The Campaign Legal Center and Common Cause filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission alleging Donald Trump’s campaign committee violated federal election law by illegally accepting campaign contributions after Election Day and falsely reporting those contributions for “debt retirement,” even though no debt existed. These false reports could have the effect of illegally increasing the amount Trump could accept from contributors for his 2020 reelection campaign.
Trump began to fundraise just days after his Nov. 8 victory. Federal law provides that a candidate may only raise funds after Election Day to retire outstanding debts from the election, or for a future election. But the Trump campaign ended the 2016 election with no outstanding net debt—therefore, all contributions made after Election Day should have either been refunded to contributors or designated for the 2020 primary election.
Yet instead, Trump reported the entirety of the funds raised to 2016 debt retirement—even though no such debt existed.
“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,” said Larry Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center. “An individual who gave the maximum contribution and had it attributed to 2016 debt retirement might think they can give an additional contribution and have it attributed to the 2020 primary, even though the entirety of both contributions would be used for 2020.”
Additionally, the complaint alleges, Trump violated the law by failing to timely register as a 2020 candidate. A person becomes a “candidate” when they raise more than $5,000 for an election – a threshold Trump crossed soon after he began fundraising in early November – and after becoming a candidate must register a campaign committee within 15 days. Trump waited more than two months and didn’t register until Inauguration Day, Jan. 20.
“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,” said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. “Campaign finance laws still apply even after you win the presidency and these transgressions, like the President’s refusal to release his taxes or separate himself from his business interests, hammer home the point that Trump’s campaign promise to drain the swamp in Washington was nothing more than lip service.”