The story of Melania Trump and her speechwriter — who “accidentally” plagiarized Michelle Obama, submitted an apologetic statement, and was then accused of being fake — has gone viral. But there’s another part of the story: Her role in the structure of the Trump campaign may be illegal.
If it is, it wouldn’t be the first time Donald Trump has played fast and loose with the complicated laws surrounding campaign finance and staffing practices. Perhaps the “art of the deal” includes some creative accounting.
We took a look at some of Trump’s most egregious campaign finance violations in honor of Meredith McIver, America’s new favorite speechwriter (who is in fact real).
1.) Crossing the Streams
Meredith McIver got thrust into the limelight for a reason beyond plagiarising: It’s possible that the Trump campaign is breaking the law by using her as a speechwriter. McIver’s “oops” statement was issued on Trump Organization letterhead and she identified herself as an employee of the Trump Organization, which is important, because Trump’s company should be ostensibly separate from the Trump campaign. Mr. Trump is not legally allowed to use his corporate resources, right down to the letterhead her apology was printed on, to fund campaign activities. Doing so can carry potential civil and criminal penalties.
If Mr. Trump used campaign funds to compensate McIver for her resources and time — that means paying for any devices she used while working on the speech, covering the cost of phone calls, and so forth in addition to paying her for her work — he’d avoid legal penalties. However, McIver doesn’t show up in his financial disclosures. If she worked on the speech prior to July, she and the campaign broke the law. If she didn’t start work until this month, that might explain why she decided to dip into other people’s work to pad out Melania’s speech.
The Keep America Great PAC feels so strongly on the subject that it just filed an FEC complaint: “The complaint alleges five violations including illegally accepting direct corporate contributions, accepting services from a volunteer that were actually compensated, use of the Trump corporate name or trademark to facilitate campaign contributions, illegal use of corporate facilities by a campaign volunteer, and knowingly allowing volunteers to exceed the transportation expense limit.”
2.) Brother, Can You Spare a Euro?
One thing is a big no-no when it comes to campaign finance and accepting donations: You can’t take money from foreign sources, not even your aunt Gladys in Glasgow, unless she’s a US national living abroad. That doesn’t seem to phase the Trump campaign, which has been brazenly sending out personal appeals for funds to elected officials all over the world, despite being repeatedly called up on the carpet for it, including by members of parliament openly mocking him on Twitter.
— Stuart McDonald MP (@Stuart_McDonald) June 27, 2016
The solicitations cast a wide net: Some of Trump’s targets included progressive MPs in places like Australia, who wouldn’t donate to Trump even if they did feel like making illegal campaign contributions. Campaign law is quite strict: It’s not just illegal to accept foreign donations, but also to solicit them, so the Trump campaign is breaking the law even if it never collects a dime of support.
3.) Keeping Your Money Close
It’s not technically illegal, but it is a little shady: Have you ever wondered why The Donald is always holding events at Trump Corporation properties? It’s not just because he loves his business empire so much, nor is it because they’re hosting him for free (which would be, as discussed above, illegal). It’s because he clearly likes to keep his money in the family, so he’s using his campaign funds to pay for the products and services of his corporation, to the tune of some six million dollars. While it’s not illegal for candidates to use the services of the companies they own, Trump is doing so at a really unprecedented level, and there’s something a little slimy about this “out of one pocket, into the other” approach.
It also raises the possibility of campaign finance violations that may slip through the cracks. If the campaign isn’t very closely auditing every single dollar spent and resource used, it could be violating the law — because yes, a single pen casually picked up from the concierge desk at Trump Tower is an illegal campaign contribution. An innocent mistake gets you civil charges, but if the Trump campaign is knowingly utilizing Trump Organization resources, it could get into criminal trouble.
4.) Go Back to Law School
In a scorchingly withering response to a cease and desist order originating from Trump HQ, counsel for Right to Rise, a conservative PAC, managed to simultaneously express their deep disdain for Trump while also calling the campaign out for potential legal violations. The PAC noticed that the counsel sending out cease and desist orders were actually employed by the Trump Organization — not the campaign — which would be yet another example of an illegal corporate donation. This issue has been systemic, with numerous targets of similar orders demonstrating that they also received communications on Trump Organization letterhead, from attorneys retained by Trump’s company.