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The investigation into Trump’s inauguration money looks quite serious

The US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York subpoenaed the inaugural committee on Monday.

Trump’s inauguration
Trump’s inauguration.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Andrew Prokop is a senior politics correspondent at Vox, covering the White House, elections, and political scandals and investigations. He’s worked at Vox since the site’s launch in 2014, and before that, he worked as a research assistant at the New Yorker’s Washington, DC, bureau.

President Trump’s inaugural committee received a sweeping subpoena from the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York — meaning criminal investigations into the inauguration’s money are heating up.

The scope of documents requested in the subpoena and potential crimes investigators are probing are both remarkable — investigating everything from false statements to money laundering. Investigators are said to be interested in the inaugural committee’s spending, its donations, whether any donations came from illegal foreign sources, and potential corruption involving favors for donors.

Since last year, there have been reports that special counsel Robert Mueller was investigating potential foreign donations to the inaugural committee. But in December, news broke that federal prosecutors in New York were overseeing a broader probe into the inauguration and its money.

Trump’s inaugural committee raised a truly astonishing $106.7 million, double the previous record set by Barack Obama’s 2009 inaugural, and there have long been many questions about where that money came from, and where it went.

Rick Gates, the former Trump campaign aide who helped run the inaugural committee and struck a plea deal with Mueller in February, has also been cooperating with SDNY prosecutors, per the Wall Street Journal. Michael Cohen, who helped fundraise for the inaugural, is another major figure, though it’s not entirely clear whether he’s helping out with the investigation or whether he’s a target of it.

What the subpoena demanded from Trump’s inaugural committee

The Wall Street Journal reports that the documents the government is demanding from the inaugural committee include:

  • “All documents related to the committee’s donors and vendors”
  • All records related to “benefits” provided to donors
  • Documents related to the financier Imaad Zuberi and his company Avenue Ventures LLC. (He is the only donor specifically named in the subpoena. The Daily Beast has previously reported on Zuberi’s connections to Michael Cohen.)
  • Documents related to donations “made by or on behalf of foreign nationals,” including communications about possible donations from foreign individuals
  • Documents related to “donations or payments made by donors directly to contractors and/or vendors.” (The Journal reports that there was some discussion on the inaugural committee about having donors pay vendors for the inauguration directly — which could violate disclosure laws.)
  • The New York Times reports that the subpoena also asks for documents about Stripe, a startup that processes credit card payments, for which Jared Kushner’s brother is an investor.

Meanwhile, CNN reports that the subpoena specifically names several different offenses that investigators are probing:

  • Conspiracy against the United States
  • False statements
  • Mail fraud
  • Wire fraud
  • Money laundering
  • Inaugural committee disclosure violations
  • “Violations of laws prohibiting contributions by foreign nations and contributions in the name of another person, also known as straw donors.”

What we know about the investigations into Trump’s inauguration

Three Justice Department offices have reportedly been investigating aspects of Trump’s inauguration.

1) Special counsel Robert Mueller: Between April and June of last year, both CNN and ABC News reported that Mueller’s team was questioning witnesses about potential foreign donations to the Trump inaugural — specifically, about “donors with connections to Russia, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar,” per ABC.

It is unclear if Mueller is still investigating this, and he may have since referred some or all of it to another Justice Department office.

2) SDNY US Attorney’s Office: In April, the US Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York had Michael Cohen’s residence and office raided for documents. SDNY’s current probe into the Trump inauguration grew out of this investigation and raid and is being led by the public corruption unit, per the Wall Street Journal.

SDNY sent the subpoena to the inaugural committee this week, and appears to be leading the investigation.

3) EDNY US Attorney’s Office: To complicate matters further, New York Times reported that the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York “is separately investigating whether inaugural officials helped foreigners illegally funnel donations to Mr. Trump’s inaugural committee using so-called straw donors to disguise their donations.”

Rick Gates and Michael Cohen are key figures

The inaugural committee was chaired by billionaire real estate investor Tom Barrack, a longtime close friend of Trump. But according to reports at the time, Barrack turned to Rick Gates — Paul Manafort’s right-hand man, who remained on the Trump campaign after Manafort was fired — to handle much of the fundraising and planning work.

Eventually, Mueller indicted Gates for financial and lobbying crimes connected to his work with Manafort. And in February 2018, Gates cut a deal — pleading guilty and pledging his full cooperation with the government. This cooperation has reportedly included providing information about the Trump inauguration.

Another key figure is Michael Cohen, who also cut a plea deal with prosecutors — but his role in the investigation may be somewhat different.

Cohen pleaded guilty to financial and campaign finance violations brought by SDNY in August, and to lying to Congress related to the Russia investigation in November, but he never committed to cooperate with the government.

Instead, Cohen said he would voluntarily provide information, rather than committing to testify accurately about any crimes he might know about. This became a sticking point during his sentencing; Mueller’s office said they found Cohen’s information useful, but SDNY chided him for not fully committing to cooperate.

And notably, Imaad Zuberi — the only inaugural donor mentioned in the subpoena by name — discussed his inaugural contributions with Cohen and talked with him about business afterward. So it’s not entirely clear whether Cohen is helping out with this investigation of the inauguration — or whether he’s a target of it.

For more on investigations into President Trump, follow Andrew Prokop on Twitter and check out Vox’s guide to the Mueller investigation.