With mounting evidence and growing complaints that Donald Trump's presidential campaign improperly coordinated with supportive super PACs during the election, calls for the Federal Election Commission to take action have only grown louder. Now it appears that the government's electoral watchdog is finally making the first steps.
On Sunday, the FEC sent a letter to the Trump campaign flagging more than 1,000 potentially illegal mistakes in the campaign's October latest filing. In the letter addressed to Trump campaign treasurer Timothy Jost, the FEC warned that hundreds of Trump's donors exceeded the $2,700 contribution limit. In total, the FEC said Trump’s presidential campaign accepted almost 1,100 donations totaling about $1.3 million that appear to have violated campaign finance laws.
While the notice from the FEC doesn’t necessarily implicate Trump's campaign in illegal activity, it does demand Trump refund any donations over the legal limit within 60 days.
“If any apparently excessive contribution in question was incompletely or incorrectly disclosed, you must amend your original report with the clarifying information,” the FEC wrote to the Trump campaign.
In addition to the thousands of excessive contributions in apparent violation of the law, the letter also flagged other campaign finance law violations, such as accepting donations from groups that hadn’t properly registered with FEC.
Last week, a liberal grassroots organization filed a complaint alleging that a pro-Trump super PAC improperly funneled payments to Steve Bannon, Trump’s campaign CEO and soon-to-be White House strategist, in violation of the law.
In another complaint filed with the FEC last month, the Campaign Legal Center said it had reviewed undercover videos that reportedly show top members of a separate pro-Trump super PAC soliciting $2 million from a reporter acting as a Chinese national. Jesse Benton, the former chief strategist at Great America PAC and former top aide to Ron and Rand Paul, who was convicted in May on charges of campaign bribery, is reportedly seen on tape assuring the undercover reporter he believed to be a wealthy Chinese businessman that the contribution would remain anonymous, and that the Chinese benefactor was “going to get credit” for the $2 million.
Though the FEC's latest letter does not address those two specific complaints against pro-Trump super PACs, it does name a third super PAC as in violation of the law.
"The Conservative Action Fund and Manufacturer and Business Association Political Action Committee did not meet the requirements for qualified multi-candidate status as of the date the contribution(s) was made to your committee," the FEC informed the Trump campaign. “If any apparently prohibited contribution in question was incompletely or incorrectly disclosed, you should amend your original report with clarifying information. In addition, please clarify whether the contribution(s) received from the referenced organization(s) is permissible."
Despite the FEC calling out the Trump campaign for these apparent violations of campaign finance laws, it would be a mistake to assume the regulatory elections agency will take significant further action.
Due to a pattern of Republican obstruction and a long-term disinclination to investigate prior apparent violations of the law by Republican candidates, the FEC is widely perceived as an impotent regulator.
The Campaign Legal Center's Larry Noble explained that despite the eye-popping number of apparent violations in Trump's FEC filing, the letter from the agency is fairly routine. Both Bernie Sanders' 2016 campaign and Barack Obama's previous campaigns also received warnings that many of their donors, especially those online, had run afoul of spending limits. Noble adds, however, that the FEC's comments on the Trump campaign's coordination with unsanctioned super PACs may have gotten even the most partisan of Republican FEC members to take notice.