Former President Donald Trump constantly talks about how he’s almost certainly going to run for president again, although he has refrained from making it official. Now, a complaint filed to the Federal Election Commission is underscoring how his theatrical hinting act could be violating campaign finance law.
American Bridge, a Democratic super PAC, has filed a complaint with the FEC arguing that Trump is illegally spending political funds on a presidential campaign without officially declaring his candidacy.
Trump’s rhetorical sleights of hand raise the possibility that his de facto third presidential campaign is already marked by corruption.
The argument behind the complaint is that Trump is using rhetoric that signals that he is, in fact, running already but declining to formally declare his candidacy to avoid the restrictions and regulations on his fundraising capacity that would kick in if he did. “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 in the fall, The New York Times reported. At the Conservative Political Action Conference last month, he also said: “We did it twice, and we’ll do it again. We’re going to be doing it again, a third time.”
Trump’s rhetorical sleights of hand raise the possibility that his de facto third presidential campaign is already marked by corruption before it even formally kicks off.
Trump remains a fundraising juggernaut, with an extraordinary ability to rake in cash. His Save America PAC ended January with $108 million, more than double the amount the Republican National Committee had on hand as it closed out the month.
Trump’s rhetorical strategy of running for the White House without officially running for the White House is, from a campaign finance perspective, having his cake and eating it too. He can reap the attention and money that come with being a powerful politician saying he’s running for the White House — but without having to subject himself to disclosure regulations and restrictions on how he could raise and spend campaign money.
Lisa Gilbert, the executive vice president of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, told me that the FEC complaint has “more than a leg to stand on.”
“On its face, the combination of Trump’s own statements about 2024 and his aggressive fundraising certainly could be enough evidence to trigger the standard for becoming a candidate for president under federal law,” she said.
Trump's spokesman Taylor Budowich told the New York Times that the complaint had "zero merit."
The rules that would kick in with an official declaration would encumber Trump in a number of ways. He would have to disclose personal financial details, which he is likely keen to delay for as long as possible. There would also then be clear limitations on the amount of money individuals and organizations can give to him. Currently, because he’s operating in a gray area, individuals can shower Trump with limitless money for undescribed purposes; once he becomes a candidate, there would be, for example, a $2,900 limit on individual contributions to his candidate committee.
It is possible that Trump eventually puts an end to his hints and decides to not run. But right now he gets to use the innuendo to keep a clear lane for himself, intimidate challengers and rake in cash as if he is running, without the downsides of embracing it officially.