Donald Trump has “violated [federal election] laws” with his nascent presidential bid, according to a complaint filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission.
The complaint, filed by a supporter of Rep. Ron Paul, stems from a trip to Iowa made by a Trump political adviser on March 7. The visit was made public in a press released sent out the day before. “Michael Cohen, Executive Vice President and Special Counsel to Donald J. Trump, will hold a media availability at Signature FBO in Des Moines tomorrow morning at 9:15 a.m.,” said the release. A group of reporters, news photographers, and camera crews, was present to capture Cohen’s arrival, and the adviser said he was there to meet with “major GOP leaders, advocates, operatives, fundraisers, and just about everybody, I think.”
But Trump had not filed papers to establish a presidential committee with the FEC, or even an exploratory committee. He was using his own corporate financial resources to fund a testing-the-waters effort, a violation of federal law if the amount spent is more than $2,500. The cost of Cohen’s trip to Iowa is estimated to have been $125,000. It was undertaken by Trump Organization employee who used a Trump.org email address to correspond with reporters beforehand and took a Trump corporate Boeing 727 to fly to Iowa to conduct business consistent with that normally carried out by a political exploratory committee.
Trump may be reluctant to file FEC paperwork because he does not want to reveal that he is financing what he hopes is viewed as a spontaneous grassroots effort to convince him to run for president. And if paperwork establishing his presidential candidacy is filed, it is unclear how the equal time laws would affect NBC airing his reality program The Celebrity Apprentice. Trump has stated he will decide if he is running for president in June, when this season of The Celebrity Apprentice will have concluded.
Emails to Trump’s office were not immediately returned.
Trump has stated he will decide if he is running for president in June, when this season of The Celebrity Apprentice will have concluded.
Back in February, in the middle of Trump’s generally well-received speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference, he mentioned he wished the Republican Party had viable presidential candidates. An audience member yelled out “Ron Paul!” “By the way,” Trump quipped, “Ron Paul can’t get elected. I’m sorry.” Amid a chorus of boos from the Paul contingent, Trump added, “I like Ron Paul. I think he’s a good guy, but honestly he’s got zero chance of getting elected.”
One of the Paul supporters present was Shawn Michael Thompson, who, according to his lawyer, “was the Ron Paul for President coordinator for Hillsborough Country (Tampa) in 2008 and is urging Congressman Paul to run again in 2012.” Among his other credentials, Thompson is “active in the Central Florida Tea Party Patriots.”
So Thompson watched with more than a passing interest when Trump’s aide traveled to Iowa before the real estate mogul had declared his candidacy. Cohen defended the trip, saying he was not in Iowa at Trump’s direction but as a representative of ShouldTrumpRun.com, a website established by Cohen and Stewart Rahr, a Trump supporter, to determine whether there is substantial public interest in Trump running for president. Cohen had taken a personal leave day to travel to Iowa, and the trip was being paid for by Rahr, even though Cohen had clearly flown there on a jet with the name “TRUMP” emblazoned on its side.
Thompson, in response, filed an FEC complaint in Florida, which was notarized and mailed on Friday. “Donald Trump is by his own admission testing the waters for election to the presidency,” the complaint states, “and he is…a de facto candidate for the Republican nomination. He has not filed or registered with the Commission any exploratory committee [commonly called a Testing the Waters committee] or principal campaign committee, or statement of candidacy on FEC Form 1—or any other filing whatsoever with the FEC. A testing the waters committee requires adherence to contribution and limits and prohibits corporate contributions.”
The complaint singles out Cohen’s trip to Iowa. “Cohen flew aboard Trump’s private 727 jet airplane to campaign for Trump in Iowa,” the complaint states. “The cost for the trip was approximately $125,000, and Cohen has stated in the press that this was paid for by…Rahr. A contribution in excess of $2,500 to any candidate for federal office or to a ‘testing the waters’ committee is a violation on the part of the donor and of the recipient. Because Trump is in fact a candidate, this expenditure by Rahr was a violation.”
The complaint doesn’t stop there. Addressing Cohen’s position as counsel to Trump, it states: “The provision of free legal services to a candidate or a candidate’s committee constitutes an in-kind contribution. Cohen is a lawyer and as such he has provided legal advice to Trump [and] as such is in violation...Because his salary is paid by The [Trump] Organization…the Organization is making an unreported (and thus illegal) contribution to Trump’s candidacy. It is simply not plausible that Cohen provides services after-hours and without use of his office and telephone at the Trump Organization.”
Finally, the complaint addresses the ShouldTrumpRun website. “On March 1, 2011, Trump appeared on the nationally-syndicated radio program ‘The Rush Limbaugh Show’ and stated ‘we have formed ShouldTrumpRun.com.’ By use of the word ‘we,’ Trump referred to himself and Cohen. By use of the word ‘formed’ he referred not to a website, but to an entity.” That entity “has not registered with the Commission as required [by law] and is thus in violation.”
If the FEC determines Trump is in violation of federal election law, he could be given a fine, one perhaps in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But more seriously, a complaint such as this sends a warning to Republican Party insiders who are already skeptical of Trump as a serious political figure.
Paul Alexander is the author of Machiavelli’s Shadow: The Rise and Fall of Karl Rove and Man of the People: The Life of John McCain, among others. A member of The Authors Guild and PEN American Center, Paul has been a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University.