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Opinion The criminal probe into Trump’s inaugural gets more serious

Kevin Dietsch/Pool via Bloomberg (Kevin Dietsch/Bloomberg)

You might want to sit down before you hear this: An entity connected to Donald Trump is under investigation for a series of potential crimes related to corruption.

I know what you’re thinking: How could such a thing be possible, with a president so defined by honesty and integrity? But it’s true, as Rosalind Helderman and Michael Kranish report:

Federal prosecutors in New York on Monday delivered a sweeping request for documents related to donations and spending by President Trump’s inaugural committee, a sign of a deepening criminal investigation into activities related to the nonprofit organization.
A wide-ranging subpoena served on the inaugural committee Monday seeks an array of documents, including all information related to inaugural donors, vendors, contractors, bank accounts of the inaugural committee and any information related to foreign contributors to the committee, according to a copy reviewed by The Washington Post. [...]
The subpoena — issued by the U.S. attorney’s office in the Southern District of New York — indicates that prosecutors are investigating crimes related to conspiracy to defraud the United States, mail fraud, false statements, wire fraud and money laundering.

If you’re keeping score, Trump’s business, his campaign, his inaugural, his foundation and various aspects of his presidency are all under investigation.

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At the moment, we have no evidence that President Trump was directly involved in any lawbreaking with regard to the inaugural. What we do know, however, is that not only was he bringing his way of doing business to Washington, but also everyone knew the score. So what seems to have ensued was an orgy of self-dealing, cash-grabbing and perhaps some ham-handed attempts by foreigners to curry favor with the new president, even though foreign donations are illegal. (One of the areas of investigation is whether straw donors were used to hide such donations.)

That makes the inaugural a good example of how corruption can spread, or if you prefer, how the fish rots from the head down.

When a new president arrives, he brings with him not only a group of people but also a reputation and a philosophy. As befits a man who says that anyone who cooperates with prosecutors is a “rat,” Trump has consistently been surrounded with criminals and con artists, so many of whom were charged, convicted or pleaded guilty to crimes in the past year or so. That’s both because he seeks out those kind of people and because they seek him out, seeing in him someone who has the same approach to the law as they do.

One of those people was Rick Gates, Paul Manafort’s associate, who essentially ran the inaugural and is now cooperating with prosecutors. When Gates was asked on the stand if he had submitted personal expenses for reimbursement to the inaugural committee, he replied, “It’s possible,” apparently because he had committed so many other crimes that it was hard to keep track. But judging from the subpoenas, that may not have made him so unusual on the inaugural committee, where money was flowing in such spectacular amounts — $107 million in total, far more than any other inaugural in history — that there were plenty of people who wanted to wet their beaks a little.

It may be some time before we know the full story of what happened in the inaugural, but this appears to be the outline. The inaugural was run by some people of questionable character, who raised an unprecedented amount of money. The spending of that money was certainly wasteful and perhaps even fraudulent; a friend of Melania Trump set up an event-planning company just before the inauguration and was paid $26 million, Trump’s campaign manager billed $2 million for getting a crowd to show up, and another event planner spent $10,000 on makeup for 20 staff members attending a party.

Like much of what Trump is involved in, the whole thing was ad hoc, haphazard, and without much in the way of care or oversight, offering numerous ways for the unscrupulous to fill their pockets. But it has also been shrouded in mystery, since inaugurals aren't subject to the same disclosure requirements as most government functions.

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders insists that “this has nothing to do with the White House,” which may be true in an extremely narrow sense. But one of the areas investigators are examining is whether any donors got official favors in return for the money they poured into the inaugural, which could bring the investigation into the government and closer to President Trump.

As I said, there’s no evidence (yet anyway) that Trump himself did anything wrong with respect to the inaugural. He was rather busy at the time. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a Trump operation, with everything that implies — including, sooner or later, somebody being led away in handcuffs.