Federal prosecutors in New York are investigating whether President Trump’s inaugural committee violated federal laws in spending some of the $107 million it raised, the Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
According to the Journal, the prosecutors are also looking into whether donors—some of whom were very wealthy and contributed hundreds of thousands of dollars or more—made the donations in exchange for access to the Trump administration or influence in policy or hiring in a way that would violate federal corruption laws.
The evidence that gave rise to the investigation came from the April FBI raids of Trump lawyer Michael Cohen’s home, hotel room, and office, according to the Journal. In those raids, agents confiscated a recording between Cohen and a friend and former adviser to Melania Trump named Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, who worked on the inaugural events and, in the recording, apparently raised concerns about the committee’s expenditures.
The committee, a nonprofit, raised a record amount for any incoming president. According to the Journal, it raised more than twice as much as Obama’s first inauguration. Among its major donors were AT&T and Boeing, as well as the casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson, the Journal reported.
The committee told the Journal that it has not been contacted by prosecutors or received any requests for records and that it was not aware any such investigation was taking place. And Tom Barrack Jr., the committee’s chairman and a personal friend of Donald Trump’s (and investor in the Weinstein Company, post-revelations), has not been asked about the inaugural fund since he was interviewed by special counsel Robert Mueller’s office last year, the Journal reports. But the Journal reported that Richard Gates, the committee’s deputy chairman, has been contacted by the prosecutors over questions about the spending. In February, Gates, the former business partner of Paul Manafort, pleaded guilty to conspiracy charges related to foreign political consulting work and stemming from the Mueller investigation. As part of his plea deal, he agreed to cooperate with future federal investigations (an agreement he quickly carried out as the star witness in the Manafort trial).
Prosecutors also asked for documents from Tennessee developer Franklin Haney, the Journal reported. Haney made a $1 million donation to the inaugural committee and, in April, hired Cohen to help him obtain a $5 billion loan from the U.S. government, among other funding, for a pair of nuclear reactors in Alabama. Prosecutors asked him for documents related to any correspondence with members of the committee.
It isn’t the first time the committee has come under scrutiny. In August, a D.C. operative connected to Manafort pleaded guilty on charges he facilitated a $50,000 donation from a Ukrainian oligarch through a U.S. citizen “straw donor.” It was illegal for the committee to accept foreign funds. The U.S. attorney’s office in Washington prosecuted the case on a referral from Mueller’s office, and the operative agreed to cooperate with investigators. Separately, in February, the New York Times reported that the committee paid nearly $26 million to the event planning firm Winston Wolkoff (again, Melania Trump’s personal friend) founded just weeks before the inauguration. The Times also reported that the committee donated much less than expected to charity, raising questions about its surplus funds after the inaugural events ended.
In a week in which Cohen was sentenced to three years for campaign finance violations that appeared to directly implicate the president in hush money payments, the revelation appears to come as another blow to the president and those involved in the Trump campaign. This investigation opens another possible route of inquiry into potentially criminal behavior by those in Trump’s orbit during the campaign and transition period.