Trump's lawyer in Mueller probe, John Dowd, cited for Trump campaign contribution above the legal max

Key Points
  • President Donald Trump's lawyer, John Dowd, contributed more money last year to the president's re-election campaign than is legally permissible.
  • A March letter from the Federal Election Commission to the Trump campaign listed Dowd as one of 108 donors who gave more than the the individual maximum in the third quarter of 2017.
  • The Trump campaign said it issued Dowd a refund earlier this year.
John Dowd
JB Reed | Bloomberg | Getty Images

President Donald Trump's personal lawyer in the Russia probe, John Dowd, contributed more money last year to the president's re-election campaign than is legally permissible, according to a recent letter from the Federal Election Commission to the Trump campaign.

Dowd is Trump's lead counsel, charged with crafting the president's response to the special counsel's investigation into alleged Russian meddling in the 2016 election. A veteran white-collar defense attorney and a politically active Republican, Dowd's understanding of how Washington works has made him a key member of the president's legal team.

But a March 8 letter from the FEC to Bradley Crate, the Trump campaign treasurer, put the campaign on notice that there were 108 donors who had made "excessive, prohibited and impermissible" contributions to the Trump campaign in the last quarter of 2017. Dowd's name appeared on this list, below. The X is for donations that require additional details.

Under federal law, the maximum amount an individual may contribute to a political campaign, per election, is $2,700. But Dowd has given a total of $3,000 to Trump's 2020 general election campaign, according to the tally the FEC sent the Trump campaign.

Crate told CNBC that the campaign sent Dowd a refund check for $300 on January 3, a few days too late to be reflected in their fourth quarter filing to the FEC. He said it will appear on its next quarterly report to the FEC, to be released in April. Dowd said he had received the check.

It's not uncommon for individual donors to accidentally contribute more to a candidate than the legal maximum of $2,700. But Dowd's case is unusual, both because of the donor and because of the date, said Brendan Fischer, senior counsel at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

"These kinds of errors are understandable when made in the midst of a hectic election season by a rookie campaign. But they become more difficult to understand when made by a second-term presidential candidate 32 months out from his next election," Fischer told CNBC. "And it is even more difficult to understand how the president's lawyer managed to exceed contribution limits."

"This is pretty embarrassing for the Trump campaign and for Dowd," said a prominent D.C. election attorney who spoke to CNBC on the condition of anonymity.

As for who bears responsibility for the fact that Dowd's Oct. 1 contribution was above the legal limit, and yet was accepted by the Trump campaign, experts said both the donor and the campaign share culpability.

Above: Brad Parscale, the newly named campaign manager for Trump's reelection effort.

"The law prohibits contributors from making excessive contributions to candidates, but it also prohibits candidates from accepting the excessive contribution. So both contributors and candidates bear responsibility – for making & accepting contributions, respectively," sad Steve Spaulding, a former FEC special counsel now at the nonprofit watchdog group Common Cause.

The FEC has given the Trump campaign until April 12 to respond to the rest of the letter, which includes a 46-page list of 108 individual donors, including Dowd, who made excessive contributions in the third quarter of 2017. Campaigns have 60 days after the date of a prohibited contribution to either refund it, attribute it to another person (such as the donor's spouse), or redesignate it to another election.

"Not accepting contributions that exceed federal limits is one of the most basic responsibilities for a campaign committee, although we can expect that campaigns bringing in a high volume of contributions will make some errors," Campaign Legal Center's Fischer said.

Individual donor limits, however, are not Fischer's chief concern when it comes to the burgeoning Trump 2020 campaign operation, he said.

"The Trump campaign's reckless record keeping is less problematic to me than its close association with the dark money group America First Policies," Fischer said, referring to a nonprofit group closely aligned with the Trump White House, which CNBC reported on earlier this month.

"The FEC will catch when a donor gives more than $2,700 to the Trump campaign," he said. "But nobody can know when a shady billionaire gives millions of dollars to Trump's dark money group and asks for something in return."