The Trump inaugural committee's fundraising was a mess from the start, but a new investigation could finally provide some answers

President Donald Trump and First Lady Melania Trump dance at the Freedom Ball on January 20, 2017 in Washington, D.C.
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Key Points
  • Federal prosecutors are reportedly probing where the Trump inaugural committee's record-breaking $107 million fundraising haul actually came from, and where it all went.
  • According to the committee, the money came from a wide range of corporations, opaque LLCs and individuals, and $104 million of it went to pay for the venues, talent and administration.
  • But Trump's inaugural committee has raised red flags since the very beginning. Even before Trump was inaugurated, signs emerged of scattered mistakes and systemic failures in the way the fund's money was being raised and spent.

Federal prosecutors have reportedly opened a criminal investigation into President Donald Trump's inaugural committee's finances, but its funding was a mess from the start.

On Thursday, nearly two years to the day since the committee launched a website, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reported that the feds are probing where the record-breaking $107 million the committee raised actually came from, and where it all went. The probe is just the latest addition to the long list of legal woes hounding the president.

Yet even before Trump was inaugurated, there were already signs of scattered mistakes and systemic failures in the way the fund's money was being raised and spent.

New rules for a new president

The first sign that Trump's inaugural fundraising committee was moving into uncharted political waters was the announcement, in late 2016, that it would accept unlimited corporate and personal contributions.

This was unprecedented for a newly elected president. Barack Obama's first inaugural committee in 2009 had prohibited corporate money and limited individual gifts to $50,000. George W. Bush's 2001 inaugural committee capped all contributions at $100,000. But not Trump.

The newly elected real estate mogul's new rules quickly had their intended effect, opening up a floodgate of money, some of which was very difficult to trace, that flowed from businesses, LLCs, trusts and individuals straight into the nonprofit committee's coffers.

All told, the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee, as it was formally known, raised a staggering $107 million, more than double the $53 million record that Obama raised for his 2009 inauguration.

The committee then spent nearly all of this money, $104 million, on far fewer official events than Obama or Bush had held. In 2017, Trump held only three official inaugural balls. Eight years earlier, Obama had held 10 official balls for his inauguration, while in 2001 Bush held eight official balls for his inauguration.

Prosecutors are also reportedly probing whether some of the listed donors to the inaugural fund were actually just fronts, or "straw men," for money that was really coming from foreign governments. Foreign nationals and governments are prohibited from donating to presidential inaugural funds, the same way they are prohibited from donating to U.S. political campaigns. The news reports did not identify any of the potential straw men by name.

But the first official report that the Trump inaugural committee filed with the Federal Election Commission in April 2017 was riddled with errors. But not just the typical errors one sees in federal campaign filings, such as a few misspelled donor names or incomplete information about donors.

Instead, the Trump inaugural committee's records contained hundreds of errors and mistakes, ranging from the accidental to the systemic to apparently covered up. Many of these discrepancies were uncovered with the help of volunteer fact-checkers who submitted their findings to a Google spreadsheet that I created in April 2017.

I personally reviewed the submissions, and the database is still live and available here.

Trump's inaugural committee paid $26 million to Melania Trump's friend

Shoddy recordkeeping

Smaller errors included things such as reporting to the FEC that a donation of $400,000 from longtime GOP donor Isabel Tonelli instead came from someone named "Isabel T. John." John is the name of Tonelli's husband.

The initial record also listed an empty construction lot in New Jersey as the Tonellis' address. It was later shown to be the former address of a bank that wired the money to the committee in the Tonellis' name.

In another case, the staff went beyond an accidental mistake and deliberately filed false information for a donor they couldn't identify, filling in the record with the address of a celebrity by the same name.

Katherine Johnson was the name of a NASA mathematician who was featured in the biopic "Hidden Figures." So when committee staffers needed to fill in an address for a donor named Katherine Johnson who gave Trump $25,000, in order to comply with federal law, instead of finding the real address they wrote in the address of NASA headquarters.

When the Katherine Johnson from the movie, who was in her late 90s and had been retired from NASA for decades, was asked about her apparent "donation" to Trump's inauguration, her family said she had never made any such gift.

Only when the committee was confronted with their effort to fudge the record did a spokesperson admit that they made up the address, and that the Katherine Johnson who made the donation actually lived in California.

These were far from the only records that were misreported. Another reason scores of records were wrongly reported is that the Republican National Committee used a faulty system of ticketing, part of a broader effort to ensure that only Trump's actual supporters were permitted to buy tickets to the inaugural balls, and not protesters or spoilers.

The system handed out purchasing codes to Trump campaign donors and local GOP committees, which then distributed them. But the codes quickly made their way to Facebook, where they were swapped and purchased.

When a donor bought tickets to an inaugural ball, instead of registering their home address, as required by law, the Trump system registered the address associated with the code they used to buy the tickets.

As a result, hundreds of donations appeared to come from people who lived in House and Senate office buildings.

It was only after I reached out in April 2017 about the errors discovered by the volunteers that the committee admitted what had happened.

"We plan to amend our report to reflect any changes that we have become aware of, including many of those donor records or technical glitches that we have recently become aware of, as is common practice with FEC reporting," an inaugural committee spokesman, Alex Stroman, told me at the time.

President Donald Trump sings to the song 'My Way' while dancing with first lady Melania Trump during the inaugural Liberty Ball at the Washington Convention Center January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC.
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Scores of still unidentified donors

Despite the committee having filed an amended report to the FEC in the summer of 2017, to this day, there remain dozens of donors to the inaugural committee whose real identities are still shrouded in mystery.

Take, for example, Frank A. Rodriguez, supposedly a resident of Singapore who is listed as having given $25,000 to Trump's inaugural fund. The address listed for Rodriguez in Singapore, however, doesn't match up with any residences, or offer any ways to follow up.

There's a similar conundrum with a Peter P. Drake in Houston, for whom there are no public records, but who apparently gave $37,500. And a David Durrant, who is listed as having donated $100,000 and living in Anaheim, California, but whose address doesn't exist on any maps.

Despite filing amended reports, the Trump inaugural committee has never shed any light on the identities of donors like these, despite requests over months from news agencies.

"The names of donors were provided to the FEC and have been public for nearly two years and those donors were vetted in accordance with the law and no improprieties have been found regarding the vetting of those donors," a committee spokesperson said in response to The Wall Street Journal this week.

But without any way of knowing who people really are, and with addresses that don't exist and records that don't add up, it's impossible for the public to fully understand who these donors were, or what their motives might have been for supporting Trump's inaugural fund.

This may be about to change, however, as prosecutors armed with subpoena power dig into the questions surrounding who's who.

President-elect Donald Trump speaks to diplomats and guests at the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) Chairman's Global Dinner in Washington, U.S. January 17, 2017.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

No real accounting for where the money went

A third big issue that has also reportedly drawn the attention of prosecutors is how the committee spent the money it raised.

According to the committee, its finances "were fully audited internally and independently and are fully accounted. Moreover, the inauguration's accounting was provided both to the Federal Election Commission and the IRS in compliance with all laws and regulations."

But the 990 Form that the nonprofit committee submitted to the IRS in October of last year sheds little light on where the money actually went.

According to the filing, $76 million was spent on "conferences, conventions and meetings." But there's no accounting for who actually got that money.

To be clear, nonprofits are not required to disclose each of their vendors, only the top five. In this case, the top five contractors hired by the committee collected a total of $62 million out of the $104 million the committee reported having spent on the inauguration.

Prosecutors are now looking at where some of that money went, according to reports.

On Friday, ProPublica reported that some of it went to Trump's businesses for venue rentals, in transactions that were brokered in part by the president's daughter, Ivanka Trump. According to ProPublica, even before the inauguration, there were already concerns being raised internally about whether the Trump Organization was overcharging the inaugural committee for event space.

According to a spokesman for Ivanka Trump's lawyers, she "passed the inquiry on to a hotel official and said only that any resulting discussions should be at a 'fair market rate.'"

But the issue of whether or not the committee was overcharged by its vendors could be part of another central question: How Trump's inaugural committee managed to spend more than double the amount of money that previous presidents spent to put on so many fewer official events than previous presidents held.

Not only did Trump hold three official balls, as opposed to Obama's 10, he also shortened the presidential inaugural parade to just 90 minutes, down from more than two hours for his predecessor.

Trump also had fewer musical acts to pay for. After struggling to book talent to play his inauguration after a bitter and divisive election campaign, Trump's final talent lineup included former teen singer Jackie Evancho, the Radio City Rockettes and the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

As for Trump's now infamous comparison of the crowd sizes for his actual swearing-in outside the Capitol, most of those expenses, regardless of crowd size, are covered by the Joint Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies, which is overseen by Congress and funded by taxpayers.

At the time of Trump's inauguration, some organizers said the haphazard nature of the planning meant the committee was unable to competitively bid out the contracts for venues and catering, leaving them subject to whatever vendors wanted to charge.

Nonetheless, it's difficult to see how last minute surcharges could explain how twice as much money was spent on what appears to have been about half as many events. To date, the committee has not offered any accounting for the additional $42 million it spent on vendors who were not among its top five.