Donald Trump’s presidential campaign accepted illegal contributions in the weeks after election day and falsely recorded them as paying down the campaign’s debt, according to a complaint filed by two watchdog groups on Thursday.
The Campaign Legal Center and left-leaning non-profit Common Cause allege that the campaign violated federal election laws designed to prevent campaigns from circumventing contribution limits. The groups are accusing Team Trump of attributing donations for his 2020 campaign—yes, he’s already a declared candidate—to his previous, 2016 run, freeing up donors to give more down the line.
The campaign began fundraising almost immediately after Trump’s Nov. 8 victory, archived versions of its website show. It raised about $10.5 million from Nov. 9 through the end of the year, according to FEC filings.
By earmarking those donations for debt reduction, the campaign classified them as 2016 receipts, meaning those contributions will not count towards the donors’ 2020 contribution limits.
“By falsely reporting post-election contributions as being for 2016 debt retirement, Trump may be trying to illegally double what a contributor can give for the 2020 primaries,” Campaign Legal Center general counsel Larry Noble said in a statement on the complaint.
The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment on the allegations.
Dozens of the donors in question gave the legal maximum of $2,700. If the donations were in fact used to pay down campaign debt, the same donors would be free to max out once again after Trump’s reelection campaign officially began.
But CLC and Common Cause say the campaign’s reported debt figures show that large portions of those funds must have simply been deposited in the campaign’s bank account for future use. They cite debt figures showing that the campaign brought in far more than it owed during the period in question.
The campaign reported about $760,000 in debt in its post-general election FEC filing, but it had more than enough cash on hand to cover those obligations. By its next FEC filing period, it had no outstanding debt, but continued to raise money.
The campaign told the FEC that all of the money raised after the election—both from individuals and a Republican National Committee joint fundraising account—was earmarked for debt reduction.
According to Common Cause and the CLC, the numbers just don’t add up, and claims that all of those funds went towards paying down campaign debt simply cannot be true.
They “have reason to believe” that the campaign “violated [the Federal Election Campaign Act] and its implementing regulations by knowingly and willfully filing reports with the Commission that falsely attributed contributions for the 2020 primary election to the Committee’s debt retirement for the 2016 election,” the complaint alleges.
Trump declared his reelection candidacy hours after being inaugurated on Jan. 20. But the complaint alleges that under federal law he qualified as a candidate far earlier, and may have violated run afoul of yet another law in the process.
Federal deems anyone who has raised $5,000 for an election a “candidate,” and requires that they establish an accompanying campaign committee within 15 days.
If the funds raised by the campaign after the election did not go towards debt reduction, they were technically funds raised on behalf of the reelection campaign, which did not officially register with the FEC until inauguration day.
“In the rush to cash in on an unexpected election victory, the Trump campaign began raising and misreporting millions of dollars in campaign contributions more than two months before Trump was even sworn into office,” Common Cause vice president Paul Ryan said in a statement on the complaint.