Robert Mueller is looking into the curious case of Donald Trump’s record inaugural fundraising, according to a report by ABC News.
The report on Friday said the Russia special counsel and his team of investigators have questioned “several witnesses,” including Trump’s friend and chair of the organizing committee Tom Barrack, about contributions to the fund — particularly “donors with connections to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.”
Mueller’s interest in the inaugural committee seems to overlap with some figures who have entered the public spotlight recently thanks to disclosures of shifty payments to Trump fixer Michael Cohen.
Andrew Intrater, who runs Columbus Nova, gave $250,000 to the inaugural fund. He is a business associate of and relative to Russian billionaire oligarch Viktor Vekselberg, who is close to Vladimir Putin. Vekselberg’s company Renova, recently sanctioned by the U.S. government, controls Columbus Nova. Intrater and Vekselberg attended Trump’s inauguration.
Another likely person of interest is Leonard Blavatnik, who has extensive business ties in Russia and is no stranger to attention from Mueller’s team over contributions to Trump — he gave $1 million to the committee through his company, Access Industries.
AT&T — which came under fire for the “big mistake” it made after Trump was elected in paying Michael Cohen $600,000 to do very little — gave $2,082,483 to the inaugural fund (second only to Sheldon Adelson’s $5 million contribution).
Pfizer, Lockheed Martin, Dow, Bank of America, Qualcomm, and Boeing each contributed $1 million to the fund, and many other corporations gave hundreds of thousands, which is not unheard of for an inaugural committee. Yet Trump’s corporate contribution total hit $45 million, which is $8 million less than the $53 million Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration raised in total from individuals and corporations.
What happened to the money Trump collected? Apart from huge perks to top donors, it’s not fully clear.
The committee Trump formed to fund his inaugural festivities raised $107 million, the most in history, about twice the previous record. While prior administrations used donations limits to allay fears of bribery and influence-buying, Trump’s committee had no such limits.
Obama banned corporate, PAC, and lobbyist money — a rule that was abandoned by Trump. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush refused corporate contributions over $100,000 (Bush increased the limit to $250,000 for his second inaugural). The complete lack of any such limits on Trump’s inaugural fund, and the corresponding lack of transparency of how the money was actually spent after the relatively smaller festivities died down fostered concerns of graft and bribery.
One year later the committee filed tax forms showing that it had paid $26 million to an event planning firm (created six weeks before Inauguration Day) run by a friend of Melania Trump, while donating $5 million to charity. The filing did not list spending by subcontractor.
The total spending disclosed by Trump’s inaugural committee dwarfs that of past committees. ProPublica asked Greg Jenkins, who ran George W. Bush’s committee in 2005, how Trump could have spent so much on his inaugural events, and he replied:
It’s inexplicable to me. I literally don’t know. They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did. So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.
Steve Kerrigan led both of Barack Obama’s inaugural committees, and he told ProPublica, “We literally did two inaugurations for less than the cost of that.”