Did the Hillary Victory Fund Break the Law?

Bernie Sanders’s campaign claims a fundraising effort may have committed “serious apparent violations” of campaign-finance laws.

Brian Snyder / Reuters

The Bernie Sanders campaign is picking a fight with the Democratic Party, and the Hillary Clinton campaign.

On Monday, the Sanders campaign raised the possibility that the Hillary Victory Fund, a joint-fundraising committee for the Clinton campaign, the Democratic National Committee, and 32 state Democratic Parties, may have committed “serious apparent violations” of campaign-finance laws.

At the heart of the matter is a claim that the fundraising effort may be improperly subsidizing the Clinton campaign. A letter sent by Brad Deutsch, the Sanders campaign attorney, to DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, suggests that money spent by the fund has benefited the Clinton campaign in a way that could constitute “an impermissible in-kind contribution from the DNC and the participating state party committees.” The fund “appears to operate in a way that skirts legal limits on federal campaign donations and primarily benefits the Clinton presidential campaign,” a press release sent out by the Sanders campaign warned.

That doesn’t mean that the allegations are true. “It looks like basically sour grapes,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign-finance lawyer not affiliated with any presidential campaign. “He’s complaining that he’s being treated unfairly by the DNC, and I’m sure it appears that way to him, but joint-fundraising committees can be set up to raise money in just this way.” Election-law expert Rick Hasen wrote on his blog that “legally this seems weak.”

For Sanders, it could still be smart politics. It’s bold for a Democratic presidential candidate to take on the Democratic Party in the midst of a primary election. But it’s not unprecedented for the Sanders campaign, which has gotten into dust-ups with the DNC before. The most obvious risk is that the accusations will create friction between the campaign and the party. If Sanders makes it to the general election, he will likely need institutional support from establishment Democrats. Still, while it might be devastating for most Democratic candidates to pick a fight with the DNC, the tension could actually benefit the senator’s White House run.

The allegations play into a narrative that Sanders is a crusading reformer and outsider candidate, qualities that his loyal supporters love about him. They also threaten to fuel a negative perception of Clinton as a candidate who can’t be trusted—and one who the Democratic Party hopes to coronate by any means necessary. The incident might also help neutralize a line of attack that Clinton allies have used against Sanders. Clinton supporters have criticized Sanders for not doing more to raise money for the Democratic Party, casting Clinton as far more of a fundraising team player. Those attacks could lose potency if the Sanders campaign discredits the campaign and the party’s fundraising effort.

The scuffle also stands to deepen the growing divide in the Democratic Party as the primary season becomes increasingly fractious. Clinton campaign manager Robby Mook rebutted the accusations on Monday, saying in a statement that “the Sanders campaign’s false attacks have gotten out of hand.” The campaign later characterized the allegations as “irresponsible and poisonous.” “This latest incident is part of a troubling pattern of behavior,” Mook said in a statement, “in which Sanders and his team are not just debating us on issues (which we all agree is perfectly fair), but rather attacking Hillary Clinton’s character, integrity, and motivations.” The Clinton campaign is likely to point to the incident in the future as evidence that Sanders does not have the party’s best interests at heart.

For now, it seems unlikely that any kind of serious investigation will take place. The Sanders campaign letter was not addressed to the Federal Election Commission, but rather to the DNC, a possible indication that its contents were intended more to make a stir than prompt an inquiry. “This isn’t even a complaint to the FEC, but even if it were, the reality is the FEC is not likely to do anything about it or anything timely about it,” said Larry Noble, the general counsel for the Campaign Legal Center.

Whatever happens, the Sanders campaign is sure to make the most of it. The campaign sent out a fundraising email to supporters on Monday that declared, “Our opponent is bending campaign-finance rules to their breaking point.” It remains to be seen how far the Sanders campaign will take the allegations, which are sure to rile up Sanders supporters and could produce yet another fundraising windfall. Party unity will likely wither under the weight of it all.