There’s been a lot of buzz about the blatant plagiarism in Melania Trump’s speech at the Republican National Convention. But it turns out that Melania’s speech may have exposed problems much more fundamental than plagiarism. By letting one of his real estate empire’s writers craft the speech, Donald Trump may have broken campaign finance law. And it may have opened the door to a closer look at how much Trump has intermingled his corporation with his campaign.
Late Wednesday, Trump Organization staff writer Meredith McIver admitted that she was responsible for cribbing two whole paragraphs from Michelle Obama’s speech at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. That disclosure raised eyebrows with experts on campaign finance law. They think that McIver’s work on Melania’s speech may have amounted to an in-kind donation from the Trump Organization to the Trump presidential campaign. This is illegal even in the looser post-Citizens United climate.
Philip Bump of The Washington Post notes that if Trump were to have Trump Organization employees work on his presidential campaign, it would be legal as long as the Trump campaign, and not the Trump Organization, paid them for it. However, FEC records do not show any evidence that McIver was ever paid by the Trump campaign.
Lawrence Noble, general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center, noticed another red flag. While McIver’s statement taking responsibility for the plagiarism was released by the Trump campaign, it was written on Trump Organization letterhead, rather than campaign letterhead. Noble notes that the Trump Organization is not allowed to provide the Trump campaign “anything that it’s not getting paid for.” Combined with the fact that McIver offered to resign her Trump Organization post, rather than any post with the campaign, Noble concluded that “on the face of it,” McIver’s work on Melania’s speech amounted to “a corporate violation.”
Jordan Libowitz, the communications chief at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, came to the same conclusion. He told the Huffington Post that based on the available evidence, “corporate resources may have been used” to write that speech. He added that if Trump Organization resources were indeed used on the speech, it would amount to “an illegal in-kind corporate contribution.” Translation–even if every single word of Melania’s speech had been her own, if McIver worked on it on the Trump Organization’s dime and the Trump campaign didn’t pay her, it’s illegal.
The Democratic Coalition Against Trump, a super PAC dedicated to “direct action” against Trump, certainly thinks laws were broken. On Thursday, it filed a complaint with the FEC alleging that McIver’s work on the convention speech was illegal. It was very skeptical of McIver’s claim that she was merely a volunteer for the Trump campaign, given that she offered to resign her Trump Organization post. It also suspects there may be more instances of improper intermingling between Trump’s corporate interests and his campaign.
If the FEC finds there’s a violation, both the Trump Organization and the Trump campaign can be fined. However, if it emerges that Trump “willingly and knowingly” broke the law, both his campaign and the Trump Organization could face criminal charges. On paper, it does look like a willful violation. Noble noted in The Post that Trump Organization employees have frequently done campaign work, and the Trump campaign has paid them for it as required by law. So this is yet another instance of Trump treating the law as just something in his way, right?
Well, maybe not. Campaign chairman Paul Manafort suggested that this was just plain incompetence. Manafort told reporters that no one on the campaign knew that McIver “was even involved” in writing the speech. As far as he knew, the speechwriters “that I was aware of” didn’t crib any words.
You mean to tell me that a major-party presidential campaign doesn’t know who was involved in drafting a major speech at the convention? It’s probably no wonder that rumors floated around the Internet and the media that McIver didn’t even exist. Her social media profile consists of bare-bones Facebook, Twitter, Speakerpedia, and Amazon pages. Additionally, it seems hard to believe that someone who graduated magna cum laude with a degree in English wouldn’t know about plagiarism. However, Gaby Wood of The Guardian–one of the elite newspapers in the UK–saw McIver in the flesh in 2007.
Hopefully the FEC is able to look into this matter. After all, if Trump was this careless with Melania’s convention speech, how many other times has he intermingled his corporate activities with those of his campaign? That’s something the public deserves to know.