Buying of the President

Published — September 16, 2016

Expats puzzled after Donald Trump gives back their cash

Republican’s campaign refunded legit money from U.S. citizens abroad following flap over illegal foreign contribution


A pair of passionate Donald Trump supporters living abroad were surprised to learn this week that the Republican presidential candidate no longer wanted their money.

Henryk Zaleski, a 64-year-old retired U.S. Navy veteran who now lives in Norway, has given Trump $275. He told the Center for Public Integrity that he was “floored” when he discovered Trump’s campaign had returned his contributions.

Likewise, 52-year-old investment banker Ben Gelfand of Toronto was thrown to hear that the Trump campaign had rejected his $1,000 donation from June.

Gelfand said he provided the Trump campaign with information affirming his U.S. citizenship earlier this year. “They know I’m a U.S. citizen,” he told the Center for Public Integrity.

Apparently, the Trump campaign does not.

On Monday, Trump’s campaign told the Federal Election Commission that it had returned the donations from Zaleski, Gelfand and a third donor, Marc Pierrot of Hong Kong, who could not immediately be reached for comment.

“If a contribution is received with a foreign address, the committee sends a request for a copy of a valid U.S. passport and rejects contributions from contributors whose status cannot be confirmed with a passport,” Trump campaign treasurer Timothy Jost wrote to the agency.

Jost’s letter came just hours after the Center for Public Integrity revealed how a foreign national — Shahriyar Nasir of Toronto — had illegally donated $225 to Trump’s campaign in April.

Neither the Trump campaign nor the FEC had spotted Nasir’s illegal donation, though Trump spokeswoman Hope Hicks said Nasir’s money has now been returned.

But the FEC, last month, did flag the contributions from Zaleski, Gelfand and Pierrot as potentially impermissible.

Alerting candidates that they’ve received money from foreign addresses is routine for the agency, and it doesn’t itself mean the donations are prohibited.

Americans living outside the country may legally donate to politicians, but foreign nationals may not. Only foreigners with permanent resident status in the United States may make political donations.

It’s generally up to campaigns to verify whether someone is legally allowed to make political contributions.

Neither Jost nor Hicks of the Trump campaign responded to requests for comment for this story.

For his part, Gelfand, who is registered to vote in Ohio, said he backed President Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012. Now, however, he’s on the Trump train.

“I’m a guy that votes by candidate, not by party,” Gelfand said.

Meanwhile, Zaleski said the Trump campaign had contacted him this week to review his voter registration information — but not to request proof of his citizenship.

“I have a lot of patience for people who make mistakes due to inexperience,” Zaleski said. “But we sure wasted a lot of time for no reason.”

Zaleski added that he, earlier this week, had voluntarily mailed the Trump campaign a copy of his passport, a copy of his Florida voter registration card and a copy of his retired military ID card. He’s also (again) attempting to donate to Trump’s campaign — he enclosed a check along with the documentation.

“Mr. Obama thinks himself to be a king of sorts, and Hillary [Clinton] is not the answer to counter the Obama years,” Zaleski said. “Let’s make America great again. I strongly believe we can with [Trump] at the helm.”

Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer in the Washington, D.C., office of Akerman LLP, said tracking down donors who live abroad can be a time-intensive activity for campaigns.

Obtaining copies of U.S. passports, Kappel said, is “a task that would take a great deal of staff time per contribution, assuming the contributors are even willing to provide their passport to anyone in an age of rampant identity theft.”

Read more in Money and Democracy

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