One week ago, Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York combined to name “Individual 1” 30 times over the course of 37 pages that detailed Michael Cohen’s crimes. Given that they said “Individual 1” became president in 2017, I think it’s safe to assume that name is a stand-in for Donald Trump. At this point, it’s so clear that Trump is likely to be charged with a felony, that two separate Fox News legal commentators have even said that he surely committed a crime.
Yesterday, new reporting came to light implicating Trump in yet another campaign finance-related crime. Per the Wall Street Journal:
Federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating whether President Trump’s 2017 inaugural committee misspent some of the record $107 million it raised from donations, people familiar with the matter said.
The criminal probe by the Manhattan U.S. attorney’s office, which is in its early stages, also is examining whether some of the committee’s top donors gave money in exchange for access to the incoming Trump administration, policy concessions or to influence official administration positions, some of the people said.
In April raids of Mr. Cohen’s home, office and hotel room, Federal Bureau of Investigation agents obtained a recorded conversation between Mr. Cohen and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to Melania Trump, who worked on the inaugural events. In the recording, Ms. Wolkoff expressed concern about how the inaugural committee was spending money, according to a person familiar with the Cohen investigation.
Given that the Manhattan investigation is in its early stages, it’s difficult to say for certain how serious this is, but when combined with other reporting, it sure looks we are entering stage two of the Mueller investigation. Per The Daily Beast:
Over the past year, the indictments, convictions, and guilty pleas have largely been connected, in one way or another, to Russia. But now, special counsel Robert Mueller’s office is preparing to reveal to the public a different side of his investigation. In court filings that are set to drop in early 2019, prosecutors will begin to unveil Middle Eastern countries’ attempts to influence American politics, three sources familiar with this side of the probe told The Daily Beast.
Still, the Special Counsel’s Office has taken a keen interest this year in practices that were once considered business-as-usual in Washington. Republican operative Sam Patten pleaded guilty to the rarer-than-rare charge of “causing foreign money to be paid to the 2016-17 Presidential Inaugural Committee.” Former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and Flynn were both charged with not disclosing parts of their businesses under the Foreign Agents Registration Act—the first indictments of this nature in more than half a century.
The New York Times also published a report last night about increased scrutiny over Trump’s inaugural committee. Per the Times:
Federal prosecutors are examining whether foreigners illegally funneled donations to President Trump’s inaugural committee and a pro-Trump super PAC in hopes of buying influence over American policy, according to people familiar with the inquiry.
The inquiry focuses on whether people from Middle Eastern nations — including Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — used straw donors to disguise their donations to the two funds. Federal law prohibits foreign contributions to federal campaigns, political action committees and inaugural funds.
In fact, though, the fund has already run into trouble related for both donations and expenditures. Mr. Gates, who is awaiting sentencing for crimes related to a financial fraud scheme he executed with Mr. Manafort, has testified that he may have submitted personal expenses for reimbursement from the fund. A later review of the inaugural expenses found no issue with his reimbursements, a person close to Mr. Gates said.
Given that we can now say that Trump committed campaign finance felonies, it seems far more likely than not that there is a fire sitting at the base of this plume of smoke reported by the NYT, WSJ and The Daily Beast. His presidency is nothing more than one big grift, and there is another data point that investigators are surely looking into.
Trump has raised an unprecedented $100 million for his 2020 reelection campaign. To put that staggering figure in context, Obama had only raised $4 million and George W. Bush had raised $3.2 million by the midway point of their first terms. We don’t know the exact specifics of where those donations came from, but given how disproportionate they are compared to Trump’s predecessors, Mueller’s team would be abdicating their responsibility if they didn’t at least probe whether the past campaign finance criminality they uncovered is connected to Trump’s 2020 campaign. Buckle up, folks. The Mueller investigation is far from over, and it’s far more expansive than we initially thought.
UPDATE: I swear, every time I write a Trump corruption story lately, I update it with more bad news for the president a few hours later. Per Pro Publica:
When it came out this year that President Donald Trump’s inaugural committee raised and spent unprecedented amounts, people wondered where all that money went.
It turns out one beneficiary was Trump himself.
The inauguration paid the Trump Organization for rooms, meals and event space at the company’s Washington hotel, according to interviews as well as internal emails and receipts reviewed by WNYC and ProPublica.
During the planning, Ivanka Trump, the president-elect’s eldest daughter and a senior executive with the Trump Organization, was involved in negotiating the price the hotel charged the 58th Presidential Inaugural Committee for venue rentals. A top inaugural planner emailed Ivanka and others at the company to “express my concern” that the hotel was overcharging for its event spaces, worrying of what would happen “when this is audited.”
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.