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Did Diamond and Silk commit perjury? Or is campaign-finance language often confusing?

Diamond and Silk (not their real names) testify before the House Judiciary Committee on Thursday. (House Judiciary Committee)
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Let’s say that I invite you to my house for a barbecue. You arrive in a cab, and, grateful for your attendance, I cover the fare.

Did I pay you to come to my barbecue?

In a broad sense, no, of course not. But if my barbecue was meant to aid my candidacy for the presidency and if you were, say, George Clooney, the picture changes. You, George Clooney, were invited to support my candidacy and, since the event is a political one, it means that the campaign has limits around what sorts of expenses it does and doesn’t have to cover. Clooney could pay his own cab fare, and it’s a contribution to the campaign. If I pay for it, though, I have to report it as a campaign expense.*

But did I pay Clooney to be there? Still a bit murky. Especially if Clooney were presented with the question under oath during a hearing.

On Thursday, YouTube commentators Diamond and Silk (Lynnette Hardaway and Rochelle Richardson) were invited to offer testimony during a House Judiciary Committee hearing called “Filtering Practices of Social Media Platforms.” The two claimed to have been censored by Facebook because of their conservative politics, which Facebook denies.

During that testimony, though, the two were asked if they had ever been paid by President Trump’s 2016 campaign, which they denied. In short order, it was determined that they had received money from the campaign, as listed in campaign filings submitted to the Federal Election Commission.

Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-N.Y.) asked Hardaway about their denial of that payment, noting that they were under oath.

JEFFRIES: I think you stated on the record today, at least three times, quote, we were not paid by the Trump campaign? Is that correct?
HARDAWAY: That is correct. …
JEFFRIES: The FEC report dated May 12, 2017, states that on Nov. 22, 2016, the campaign of Donald J. Trump for President, Inc. paid “Diamond and Silk” $1,274.94 for “field consulting.” Are you familiar with that?
RICHARDSON: We’re familiar with that particular lie; we can see that you do look at fake news. …
JEFFRIES: Are you calling this FEC document fake?
RICHARDSON: No, we’re not calling it fake. …
JEFFRIES: Presumably this was a document filed with genuineness and authenticity by the campaign of the president that you so love. And so I’m just trying to figure out who is lying here? Is it the Trump campaign, or is someone not telling the truth?
RICHARDSON: Nobody is lying. However, there may have been a mistake from the Trump campaign whenever they wrote what the $1,274.94 was for. Actually, this was for — we were asked to join the Women for Trump tour back in 2016. And Ms. Lara Trump asked that our airline tickets be refunded back to us because we paid for those tickets when we went from New York to Ohio.

She offered an email reinforcing her story.

“It was a reimbursement,” Richardson said, with emphasis.

“That’s right,” Hardaway added. “Not field consultants. We’ve never been paid by the Trump campaign.”

In the you-showing-up-to-my-barbecue sense, that’s true. In the Clooney-showing-up-to-my-campaign event sense? Murkier.

There are two categories that cover money coming into and flowing out of a campaign: Contributions and disbursements. Contributions are donations from PACs, individuals or the candidate, including in-kind contributions (like Clooney covering his own cab fare to that barbecue). Disbursements are payments from the campaign to vendors or staff, including reimbursements. They are payments by the campaign, but that doesn’t mean that the recipients necessarily feel that they’ve been paid by the campaign.

The problem is that the pair paid for their own tickets at first. Had the campaign bought the tickets, there would have been no issue. But once Diamond and Silk were reimbursed by the campaign for the tickets, it had to be reported. (Had they covered the cost themselves, they could have spent $1,000 each without having to report it as a contribution to the campaign.) Of course, being flown somewhere to appear at an event is a non-monetary form of payment to the talent by itself, but, again, the word “paid” is vague enough to allow for a lot of interpretation.

Another part of the problem is that “field consulting” is similarly vague. The term is a catchall for a lot of campaign activity, which certainly may include reimbursements for travel. Lawrence Noble, senior director of the Campaign Legal Center, noted in an email that “the description is pretty vague” but that usually such descriptions (mandatory in FEC filings) weren’t subject to dispute as long as bills get paid.

“The press and watchdogs frequently question the accuracy of the description of campaign expenditures,” Noble noted, but campaign staff recording the payments may sacrifice detail for speed.

It’s worth noting that the perjury charges mentioned by Jeffries almost certainly don’t apply in a case like this one because they necessitate having “knowingly and willfully” made a false or fraudulent statement. Hardaway and Richardson made clear that they didn’t believe that their statements were untrue.

Richardson’s initial response to Jeffries was also interesting for what it revealed about another facet of the political moment. She charged Jeffries with supporting “fake news,” not because she was disputing the reimbursement but because she disputed how that payment was depicted in news reports after her initial testimony. Diamond and Silk did receive payment from the Trump campaign to reimburse them for their plane tickets, but they didn’t see that reimbursement as payment. Therefore, reports questioning the accuracy of their testimony were “fake news.”

The stories were accurate in stating that the pair had denied receiving a payment that had been made. But it’s also easy to see how they might genuinely have felt that those stories were inaccurate.

* Campaign finance law has an infinite number of “howevers” and “excepts” that we’ll mostly skip here.