Politics

Trump perfects the art of the campaign expense

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump flashes thumbs up after an address to a group of supporters at a campaign stop at the Flynn Center of the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016.
Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump flashes thumbs up after an address to a group of supporters at a campaign stop at the Flynn Center of the Performing Arts in Burlington, Vt., Thursday, Jan. 7, 2016. AP

Donald Trump knows how to make money, even when he’s running for president.

Federal records show that Trump’s campaign paid the Republican frontrunner and 10 companies he owns more than $1.64 million for various campaign expenses since the billionaire businessman began his run last spring.

The payouts amounted to nearly one of every three dollars the Trump campaign spent through Sept. 30, according to campaign reports, including an amended quarterly report filed Dec. 17 with the Federal Elections Commission.

Most of that money, $1.2 million, was paid to Tag Air, the holding company for the luxury Boeing 757 with 24-karat gold plated seat belts that Trump uses on the campaign trail. The jet can accommodate up to 43 passengers. The payout was the fair market value of those flights, according to the campaign.

Another $410,000 went to Trump and Trump entities to reimburse payroll expenses and pay rent, hotel and restaurant bills.

Trump himself was paid more than $100,000, including $45,000 for rent and $60,000 in reimbursements for campaign payroll expenses he incurred, the records show.

The Trump campaign pie also was sliced to pay rent to The Trump Corporation, Trump Tower Commercial LLC, Trump Plaza LLC, and Trump CPS LLC. Together, they collected more than $278,000.

Trump Payroll Corp., too, was paid nearly $18,000 for prepaid payroll expenses. Campaign checks also went to Trump Restaurants LLC and Trump hotels in New York and Las Vegas for meals and lodging, though in much lesser amounts.

While noteworthy, it’s not unlawful for Trump’s campaign to pay Trump or his companies for their services. Indeed, federal law often requires it.

“It’s not illegal as long as they’re paying fair market value,” said prominent Washington, D.C., campaigns and elections lawyer Jan Witold Baran. “In fact, if a campaign uses the goods and services of a corporation they have to pay for it. Otherwise, it would be an illegal corporate contribution even though the candidate might be the 100 percent owner of the business. That has been the policy of the Federal Elections Commission for decades.”

Federal election law, however, does not contemplate a mega-wealthy candidate like Trump.

“There’s no question that Trump is conducting a campaign that’s unique in many respects. I’ve been doing this for 40 years and I never heard of a candidate disclosing his financial numbers and complaining they were too low — that I’m really richer than these forms say,” Baran said.

Trump and campaign manager Corey Lewandowski have said repeatedly — most recently in a radio interview with Lewandowski three weeks ago — that Trump is self-funding his campaign. While that was true last spring when Trump seeded his campaign with a $1.8 million loan, it no longer is.

The Trump campaign solicits credit card donations on its website, telling supporters to “Stand with Donald Trump to Make America Great Again.” Through Sept. 30, the campaign reported accepting $3.8 million in contributions — a number that’s sure to rise with the campaign’s year-end report due Jan. 31.

About $2.8 million of those contributions to billionaire Trump were given by small donors whose names aren’t required to be disclosed because they contributed $200 or less.

Neither the Trump campaign nor Dan Scavino, a senior advisor to the campaign, responded to requests for comment.

What the Trump campaign took in from outside contributors in the last reported quarter is less than what it spent, $4 million. In all, the campaign’s reported net operating expenditures were $5.4 million.

Some other major Republican candidates have spent much more.

For example, Sen. Marco Rubio raised $14.8 million in contributions and spent $6.9 million on operating expenditures through Sept. 30. Jeb 2016 Inc., the campaign committee set up by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, raked in $24.2 million in individual contributions and spent $14.5 million during the same period.

All those contributions, and Trump’s as well, are designated for the primary elections. $2,700 is the maximum an individual may give for the primaries.

The Trump campaign’s first television ad, released Sunday, marks a turning point in spending. To date, Trump has benefited from untold hours of free coverage. With the Iowa caucus Feb. 1, the New Hampshire primary Feb. 9, and Super Tuesday on March 1, he and other candidates are expected to shell out big bucks to blanket the airwaves.

Can Trump turn a profit on his campaign — that is, see his loans repaid in full and additional campaign dollars flowing to his companies? It will depend on his fortunes in the primaries, his contributors’ staying power and his determination to win.

Florida Bulldog is a not-for-profit news organization created to provide investigative reporting in the public interest. Contributions are tax-deductible.

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