News that federal prosecutors are investigating whether foreign donors from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, or the United Arab Emirates may have curried favor to Donald Trump by pouring funds into his inaugural committee through straw donors begs the question of why we allow presidents to set up these inaugural slush funds in the first place.
Last August, lobbyist Sam Patten plead guilty to helping a Ukrainian oligarch purchase four tickets to Trump’s inaugural by moving $50,000 through intermediaries—a violation of federal rules. As part of his plea, Mr. Patten agreed to cooperate with attorney’s in the US District of Columbia as well as special counsel Robert Mueller.
While corporations are barred from giving directly to presidential candidates, they are allowed to give to inaugural committees. This allows the potential for shell corporations or LLC’s to hide the true identity of a donor.
There have also been questions raised about a $26 million payment from the inaugural committee to an advisor of Melania Trump. Details of where the surplus funds of the committee have been few and far between.
Rightly or wrongly, federal courts have identified campaign contributions as a form of free speech because they can be used to inform voters about a candidate. (Whether or not campaign advertisements provide much useful information to voters is another topic.) But inaugural committees offer no public benefit at all—they are simply an opportunity for victorious candidates to celebrate and for donors, lobbyists, and other fat cats to give unlimited amounts of money to ingratiate themselves with the president. It’s a particularly good opportunity for donors who gave to the losing candidate to make amends and get on the good side of a new administration.
Donations to inaugural committees are more like a gift to a candidate than a campaign contribution. Many states already ban or limit gifts to legislators, especially from lobbyists.
While the latest investigation into Trump’s inaugural fit into a patter of self-dealing that seems to appear in all his enterprises, they do raise a larger question of why we allow any president to accept gifts for a lavish parties that provide no public benefit. If a president’s friends and supporters want to throw a big bash to celebrate their victory, let them pay for it themselves rather than funneling money through a committee controlled by agents, or family members, or a president. There could still be balls, dancing, and champagne, and the president could still attend whichever celebrations she or he chose, but it would be harder for foreign interests, lobbyists, or corporations to outright bribe a president or merely purchase influence if they were making donations to an entity that was truly separate from an incoming administration.
At this to the long list of changes the U.S. needs to make in the post-Trump era.