The Federal Election Commission let Trump off the hook for allegedly using $2.8 million in charitable donations to veterans for political purposes

The Federal Election Commission let Trump off the hook for allegedly using $2.8 million in charitable donations to veterans for political purposes
Former President Donald Trump at the veterans event that triggered the initial complaint in Des Moines, Iowa on January 28, 2016.Christopher Furlong/Getty Images
  • The FEC won't investigate Trump for possible campaign finance violations related to a veterans fundraiser.
  • Trump steered the money to his foundation and gave out $100,000 checks to bolster his image.

The Federal Election Commission let former President Donald Trump off the hook even after the body's legal counsel said he violated federal campaign finance laws with a fundraiser for Iowa veterans in 2016, according to documents made public this week.

At stake was whether Trump violated laws prohibiting "soft money" spending — using unregulated, non-campaign funds for political purposes — in connection with his 2016 presidential campaign. Specifically, Trump funneled roughly half of the $5.8 million he raised at the Des Moines veterans event on January 28, 2016 to his now-defunct Donald J. Trump Foundation. The Trump campaign then steered how the foundation, a separate entity, spent $2.8 million in charitable funds just ahead of the Iowa Republican caucuses.

Last month, the FEC voted along partisan lines to close the case. The Campaign Legal Center, an ethics and government watchdog, slammed the commission in a statement to Insider.

"The FEC failing to enforce campaign finance laws is nothing new, but the latest deadlock may be a new low," said Erin Chlopak, senior director for campaign finance at Campaign Legal Center. "The Commission's non-partisan, career attorneys found reason to believe the Foundation was illegally used to benefit Trump's presidential campaign. The Republican Commissioners voted not to pursue the matter. It is time for the FEC to do its job."

Democratic Commissioners Shana Broussard and Ellen Weintraub accused their Republican colleagues of "eroding the public's trust in the integrity of the federal campaign finance process" by blocking the enforcement of federal law.


"This is one in a long series of matters that we've had where our nonpartisan professional staff have recommended moving forward in some way against a complaint involving the former president," Weintraub told Insider in a interview on Thursday. "And every single time, the Republican commissioners come up with an excuse to not move forward."

Weintraub suggested that Trump could've faced a "pretty hefty fine" had the commission moved forward, given that he was accused of a multi-million dollar violation of campaign finance laws.

"I think it would have been a strong message for us to send, to discourage that sort of activity by others," she said. "But sadly, we were not able to do that, we did not have the political will to move forward on this. I mean, some of us did."

Republican Commissioners Sean Cooksey, Allen Dickerson, and Trey Trainor have not yet issued any statements on the matter, and none responded to Insider's requests for comment.

'A respondent named Trump'

The Federal Election Commission let Trump off the hook for allegedly using $2.8 million in charitable donations to veterans for political purposes
Trump presents an enlarged copy of a $100,000 check to the owners of Puppy Jake, a charity that trains dogs for veterans, at a Davenport, Iowa event on January 30, 2016.AP Photo/Paul Sancya

In June 2018, New York's then-Attorney General Barbara Underwood referred evidence of Trump's possible violations to the FEC, writing in a letter that her office had "acquired substantial credible evidence" that Trump broke the law.


In a complaint to the FEC the following month, the Campaign Legal Center accused the Trump campaign of violating campaign finance law for soliciting and then using his foundation's share of the veteran donations for political purposes based on the evidence uncovered by the NY AG's investigation.

Emails and other documents uncovered by the New York Attorney General's investigation revealed that Trump's then-campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, gave Allen Weisselberg, then the Trump foundation's treasurer, a list of Iowa veterans organizations that the Trump campaign intended to target in order to drum up political support in the state ahead of the February 1, 2016 caucuses.

Weisselberg is also the chief financial officer of the Trump Organization and is currently ensnared in separate investigations by the New York Attorney General and the Manhattan District Attorney.

Trump went on to hand out 6-figure donations at several events in the days before the caucuses, giving enlarged $100,000 checks apiece to Partners for Patriots, Support Siouxland Soldiers, Mulberry Street Veterans Shelter, and Puppy Jake — all of which were charities based in Iowa. He ultimately lost the caucus to Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas.

The Federal Election Commission let Trump off the hook for allegedly using $2.8 million in charitable donations to veterans for political purposes
Emails show Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski directing Trump Foundation treasurer Allen Weisselberg to spend foundation funds at the campaign's behest.Exhibits/New York Attorney General's Office

In response to Campaign Legal's complaint, the Trump campaign said that the veterans contributions were only temporarily in the foundation's coffers, though documents uncovered by the New York Attorney General's investigation show contributions stretching all the way to May 2016. The campaign also argued that it was simply carrying out its legal obligations to donors by directing the charity's spending and accused the watchdog group of trying to "vilify fundraising for charity."


"Essentially everything a federal candidate does may have some effect on that candidate's public image, and philanthropic activity is certainly no different," wrote Trump campaign lawyer E. Stewart Crosland in a letter to the commission in September 2019. "Whether those efforts result in some goodwill with the public is simply not a campaign-finance (or FEC) concern."

Just three months later — under pressure from a lawsuit brought by the New York Attorney General's Office taking aim at both the veterans-related political contributions as well as other instances of possible fraud — Trump dissolved the foundation, later admitting to the facts of the case as part of the settlement.

In May 2019, the FEC's legal counsel then recommended that the commission vote to investigate Trump for violating federal campaign finance laws. They reaffirmed that position in March 2020 after the campaign agreed to the facts of the case as part of a separate settlement with the State of New York.

But there was one major problem: the Federal Election Commission had lost its quorum at the end of August 2019 when the body's membership of six commissioners atrophied to just three, barring the commission from making any decisions on pending cases. The FEC remained mostly without a quorum until December 2020, when the Senate confirmed three new appointees.

When the commission finally voted on the matter in January 2021, it deadlocked along partisan lines over whether to pursue the case. Every Republican commissioner voted to dismiss the allegations entirely, while the two Democrats and one left-leaning independent voted to open an investigation.


It was at their first executive session following the restoration of the quorum that the Republican commissioners voted not to investigate the claims against Trump.

The Federal Election Commission let Trump off the hook for allegedly using $2.8 million in charitable donations to veterans for political purposes
Trump holds up a sheet of paper with a list of donations to veterans groups at a press conference at Trump Tower on May 31, 2016.Spencer Platt/Getty Images

According to Broussard and Weintraub, the Republican commissioners cited the fact that the statue of limitations was set to expire within six months in voting not to pursue the case. In the absence of a quorum, the FEC developed a backlog of cases, some of which were no longer enforceable. But Weintraub told Insider that she doesn't buy the Republicans' argument.

"We did have a lot of cases where we had to make a choice about whether to move forward or not, given the time that had run on statute of limitations," she said. "But we did move forward on a number of them, just not on any involving a respondent named Trump."

Indeed, the commission's legal counsel found reason to believe in 2019 that several GOP figures, including Trump, violated the "foreign national" ban by employing the now-defunct British firm Cambridge Analytica, but the statute of limitations expired and Republicans blocked further action.

Both in her interview with Insider and in her statement of reasons, Weintraub said the New York Attorney General's prior investigation had already done much of the fact-finding work for the commission, raising further questions about why six months was not enough time to enforce the law.


"We didn't have to do very much because the Attorney General handed it to us, all these incriminating facts," she said.