Did Melania’s Plagiarizing Speechwriter Mix Trump Biz And Campaign Work?

Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump gives his thumb up as he walks off the stage with his wife Melania during the Republican National Convention, Monday, July 18, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/John Locher)
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Two days after giving a national convention speech that blatantly lifted language from First Lady Michelle Obama, the Trump campaign tried to put an end to the drama by releasing a mea culpa from the speechwriter apparently responsible for the double-dipped speech.

But campaign finance experts told TPM on Wednesday that rather than putting the matter to rest, the statement from Meredith McIver raises further questions about who paid the Trump Organization staffer for drafting Melania’s address. If McIver, in her capacity as a Trump Organization employee, was paid by the company to draft a campaign speech for Melania Trump, that could amount to a campaign finance violation, the experts said.

For Larry Noble, who served as the general counsel for the Federal Election Commission for 13 years and now is general counsel for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, McIver’s statement renders the issue pretty cut-and-dry. It’s written on Trump Organization letterhead, McIver introduces herself as an “in-house staff writer” at the corporation and she writes that she offered her resignation to Trump and his family, not his campaign.

“Every indication from that letter is that she’s working for the Trump Organization and paid by the Trump Organization,” Noble said in a phone interview. “Unless the campaign paid for it, it is a violation.”

Noble also said one would be hard pressed to construe a speech from a major party nominee’s spouse at a national convention as anything other than a campaign act.

It’s unlawful for Trump’s company to give anything, including its staffers’ time, to the presidential campaign for free. Staffers can volunteer their personal time to the campaign, but Richard Briffault, a campaign finance expert at Columbia Law, told TPM that resource sharing as minor as McIver using a Trump Organization computer to write the speech could be viewed as an illegal contribution.

For everything to be above board, the campaign needs to show it compensated McIver for her time, not the Trump Organization. If the campaign enlisted McIver, who has ghostwritten several of Trump’s business books, and paid her, it would be “easy” to classify that as a independent expenditure “just like you hire professionals all the time,” Briffault said.

Answers could come in the latest round of FEC monthly filings, which are due by midnight. Noble pointed out the possibility that McIver’s payment could be buried in a bulk “staff services” payment from the campaign to the Trump Organization.

The New York real estate mogul’s campaign has made it particularly challenging to follow the money because of the “unprecedented” coziness Trump has displayed between his business and his campaign, Noble said.

As a primary candidate, Trump insisted that he was self-funding his campaign, which came in the form of millions in personal loans. As the presumptive nominee, Trump’s filings have shown large disbursements flowing from the campaign into the coffers of Trump’s various business holdings.

Relying on the Trump Organization’s vast infrastructure has proved a critical strategy for the campaign, which has run on a shoestring roster of staffers. Noble said the campaign’s FEC filings make it look “like they’re running payroll through the company.”

“The assumption has been that [the Trump Organization] is being reimbursed, but we don’t really know how much the organization is doing for the campaign,” he said. “At the very least, it raises a tremendous number of questions and makes it very hard to see what’s going on.”

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