Think "building maintenance," and you probably imagine plumbing, a new coat of paint, or a replacement toilet-paper dispenser.
But when the Republican National Committee in June spent more than $14,000 on "building maintenance," none of its facilities were getting a face-lift.
Instead, the RNC purchased face masks designed to limit the spread of COVID-19, according to Insider interviews and a review of federal campaign-finance disclosures released earlier this week.
The RNC ordered the masks at a time when President Donald Trump and other prominent Republicans were refusing to cover their faces in public. The purchases show Republican leaders were taking the coronavirus more seriously than they'd been publicly letting on.
"They didn't buy lacrosse sticks or baseball bats," said Jake McCampbell, who confirmed his California-based sporting-goods company StringKing scored a $9,301 mask order from the RNC.
Kim Williams, who owns I Bambini Clothing in Texas, also confirmed the RNC last month bought $4,500 worth of "handmade cloth masks" from her small company, which mainly makes clothes for children.
Both McCampbell and Williams credited their made-in-America lines of cloth face masks with helping keep their finances afloat and their workers employed at a time when many US businesses are struggling to survive.
StringKing, I Bambini Clothing, and two other vendors from which the RNC purchased its "building maintenance" on June 10 sell one item in common: COVID-19 face masks.
The RNC declined to comment on the nature of its "building maintenance" purchase, or why it publicly described protective face masks as such.
"As a general rule, we don't itemize beyond what is required" by the Federal Election Commission, the committee said in a statement to Insider.
Following publication of this article, RNC spokesperson Cassie Smedile told Insider that "there was no obfuscation" on the committee's part.
"When we buy pens and pencils, the description is not 'pens and pencils' on the FEC report," she said. "These generic descriptions are traditionally how expenses are reported and processed."
That's mostly, but not entirely true: The RNC disclosed a purchase of "pens" in a 2012 FEC report. More recently, on May 20, the committee disclosed a "paper supplies" purchase of $324, and it's also reported several instances of "painting services" and "painting costs" over the years.
Legal or not?
Did the RNC violate federal campaign rules with its misleading spending disclosure? No, three election-law attorneys said.
That's because neither Congress nor the FEC has required the RNC or any political committee to provide more than broad descriptions of its purchases, said Erin Chlopak, the director of campaign-finance strategy for the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.
Karl Sandstrom, a former Democratic FEC commissioner, described the finagling of political-spending disclosures as "a practiced art" among political-campaign accountants.
The FEC almost certainly would not penalize the RNC for describing COVID-19 face-mask purchases as "building maintenance," Sandstrom added — not that the FEC could even do so, considering it doesn't have enough commissioners right now.
Bradley Smith, a former Republican chairman of the FEC, said it was "entirely appropriate" for the RNC to pay for COVID-19 face masks using its national party-building fund, an obscure class of political money created by Congress in 2014 as part of its "cromnibus" spending bill.
"They do not benefit particular candidates, they are a safety measure akin to repairing emergency exits and maintaining fire extinguishers," Smith, who is now the chairman of the nonprofit Institute for Free Speech, said. "They are a normal cost in maintaining and operating the facility, as provided by law."
Trump for months resisted wearing a mask in public and mocked presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden for doing so. Many prominent conservatives echoed Trump's views on mask-wearing.
The Associated Press in May reported that Trump told confidants he would look "ridiculous" in a mask and that detractors would use the images against him in political advertisements.
But as COVID-19 infections across the nation spiked and his reelection poll numbers plummeted, Trump abruptly changed his mind.
On July 11, Trump appeared at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, donning a black face covering. On Monday, the president went further, declaring mask-wearing a "patriotic" act. On Thursday, he canceled in-person portions of the Republican National Convention in Jacksonville, Florida, citing concerns over the novel coronavirus, which causes COVID-19.
Nothing prevents political committees from volunteering more information about their campaign purchases than the federal government requires.
Several Republican and Democratic groups have publicly said they're spending campaign cash on COVID-19 face masks.
In April, for example, the Committee on Arrangements for the 2020 Republican National Convention disclosed a $525 purchase for masks.
America First Action, a pro-Trump super PAC, reported to federal regulators that it spent more than $40,000 on "puzzles and face masks" for distribution to contributors.
Also in May, the campaign of Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York purchased $3,600 worth of KN95 face masks, according to a disclosure filed with the FEC.
"The more details committees provide, the more helpful it is for the public," Chlopak said.