To sift through the disbursements of presidential campaigns, disclosed to the Federal Election Commission, is to be inundated by pages upon pages of mundane revelations regarding the behavior of the semi-human.
Ted Cruz’s campaign spent $110 at 1-800 Flowers on March 19. John Kasich’s frequents an office cleaning service in Ohio. Hillary Clinton’s camp is a recurrent customer at Alley Cat Pizzeria in Manchester. Ben Carson’s staff eats at Wendy’s.
In some ways, Donald Trump’s campaign is just like any other. His staff racks up bills from Staples and Burger Heaven, McDonald’s, Famous Original Ray’s Pizza, and Taco Bell. But the tinsel-haired reality TV star has an obvious advantage over his rivals: The name that seems to come up most often on the list of businesses the Trump campaign pays is…Trump.
Between June 16, when he announced his candidacy from the lobby of Trump Tower, through the end of 2015, the Trump campaign spent $2.2 million patronizing Trump businesses.
The majority—$2 million—was spent on Tag Air Inc., where Trump is CEO.
Trump owns a commercial-sized plane, a Boeing 757-200, which is equipped to safely transport 43 passengers in seat belts plated with 24-carat gold—although they might prefer to sit in the dining room, one of two bedrooms, or in the shower, (or they might prefer to travel in his smaller jet or one of his two helicopters).
His aircraft ferry him around the country, from New York to Des Moines to Manchester to Biloxi, at a steep cost.
The bill paid by the campaign on June 16 alone—the day of his formal announcement—was $506,846.
The Trump campaign also made 34 visits to Trump Cafe and Trump Grill, restaurants in Trump Tower where you can eat Ivanka’s Salad (diced tomatoes, cucumbers, red onions, mediterranean cured olives, feta cheese and romaine lettuce with greek dressing…$18) the Gold Label Burger (our premium blend of Angus short rib, sirloin and Kobe brisket…$19) and Mr Trump’s Mother’s Meatloaf (a family recipe, served with mushroom gravy…$13.50).
And paid $90,000 in in-kind rent to Donald J. Trump, Trump CPS LLC, and Trump Plaza LLC.
Rent and utilities were also doled out—to the tune of nearly $74,000—to Trump Restaurants LLC and Trump Tower Commercial LLC.
Trump even has his own companies to manage payroll, Trump Payroll Corp. and Trump Tower Commercial LLC, where tens of thousands of dollars are regularly funneled before landing in the pockets of his well-compensated staff.
A look through the disbursements of the rest of the Republican field—Cruz, Marco Rubio, Kasich, and Carson—shows that Trump is the only candidate who pays businesses with his name in the title.
And although Trump’s staffers do seem to fly commercial from time to time, he is also the only candidate who uses campaign funds to pay for his own fleet of private aircrafts, or in fact the only candidate with his own fleet of private aircrafts at all.
Whether or not this is legal is a tricky question.
By law, candidates cannot profit from their own campaigns. If Carson’s campaign wants to buy 5,000 copies of his book, Gifted Hands, to give out at rallies, Carson cannot legally receive royalty payments from their sale. However, FEC experts I spoke with suggested that the case of Trump is an unprecedented one. Never before has a candidate funneled so much of his money into his own campaign and then relied on his own businesses to run that campaign.
According to The Sunlight Foundation, after the period ending Feb. 20, Trump will have spent $17.5 million of his own funds on his campaign—68 percent of the total amount he’s raised since June. $7.7 million has come from donations to his website, which features a prominent “DONATE” button in its upper right-hand corner.
But to the FEC, campaign money is just campaign money. The FEC doesn’t differentiate between money put into a campaign by the public or by the candidate.
“This is sort of a strange gray area of the law that I don’t think the FEC has ever addressed,” Paul Ryan, of the Campaign Legal Center, told me.
Were Trump to profit from, say, the sale of 15 Ivanka’s Salads, Ryan said it would be a “technical violation” of FEC law, “but it doesn’t make sense for it to be a violation.”
Why should it matter, in other words, if it was his own money to begin with, if it is being recirculated back into his pocket throughout the course of the campaign?
The 2002 McCain-Feingold Act stipulates that, although candidates can spend as much money as they want on their campaigns, there’s a limited amount of time in the aftermath of a campaign during which the candidate can pay themselves back. It’s why Carly Fiorina emptied her account back into her own pocket the day before Election Day in 2010. But there’s no law that specifically addresses what to do if a candidate finds a way to make a profit, or at least neutralize their loss, during a campaign.
“It’s kind of a nice deal for Trump,” another experienced campaign finance attorney said. “It’s very common for candidates to loan money to their campaign. It’s even not unusual for a candidate to have the campaign purchase goods or services, usually rent, from an entity that’s owned by the campaign. But the scale here is completely different.”
Millions of dollars are funneling into his campaign, both from himself and from his followers, “and a lot of it is going back into his pocket indirectly,” the attorney said.
“It’s basically recycling.”