Is this a distinction without a difference? The Department of Justice, through the Southern District of New York, issued a subpoena to the inauguration committee that planned the events for Donald Trump two years ago. The Washington Post reports that prosecutors appear to be interested in foreign donors, although the one named figure had long been a major donor — to Democrats:
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.
The subpoena also specifically seeks all communications with one donor, Los Angeles venture capitalist Imaad Zuberi, as well as the firm with which he is affiliated, Avenue Ventures. The company donated $900,000 to the inaugural committee, records show.
Note well that Zuberi isn’t Russian, or has any known connections to the Putin regime in Russia. Zuberi’s spokesman got surprised by the Post’s reporter when asked about the subpoena, and one can see why. Zuberi has a long history of donating big money to both parties. The Open Secrets website lists 544 separate donations over the last several cycles from Zuberi dating back to 2004, when he kicked in $1000 to John Kerry’s presidential bid. In 2015 he was a “Hillblazer,” a top bundler for Hillary Clinton, and in 2012 was one of Barack Obama’s biggest bundlers too. Until the last two years, Zuberi gave almost exclusively to Democrats, but he went in big for Trump and for the GOP’s fundraising committees since late 2016.
Did Zuberi begin operating as a straw man for donations to the inaugural committee? Anything’s possible, but given his track record, it would seem doubtful that it would have started there. Zuberi was writing $25,000 checks as far back as 2011 when he donated to the DNC, and that wasn’t the only check the DNC got from him in that cycle either. Practically every Democrat with a major national profile got a max-out check from Zuberi. If he’s a straw donor, then the DoJ has a lot of investigating to do.
It’s also curious that the special counsel isn’t handling this investigation. Rick Gates worked as deputy chair of the committee, the same Rick Gates who cut a deal with Mueller for his cooperation against Manafort. Gates got forced to admit during Manafort’s trial that he might have stolen money from the committee, so perhaps Gates wouldn’t make the greatest witness for Mueller on a case like this. However, if there was a Russia-collusion connection to this probe, one would assume that Gates would be the leverage point, and that Mueller would want to keep it under his own aegis.
This therefore looks like a separate issue, but that’s not to say it’s not serious for those involved. There have been rumblings about the financing of the inaugural committee, although that’s nothing new either given the nature of these committees. Unlike the campaign, however, there’s usually a degree or more of separation between the president-elect and the operations of these committees. Trump probably has more to fear from the SDNY’s investigation involving Michael Cohen than he does from this, although politically it looks like yet another potential dark cloud of foreign influence over Trump and his team.
Still, indictments aren’t evidence, and subpoenas aren’t even accusations. The media won’t keep its powder dry, but the rest of us should wait to see whether the subpoena is as far as this goes.