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Trump Inaugural Committee Donations Are Being Investigated By The Feds


We have been following the special counsel's Russia investigation, also the story of President Trump's former attorney who was sentenced to prison this week, also the publisher of the National Enquirer admitting it paid to suppress a woman's story about an alleged past affair with President Trump. Well, now there's a new legal concern for the president. The Wall Street Journal is reporting that federal prosecutors in Manhattan are investigating the president's 2017 inaugural committee. They're reportedly looking at whether money was misspent and, particularly, whether donors were trying to buy influence.

It is hard to find someone more familiar with this topic than Dave Levinthal. He's editor and reporter for the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit news organization. His team of journalists spent months investigating the money behind President Trump's inauguration. And Dave Levinthal joins us in our studios this morning.

Thanks for coming in.

DAVE LEVINTHAL: Hey. Good to be with you.

GREENE: So these reports suggest that prosecutors want to know whether donors tried to buy influence by giving money to this inaugural event. Did you see signs of that?

LEVINTHAL: Well, it was a very interesting - at the time, looking into the way that the inauguration committee operated. We had sort of an unprecedented level of money that was there to be donated to this inaugural committee, which, mind you, is a nonprofit organization and doesn't quite play by the same rules as traditional political committees. But if you were very wealthy, if you were very rich and you wanted to attempt to get yourself in front of Donald Trump on the day of his inauguration, you had great ability to do so at levels that were unseen, certainly, with the George W. Bush and Barack Obama inaugural committees and affairs when they had their respective events.

GREENE: But that doesn't mean that laws were broken, if you just have a lot of rich people who are paying money to be at the inauguration. What might prosecutors be looking at in terms of potential legal troubles here?

LEVINTHAL: And that's a very important point as we go forward with this investigation. An investigation in and of itself is just that. It's an investigation. It's no indication that there's going to be charges or an indictment or a trial. And it's an open question that constitutional scholars debate constantly as to whether the president of the United States, even if it's perceived he did something wrong, could even be indicted while he's the sitting president of the United States. And many think that the only remedy for a president breaking the law in that regard would be the impeachment process. So don't look too much into this as something that is going to lead to a certain result. It seems to be very much in the early stages of the investigation as it is.

GREENE: What would be a scenario in which either a person or an entity would try to buy influence? What kind of influence would they be trying to buy through giving money to an inauguration?

LEVINTHAL: Well, President Trump's committee, the way it's set up - it quite literally circulated a document early in November right as President Trump had been elected. It was called the Presidential Inauguration Committee Underwriting Benefits List (ph). And my colleague Carrie Levine at the Center for Public Integrity got a hold of this, and it quite literally read as a laundry list of things that you would get if you, for example, gave a million dollars. You'd get a candlelight dinner with top administration appointees. You would get to meet Mike Pence and Karen Pence, the vice president and second lady-elect. You'd get to meet Donald Trump. You'd get to meet members of the Republican Party in high-ranking positions in the Senate and on and on.

So again, if you were looking to put your face in front of the president on the day he was becoming president, this was a guaranteed, rock-solid, bulletproof opportunity to do so. If you had that million dollars to spend, you knew you were going to get to meet all of these people and probably get your special interest talked about, as it were. And there were definitely people who had a whole lot of business before the government who were making significant donations in the six and seven figures, individuals and corporations.

GREENE: But the candlelit dinners, I mean - and the access - isn't that what big donors always get? Like, is this all that different from previous presidential inaugurations if you look back?

LEVINTHAL: And there are commonalities, I think, for inaugural events of all this sort. What was different is that there were efforts to really limit that type of - the dollar amounts and also to the access, to some degree. And on the spending end, too, the investigation seems to be looking not at the giving but at the spending of the committee and whether that money was ultimately going to places that we can't see right now because of the rules that really lay out disclosure. We just don't simply know where tens of millions of dollars were spent.

GREENE: All right. Dave Levinthal from the Center for Public Integrity.

Thanks so much. We appreciate it.

LEVINTHAL: My pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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