A Democratic super PAC on Monday filed a complaint to the Federal Election Commission accusing former President Donald Trump of violating campaign finance laws by spending donor funds without officially filing his candidacy.
Trump has repeatedly hinted at rallies that he plans to run for president again in 2024 and his super PAC has continued to raise and spend money. Campaign finance laws require candidates who raise or spend more than $5,000 in support of a presidential campaign to register with the FEC. The Democratic super PAC American Bridge accused Trump of "illegally using his multicandidate leadership PAC to raise and spend funds in excess of Commission limits for the purpose of advancing a 2024 presidential campaign."
The payments, the complaint says, include "events at Trump properties, rallies featuring Mr. Trump, consulting payments to former Trump campaign staff, and digital advertising about Mr. Trump's events and his presumptive 2024 opponent."
Many observers have noted that Trump may be trying to dodge campaign finance requirements by not formally filing his candidacy.
"I know what I'm going to do, but we're not supposed to be talking about it yet from the standpoint of campaign finance laws," Trump said during an event last fall.
Trump last summer told Fox News host Sean Hannity that he had already made up his mind about another presidential bid and later complained in another Fox interview that it was "unbelievably stupid" that campaign finance laws prevented him from announcing his decision.
"Let me put it this way: I think you'll be happy, and I think that a lot of our friends will be very happy. But I'm not actually allowed to answer it," Trump said. "It makes it very difficult if I do."
"We did it twice and we'll do it again," he said last month.
During a golf event in January, he referred to himself as the "45th and 47th" president.
Trump again hinted at another run to rally-goers in Florence, South Carolina last week.
"In 2024, we are going to take back the beautiful, beautiful White House," he said. "I wonder who will do that. I wonder. I wonder."
Although Trump has not formally announced his candidacy, his PACs are sitting on $122 million in donor funds, more than the Republican National Committee and the GOP's congressional campaign arms. Trump's Save America PAC, which also donates to other Republicans, spent just $350,000 on other candidates in 2021, far less than it spent on Trump's own properties.
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"Trump has played footsie with the Federal Election Campaign Act for months," American Bridge said in a statement to the Associated Press, adding that Trump's Save America PAC has spent more than $100,000 per week on Facebook ads and has "consistently raised more than $1 million per week — a clear violation of campaign finance law and precedent established by the Federal Election Commission."
There is nothing legally preventing Trump from announcing his bid but he would be subject to stricter fundraising limits and disclosure requirements if he does.
"He should have to adhere to the law in a way that all other candidates do," Jessica Floyd, the president of American Bridge, told The New York Times. "When he says 'I'm going to do it a third time,' that's not flirting. That's more than a toe dip."
Floyd said that Trump's mention of campaign finance laws last year shows the clear intention of evading FEC rules.
"It's not like he doesn't know what he's doing," she said.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said the complaint was "frivolous."
"America is spiraling into disaster because of the Democrats' failures, and instead of reversing course, they are busy filing frivolous complaints that have zero merit," he told the Times.
But campaign finance watchdogs say the FEC should investigate the complaint.
"He's asking his list for money over and over and over again," Jordan Libowitz, a spokesman for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington (CREW), told Public Notice. "He raises money for these donors to max out to his leadership PAC, and then they're going in with $0 towards the federal limit for the campaign itself."
Adav Noti, vice president of the Campaign Legal Center, told CNN that "there is a strong argument that, under the law, Trump has triggered candidacy for 2024."
But, "even in the best of circumstances," he added, "the FEC generally doesn't enforce the law at all, and when it does, it is always years after the fact."
The FEC, a bipartisan agency equally divided between three Democrats and three Republicans, has repeatedly deadlocked on investigations as Republican members have repeatedly blocked probes into Trump's campaign and other conservatives.
Though Trump has been the subject of dozens of FEC complaints, the former president has a 43-0 record in FEC cases over the past six years, according to the Daily Beast's Roger Sollenberger. None of the three Republican commissioners have ever voted against Trump, including in 22 cases where the FEC's internal nonpartisan Office of General Counsel found that campaign finance violations had occurred. Last year, a deadlocked FEC dropped its inquiry into whether Trump violated campaign finance laws when he had former attorney Michael Cohen pay adult film actress Stormy Daniels $130,000 in hush money to stay quiet about their alleged affair. Last month, the FEC declined to hold Trump accountable for "soft money" violations to which his campaign had already admitted, according to the AP.
Democratic commissioners have sought to leverage the panel's rules to get courts to force the agency to act. Campaign watchdogs have repeatedly sued the FEC for not doing its job and Democratic commissioners are now blocking the agency from defending itself in court in response to the lawsuits, in hopes that federal courts will enforce campaign laws.
"It is not like I think the courts are automatically going to come to the same decision I would come to," Democratic Commissioner Ellen Weintraub told the Times. "But I think it's got a better shot."
That strategy has seen mixed results thus far.
"Campaign finance laws are routinely ignored and corruption is rampant," Stuart McPhail, senior litigation counsel at CREW, told the Times. "This path is the best in a broken system."
Other FEC critics hope the tactics will prompt Republicans, who have long resisted stricter enforcement of campaign finance rules, to reconsider the way the FEC works.
"If they break it so much that federal courts are intervening," Noti told the Times, "that would seemingly be an intolerable situation to Mitch McConnell."