US investigates whether Trump's inaugural cash was spent improperly – report

Ed Pilkington in New York

Legal woes mount as NBC also reports Trump was present for talks over National Enquirer payments

Donald Trump delivers his inaugural address on 20 January 2017. Photograph: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Donald Trump’s inaugural committee, which managed the $107m celebrations in Washington to mark the start of his presidency in 2017, has become the latest focus of federal prosecutors who, according to the Wall Street Journal, are now investigating whether the money was properly spent.

The Journal reports that Manhattan-based prosecutors are in the “early stages” of a criminal investigation into how the record sum for such a presidential inauguration was used, as well as whether huge donations were made in return for easy access to the Trump administration as it entered power. The newspaper says that were evidence found of improper spending or quid pro quo, it could amount to a criminal violation of US anti-corruption laws.

The scrutiny of Trump’s campaign finances will intensify after reports that prosecutors are investigating whether Trump’s inaugural committee and a pro-Trump super PAC received illegal donations from foreigners hoping for influence over US policy.

Citing people familiar with the inquiry, the New York Times reported on Thursday night that the inquiry was focusing on individuals from Middle Eastern nations using straw donors to hide their own gifts to the Trump funds.

The new focus on Trump’s inauguration is the latest trouble to beset the president as a result of the dramatic downfall of his former lawyer and fixer Michael Cohen who was sentenced to three years in prison this week. Cohen had pleaded guilty to federal crimes that included paying hush money to two women alleging sexual affairs with Trump in order to silence them during the 2016 election.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the FBI raid on Cohen’s home and office in April resulted in the disclosure of a recorded conversation between the lawyer and Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, a former adviser to Melania Trump. In the conversation Wolkoff, one of the main producers of the 20 January 2017 inauguration celebrations, is alleged to have “expressed concern” about how the inaugural committee was spending the money it had raised.

The Journal also reports that in their new inauguration inquiry, prosecutors are drawing on the help of Rick Gates, the former deputy chairman of the Trump inaugural committee. Gates pleaded guilty in February to a number of charges brought against him by the special counsel in the Russia investigation, Robert Mueller, and as part of his plea deal agreed to cooperate with the US justice department.

Many of the top donors to Republican causes in general, and to the 2016 Trump presidential campaign in particular, were represented among those who gave large sums to the inaugural fund. They include the Las Vegas casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, whose wife, Miriam, was last month bestowed by Trump with the highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The inaugural committee was headed by another major conservative donor, the real estate developer Thomas Barrack. There is no suggestion that either Adelson or Barrack are subject of the federal investigation.

The Trump family after Donald Trump took his oath of office. Photograph: Jim Bourg/Reuters

The legal peril for Trump is now piling up as a result of the Cohen fallout. Cohen himself, as well as federal prosecutors and the judge in his case, are agreed that the lawyer paid the hush money to the two women alleging affairs, Stormy Daniels and Karen McDougal, at the direction of Trump personally – an allegation that Trump has denied.

Further legal misery has landed on Trump after the publisher of the National Enquirer admitted in an agreement with federal authorities that it had also coordinated with the Trump presidential campaign to pay $150,000 hush money to kill off a story of Trump’s alleged adultery. American Media Inc, which owns the Enquirer, said the magazine’s publisher, David Pecker, had offered to buy the story and then suppress its publication, in a so-called “catch and kill” deal.

Deepening the hole for the president, NBC reported on Thursday that Trump himself was present in the room in August 2015 when Pecker and Cohen discussed how the supermarket tabloid could play a part in quashing stories about Trump’s alleged affairs as the presidential election got under way. NBC said it had confirmed that Trump was at the meeting when a $150,000 payment to be made “in concert with the campaign” was discussed.

The mounting evidence places him increasingly at the center of campaign finance violations that have already led to prison time for Cohen. While criminal charges are unlikely to be brought against the president while in office, it does raise the risk that he could face charges when he leaves the White House.