I’ve seen, if not the worst,” in terms of reporting deficiencies, he said.
It’s not that Trump didn’t have people knowledgeable about the nuts and bolts of campaign finance law around him. Crate, who had been CFO of 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s campaign, was treasurer of the Trump campaign and both JFCs; he runs a company that specializes in this kind of work. And the campaign’s general counsel was former FEC Chairman Don McGahn; he is now White House counsel.
Crate did not return our call requesting comment.
The degree to which this all will affect Trump’s totals and those of the JFCs isn’t yet clear, since more amendments are due to be filed. In December, in response to a number of FEC letters, the campaign refunded more than $725,000 in illegal contributions.
But in any case, Trump apparently had enough money to win, even though he raised less than other recent major-party candidates and put less of his own money into his campaign than he’d promised. In no small part, his victory was due to all the free attention he received from TV news and the like that one company valued at more than $6 billion.
Besides the mysterious degree of sloppiness shown by Trump’s operation in its FEC filings, there’s another lesson in the tussle between his organizations and the FEC: Whatever we and others may say about the FEC’s general failure to operate as a campaign finance enforcement agency (and there’s a heap of evidence for that argument), its Reports Analysis Division — which reviews every report that comes in the door and follows up with detailed questions about things that don’t look right — is definitely on the job.