On Inauguration Day, January 20, 2017, Donald Trump filed with the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) his intent to run for President in 2020. This is highly unusual. In contrast, Barack Obama filed on April 4, 2011 for the 2012 election. That was a more typical 19 months ahead of the election instead of Trump’s 45 months. Although Trump did not officially announce his candidacy for President, his notification to the FEC met the legal threshold to file for the 2020 election.
Many claim that Trump has sinister motives. Several liberal voices saw a nefarious scheme at play to legally silence criticism from nonprofits. A writer for the Daily Kos wrote, “These fascists are evil to the core.” The writer then proceeded to follow a line of tweets from The Resisterhood, which suggested that the true intent was to silence non-profits from criticizing candidate Trump.
The Resisterhood @resisterhoodFirst and foremost, it is NOT NORMAL. Obama filed for 2012 reelection in April 2011. Incumbent declaring before midterms is unheard of. /2
If this was an avenue to silence critics, every incumbent would file on their Day 1 in office. As mentioned earlier, this action is extremely rare. While the argument is this gives Trump something of a free ride with nonprofits until November 2020, in reality, it doesn’t. It is rare for a nonprofit to lose its exempt status because of political activity.
Obama’s 19 month FEC filing period did not make him immune to criticism. When he filed in April 2011, it didn’t suddenly stop nonprofit anti-Obama reelection efforts. That is because there weren’t any. There were plenty of nonprofits who opposed Obama, but they never had the right to run a nonprofit political campaign before Obama’s filing or after. That doesn’t mean they couldn’t criticize Obama the President. It also means nothing is stopping today’s nonprofits from criticizing Trump the President. Nonprofits are not allowed to run anti-Trump ads or pro-Trump ads, just like nonprofits can’t do that for any candidate period.
If one buys into the Daily Kos and Resistorhood’s theory, then it would also apply to nonprofits that want to help a candidate. The law cuts both ways, pro and con, for a candidate. However, the real effect of the FEC filing on nonprofits is hardly noticeable. Nonprofits don’t keep tabs on which candidates have compiled FEC filings and then cross them off their political action list. They simply try to steer away from all overt political activities if they want to keep a tax exemption.
Nonprofits often take part in nonpartisan, educational activities that step across the line to some limited political activity. The Internal Revenue Service is rather lenient on these transgressions because they are almost always limited, and because we live in a world of perpetual political campaigning. The IRS allows criticism of officeholders as long as direct political campaigning is not done. In sum, there are no additional limitations placed on any non-profit that wants to criticize Trump because of his FEC filing. Essentially, it is the same rules before January 20 as after.
All this attention towards nonprofits does Trump a favor. The real reason that Trump filed immediately for reelection may not have anything to even do with his reelection. It overlooks the real reason at the core of most of his actions – money. The early FEC filing is about enriching himself. Trump may not even run for office again, but he plans on leaving office a lot wealthier than when he came in.
As of January 9, 2017, Trump’s campaign had a surplus of $19 million. Politico claims that he has raised $11 million since the election. That’s a significant haul in a time when campaigns should be shutting down.
Trump is gearing up his 2020 campaign because he sees a cash cow in the making. By running a fundraising campaign at full speed the entire time of his Presidency, he can start sucking up contributions from supporters all around the country for the next four years. In other words, it is Trump University turned political. Instead of offering his genius as a real estate developer, Trump promises to use his political genius to make America great. Trump has even trademarked his new 2020 campaign slogan, “Keep America Great.”
So what are the personal benefits for Trump in starting his fundraising efforts so early?
Trump dumped $66.1 million into his campaign last year. That is a sizable amount by any standards. It probably pained Trump greatly too because he was forced to cancel the loans to his campaign when it reached the $50 million mark. However, that didn’t impair his plans to bill his campaign for services and products from numerous Trump businesses. Midway through last year, Trump’s businesses had been reimbursed $6 million by his campaign. By the end of last year, that number stood at $12.8 million.
Trump has reimbursed himself for a wide range of costs as Politico reported:
The FEC reports show that Trump’s campaign paid his businesses for everything from office suites and hotel stays to payroll, security and office supplies, revealing an integrated business and political operation that was without precedent in modern American presidential politics.
Trump Tower received over $2 million for rent and payroll reimbursement to staff who helped the campaign. His campaign is still based there. A wide assortment of Trump and Trump family businesses also received campaign payments. Those include his Palm Beach resort Mar-A-Logo, Eric Trump’s Virginia vineyard, golf courses and restaurants received tens and even hundreds of thousands of dollars. Even an entity called Trump Ice was reimbursed $3,400.
Federal law requires that political services and goods be paid a fair market value. This was designed so that supporters don’t give enormous amounts to a campaign and low ball those contributions on campaign reports. It was never imagined that a candidate would enrich himself as Trump is beginning to do. If there is one thing that Trump is a genius at, it is squeezing a dollar out of every ethical and unethical opportunity.
This is not to say that Trump is not engaging in legitimate campaign activities. Millions have been spent since the election to organize databases and supply Trump paraphernalia.
Trump has a history of questionable activities to raise money and turn a profit. He refused to pay businesses for their work. He used his nonprofits for his personal benefit. He developed a questionable “university” to solicit funds. He used bankruptcy as a business tool. That Trump plans on turning his campaign activities and the Presidency into an opportunity to line his pockets even more, should not be a surprise.
Trump’s decision to file an early FEC declaration is not a political tactic to suppress criticism, but rather a legal opportunity to enrich himself in the next four years as a candidate. That is where the attention should be focused and not redirected toward an imaginary attempt to suppress the political speech of nonprofits. Focusing on the wrong reasons for the FEC filing, gives Trump the cover to use his campaign for further enrichment. His political opponents shouldn’t give him that satisfaction.