There’s an old rule in capitalist society which holds that any time a significant amount of money (or the potential for such funds) accumulates in one place, someone will be along shortly to try to grab as much of it as they can. This is just as true in politics as it is in charitable causes or social media phenomenon. The internet has made the path for such opportunists even smoother and Politico may have uncovered one instance of somebody cashing in on a big scale from people looking to support the candidacy of Donald Trump.
At a glance, the two websites look virtually indistinguishable. Both feature a photo of Donald Trump, in a suit and red tie, in front of a giant American flag. Both seemingly offer a chance for two to win dinner with Donald Trump.
One is at donaldjtrump.com; the other is at dinnerwithtrump.org.
The first belongs to Trump’s campaign. The second is a scheme run by Ian Hawes, a 25-year-old Maryland man who has no affiliation with Trump or his campaign and who has preyed on more than 20,000 unsuspecting donors, collecting more than $1 million in the process.
In just its first three weeks of operation, Hawes’ PAC spent more than $108,000 on Facebook ads, offering an opportunity to win “Dinner with Donald Trump” — and netted itself nearly $350,000 in donations, according to federal records.
I have a game on my phone called Cribbage Pro which displays advertisements after the completion of each game. Recently I noticed that one of the ads was advertising a chance for “Dinner with Donald Trump.” I’ve been waiting for that one to pop up again to check whether it’s actually from the Trump campaign or this guy but I haven’t seen it again yet. The picture certainly looks similar.
Is Ian Hawes doing anything illegal here? That doesn’t seem to be very clear, at least at first glance. If he’s reporting all of the contributions as required by election law, along with his expenditures, then he’s pretty much a PAC like any other. And that seems to be the case, since Politico was only able to contact most of the donors who gave more than $200 because they had been put in an FEC filing. Of course, they’re not particularly happy about it.
“I feel ripped off and taken advantage of. This is horrible. That was not my intent,” said Mary Pat Kulina, who owns a paper-shredding company in Maryland and gave $265 to Hawes’s group. Kulina thought she had given to Trump’s campaign until told otherwise by POLITICO. “This is robbery,” she said. “I want my money back and I want them to add up what they stole from people and give it to Donald Trump.”
The problem here is that Hawes may have been precisely clever enough to avoid any trouble… maybe. At the bottom of his website it clearly says that he’s not authorized by or affiliated with any candidate or campaign. He’s reportedly spent precisely zero dollars supporting Trump thus far with the lion’s share of the donations going to his own, private “media purchasing” company. But I’m not sure that he actually has to spend any of it to comply with the law as long as he reports it all through the proper channels. The only question is whether or not there’s an implied promise that somebody will win dinner with The Donald by entering his “contest.” But the contest on the website specifically says that no contribution is required to enter and you’re just trying for a “chance” to have dinner with Trump. Does that mean that somebody actually will? He supposedly has no connection to Trump so that would be a neat trick to pull off.
This one walks and quacks like a duck so it certainly looks like a rip-off. But given our arcane campaign finance laws I’m not sure if anyone can do anything about it beyond warning donors away from the site.