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What’s the Big Deal About the Inaugural Committee ‘Pay to Play’?

Politicians have long raised money by selling access. It gets problematic, though, when foreign nationals are doing the buying.
February 14, 2019
What’s the Big Deal About the Inaugural Committee ‘Pay to Play’?
(Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

On February 4, federal prosecutors from the Southern District of New York (SDNY) issued a broad subpoena for documents to President Trump’s inaugural committee. The subpoena reportedly seeks information relating to “donors, vendors, contractors, bank accounts of the inaugural committee and any information related to foreign contributors to the committee.”

All told, Trump’s committee raised a whopping $107 million for activities connected with the presidential inaugural ceremony—such as dinners, parties, and black-tie galas around Washington, D.C. That sum is more than twice what President Obama’s committee raised in 2009. And as of last February, “$40 million was publicly unaccounted for.

What’s wrong with wealthy Americans giving money to inaugural committees, anyway?

After all, it’s no secret that folks paid up to $1 million for a seat at an inaugural dinner with Mike Pence (plus multi-day “access”). D.C. is teeming with lobbyists vying to influence politicians and federal agency personnel. Regular Americans routinely donate to campaigns, too. As one government ethics expert said of Trump’s money-for-access inaugural rollout, “These are all of the ways we have been raising money. He’s just doing it without shame or compunction.”

Legally speaking, then, what’s the big deal?

The SDNY subpoena provides clues as to what the government is investigating: potential fraud, money-laundering, and conspiracy in connection with the Trump inaugural committee.

For the non-lawyers out there, conspiracy is an agreement to commit some other crime plus an act in furtherance of that scheme. To date, Special Counsel Robert Mueller has issued multiple indictments citing conspiracy to commit a crime against—or to defraud—the United States. Regarding the inaugural committee, those “other” crimes appear to involve—once again—potential violations of the federal election and campaign laws.

Inaugural committees are required by law to disclose donations of $200 or more to the Federal Election Commission (FEC), along with the donor’s name and mailing address, the date of receipt, and the “aggregate total donations accepted to date from that donor.” According to the FEC’s website, moreover, federal law contains “a broad prohibition on foreign national activity in connection with elections in the United States,” including “[m]aking any donation to a presidential inaugural committee.” If done “knowingly and willfully,” such activity can land people in jail.

One reason the Trump inaugural committee is of interest to prosecutors, therefore, is that some portion of the $107 million may have come from foreign governments in violation of federal law. And if evidence shows that to be the case, the question becomes: What did the foreigners get in exchange from Team Trump?

Back in August 2018, lobbyist Sam Patten—an associate of former Trump campaign chair and convicted felon Paul Manafort—pleaded guilty to a lobbying crime involving Ukraine. The plea agreement set forth other crimes that Patten admitted to but was not charged with, including “‘causing foreign money’ to be paid to the Trump inaugural committee.”

The scheme worked by engaging a U.S. citizen to act as a “straw buyer” of four event tickets for $50,000. That unnamed person got a check for $50,000 from a consulting firm run by Patten and Konstantin Kilminik.

Recall that Kilminik was Manafort’s associate in Ukraine. Originally trained by Russian military intelligence, he was indicted along with Manafort in July 2018  for obstruction of justice and conspiracy to obstruct justice.

According to the Patten plea filing, the firm was reimbursed through the bank account of Patten’s client, a Ukrainian oligarch seeking to attend Trump’s inauguration. Patten reportedly wound up attending the inauguration with the Ukranian, whose description “matches that of Sergei Lyovochokin, a leader of the pro-Russian Opposition Block whom prosecutors describe as a prominent oligarch.”

To sum it up: A big reason why potential inaugural committee shenanigans matter to prosecutors—and thus to the American people—is the same “quid pro quo” problem underlying much of the Trump scandals that have mushroomed into 17 investigations (not including the burgeoning congressional inquiries). Consider, for example:

  • In October 2015, Donald Trump signed a letter of intent to build Trump Tower Moscow; negotiations continued during the campaign, although that salient fact was hidden from the voting public. The question becomes: What might the Russian government expect to get in exchange for a long-sought-after Trump Tower Moscow deal?
  • In a June 2016 meeting at Trump Tower in New York City, Manafort, Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, and others met with a Kremlin-connected Russian lawyer in hopes of obtaining “dirt” on Trump’s opponent, Hillary Clinton. In a statement, Trump Jr. explained that “the woman stated that she had information that individuals connected to Russia were funding the Democratic National Committee and supporting Ms. Clinton,” but that “[i]t quickly became clear that she had no meaningful information.” He added, however, that she later “mentioned the Magnitsky Act,” a law signed by President Obama in 2012 that she had been lobbying to overturn; it imposed sanctions on Russian government officials and businessmen in retaliation for human rights abuses. (Just last December, a grand jury in the SDNY charged the lawyer, Natalia Vladimirovna Veselnitskaya, with obstruction of justice relating to a separate money laundering case). In August 2018, President Trump admitted in a tweet that “[t]his was a meeting to get information on an opponent.” The question becomes: What might Russians expect to get in exchange for providing the Trump campaign with information on Hillary Clinton?
  • Manafort’s lawyers inadvertently revealed in a court filing that he shared Trump campaign polling data with Kilminik during the 2016 presidential campaign. (This factoid blows up any claim of “no collusion,” but note that collusion is not a crime.) The question becomes: What might Russians expect to do with that polling data? If the information was used to help Trump get elected, what might the “donors” expect in return?
  • The indictment of longtime Trump confidante Roger Stone revealed that “[f]rom in or around July 2016 through in or around November 2016, [Wikileaks] released tens of thousands of documents stolen from the DNC and the personal email account of the chairman of the U.S. presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.” In a July 2016 indictment, Mueller charged 12 officers of the Russian GRU—the country’s military intelligence agency—with hacking the computers of Clinton campaign staff and the Democratic party.

On this last note, the question becomes: What might the Russian government expect to get in exchange for stolen information damaging to Clinton that was publicly leaked in the weeks leading up to the ultimate election of Donald  J. Trump as president of the United States?

In the swirl of complex facts, the legal bottom line is this: If foreigners (read: Russians) paid-to-play with Team Trump during the campaign, the transition, the inauguration, or his presidency—then possible criminal liability is on the table. For all involved.

Kimberly Wehle

Kimberly Wehle is a contributor to The Bulwark. She served as an assistant U.S. attorney and an associate independent counsel in the Whitewater investigation. She is currently a professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law. An ABC News legal contributor, she is the author of three books with HarperCollins: How to Read the Constitution—and Why, What You Need to Know About Voting—and Why, and, most recently, How to Think Like a Lawyer and Why—A Common-Sense Guide to Everyday Dilemmas. Her new book, Pardon Power: How the Pardon System Works—and Why, is forthcoming in September 2024 from Woodhall Press. @kimwehle.