President Donald Trump won’t be able to count on his most loyal donors, just when he needs them the most.
Hundreds of supporters who have consistently emptied their pockets for the Trump campaign have already reached the maximum legally allowable donation as of the end of July, and hundreds more are dangerously close to the limit, according to Federal Election Commission records.
In a letter to Trump’s campaign last month, the FEC flagged more than 35,000 donations totaling $4.56 million from 1,045 donors—including one of Trump’s own ambassadors, a Chinese philanthropist and, apparently, a used car dealership in Memphis.
The timing could not be worse for Trump, who revealed in an August filing that his campaign barely took in more money than it spent and is badly trailing the campaign of former Vice President Joe Biden in fundraising and money in the bank with less than two months left before the election. Though the campaign has raised some $1.1 billion, it has already spent more than $800 million, blowing through cash on fundraising operations, highly paid staff and facilities, and even magnetic phone pouches to keep donors from recording and leaking private meetings, according to a recent New York Times report.
Brett Kappel, a campaign finance expert and lawyer at the D.C. firm Harmon Curran, said the letter, including 855 pages of donations deemed excessive by the FEC, is unprecedented in scale at this point in a campaign and is likely a result of Trump’s unprecedented decision to start his re-election campaign the same day he was sworn into office.
“One of the problems with starting your re-election campaign on Inauguration Day is that your most loyal small donors—the ones who have signed up to give $50 or $100 every week—will hit the $5,600 limit long before the next election,” Kappel said. “This is not a problem for Biden. Only a tiny fraction of his supporters have maxed out and he can keep going back to them again and again until the election.”
Biden’s campaign, by contrast, was asked to give back a fraction of the amount of donations the Trump campaign might have to refund. The FEC letter identified 237 Trump donors who had maxed out with $5,600 or more in donations this election cycle, according to a Daily Beast analysis of the data. A similar letter sent to the Biden campaign last week identified 31 donors who had reached the threshold.
“Just like everything else in his life—whether it’s the growing economy he inherited from the Obama-Biden Administration or his own inheritance—Donald Trump squandered the massive head start his campaign had in fundraising out of weakness,” said Biden spokesman Andrew Bates. “Meanwhile, our grassroots juggernaut is breaking record after record.”
One of the donors who gave too much to Trump is Pete Hoekstra, Trump’s ambassador to the Netherlands and a former nine-term congressman from Michigan. He donated $2,800 for the primary election twice in June, and then again in July.
Donors can only give $5,600 per election cycle to a single candidate: $2,800 per primary; and $2,800 per general election. After that, any money given to a campaign should be returned. The campaign already gave back $2,800 to Hoekstra in July.
Hoekstra said in an email that his donation binge was just a slip of the finger.
“When I made the donation on the Internet I must have clicked the donate button twice and over donated,” he said in an email. “A short time later my wife was checking our credit card balances and noticed the double donation. [I] contacted the campaign and they reversed one of the charges.”
Hoekstra’s itchy donation finger seems to be an aberration, though. Many of the donations that will have to be returned came in $25 to $100 increments given over and over again by the same people, in many cases retirees—a point the Trump campaign was quick to highlight.
“Contributors are going all in for a President who keeps his promises to make our country great, and after four years of delivering for the American people, President Trump’s supporters remain as enthusiastic as ever for his presidency,” said a Trump campaign spokeswoman.
For instance, Pauline Vennum, an Orlando retiree, has donated 330 individual times since January 2018, usually around $30 at a time. According to the FEC letter, she had given $6,700.36 as of the end of June, well over the legal limit.
“Well, I didn’t know the limit,” she said, when contacted by phone. “I donated with my phone. I didn’t keep track of it.”
Daphne Dyer, a retiree in Beaumont, Texas, has given to the Trump campaign almost 150 times since November 2017, mostly in donations of $75 or less, according to FEC records. She reached her limit earlier this year, but has continued to try to donate, giving a total of $6,736 as of the end of June. Retired Miami doctor Alan Altman first gave $75 to Trump’s campaign in November 2017. But he stepped over the legal limit earlier this summer, so he won’t be able to give any more. Dyer and Altman could not be reached for comment.
Others have gone way over the line. Wealthy Virginia investor David Gladstone, a big-dollar GOP donor, has given more than $14,000, almost three times the legal limit. Chinese philanthropist Daofeng He, who runs a multi-million dollar charitable foundation in the D.C. area, gave $12,350. Neither Gladstone nor He returned requests for comment submitted to their organizations.
Jeffery Batson, a retiree from Havelock, N.C., has given a whopping $12,402 in 24 separate donations between March and June. But he said in a phone interview that it wasn’t him at all. He said he’ll probably vote for Trump, but he’d never donate. His card number was stolen.
“That was someone hacking my damn bank account and doing that shit,” he said. “Someone took my card and made that purchase and I’ve been fighting with the bank to get my money back.”
“I don’t make donations to those crooks,” he added. “Tell them to give me my money back if you talk to them.”
Steve Kieffer, a retiree in Boca Raton, FL gave $5,600 donations four separate times, all earmarked for the primary campaign, plus another $750, for a total of more than $23,000. The Trump campaign returned two of his donations in July. Kieffer could not be reached for comment.
In a sense, pushing your donors to their limit does show a successful fundraising campaign, said Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, an election law professor at Stetson University—but there’s only so many times you can ask for a similar amount before you reach the hard money limit.
“Obviously if you get the maximum out of any of the donors, then that is a successful fundraising effort by the campaign,” she said. “But you do risk hitting a ceiling with big donors.”
It’s not unusual for donors to give more than they’re allowed and for the FEC to flag it. After all, like Pauline Vennum, many donors don’t even know the FEC limits, nor do they keep track of how much they’ve given in an election cycle. Campaigns of all sizes get these kinds of FEC letters. For instance, Sen. Cory Gardner’s campaign for the Senate in Colorado was recently asked to give back money to NFL Hall of Famer John Elway.
Hundreds of the Trump donations the FEC flagged could be chalked up to simple bookkeeping errors. For instance, if someone donates more than $2,800 for a primary, a campaign can redesignate the rest for the general election, as long as the total donations to the general election stay under $2,800, too. So the campaign could keep a lot of the money if they redesignate the donations within 60 days and notify the donors.
That’s not a surprise, given the Trump campaign’s admittedly sloppy bookkeeping, which has been blamed on former campaign chief Brad Parscale. That’s evident in the FEC letter, too.
For instance, one excessive donation apparently came care of a Memphis used car dealership called Smith Imports, but was categorized as an individual donation from someone named Smith Imports. Similarly, two $5,000 donations from Sen. Roy Blunt’s PAC, Rely on Your Beliefs Fund, or ROYB Fund, appear to have been miscategorized as individual donations from a nonexistent Missouri man named Roy B. Fund.
Given all this, Kappel, the campaign finance expert, predicted that there may be an audit of the Trump campaign’s finances when all is said and done. After a 2012 audit of President Barack Obama’s first campaign, the FEC fined his campaign committee, Obama for America, a record $375,000 for failing to return more than $1 million in excessive donations in a timely manner.