ORLANDO, Fla. ― After years of claiming he was so rich he didn’t need anyone else’s money for his political campaigns, Donald Trump is officially asking small-dollar donors ― many of them lower income and older ― to send him cash, potentially hurting the Republican Party’s small-dollar program.
The request was tucked in near the end of his first public appearance since leaving the presidency Jan. 20, a 90-minute speech Sunday that largely recycled his oft-repeated lies about the November election and his record in office.
“There’s only one way to contribute to our efforts, to elect ‘America first’ Republican conservatives. And in turn, to make America great again. And that’s through Save America PAC and Donald J Trump dot com,” he told his Conservative Political Action Conference audience.
One Trump adviser said that single request resulted in “millions of dollars” coming in to Trump’s new political committee and predicted it would eat into the Republican National Committee’s efforts to raise money from those donors.
“It’ll kill it,” the adviser said on condition of anonymity. “They’re not going to have a small-donor program anymore.”
What precise effect Trump’s new fundraising push for his own committee ― which he can use for virtually any purpose, including picking up his personal expenses or paying himself an eight-figure salary ― will have on the party’s efforts are unclear.
The RNC has had a healthy small-donor program, which targets those giving $50 or $20 or even $5 at a time, for decades. In 2001, for example, the party raised $40.2 million from donors who gave less than $200, accounting for 63% of the party’s total fundraising that year, according to a HuffPost analysis of Federal Election Commission filings. In 2009, those figures were $56.8 million and 69.8%.
From 2001 through 2015, the RNC collected 53.2% of its money from those who gave less than $200. From 2016 through 2020, it was 53.6%.
But in those Trump years, the party also received $156 million from a small-dollar fundraising committee it jointly ran with the Trump campaign, adding to the $428 million in small donations it raised on its own, although those solicitations frequently invoked Trump’s name in the email or text message.
One Republican close to RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said Trump told her recently that he’s willing to help the party raise money and that he plans to appear at an RNC donors retreat in Palm Beach, Florida, next month, along with other potential 2024 presidential candidates.
One former RNC member, though, said Trump’s independent solicitations for Save America PAC are certain to weaken the party’s parallel efforts. “It will definitely have a negative impact and all those people who contributed to the RNC just because of Trump will likely gravitate towards his own small-donor program,” said Steve Duprey, who was pushed out of the committee for being insufficiently loyal to Trump.
And a current RNC member, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said a major concern for the party is that Trump will use the money he raises not against Democrats in the coming midterm elections, but against Republicans who voted to impeach him for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol he incited or on those who have otherwise criticized him.
“It’s the temper tantrum PAC,” the member said, pointing to Trump’s attacks on other Republicans during his CPAC speech. “Trump’s agenda is quite different. It’s all about revenge.”
Trump boasted through the years that he did not need money from wealthy donors, from lobbyists or even from small-dollar contributors because he was so rich.
The boast, however, was never accurate. Even as he began his campaign in 2015, he funded his trips and staged his rallies using money generated by selling “Make America Great Again” hats and T-shirts. After he became the nominee in 2016, he immediately began soliciting money online from small donors and at traditional fundraisers from wealthy donors.
His money machine never let up, even after he won the presidency, allowing him to build a massive campaign operation starting almost immediately ― and also letting him funnel millions of dollars raised back into his own pocket by directing campaign and party spending at his own businesses.
All that time, however, Trump continued claiming he did not want or need his donors’ money, and he never asked for donations in a public setting ― until Sunday.
The Trump adviser said the former president now understands that a donor giving a few dollars a month becomes emotionally invested in his success and is much likelier to remain a strong supporter. “He now sees the power of a $5 donation. He’s finally got his head wrapped around that,” the adviser said, adding that Trump also needs money to remain relevant enough to run for his old job again in three years. “He needs cash. Cash puts him on the ground; it lets him do his rallies,” the adviser added.
According to new FEC filings, Trump on Saturday transformed his old campaign committee, Donald J. Trump For President, into the Make America Great Again PAC, which will allow him to use the $8 million left in it from his failed reelection bid for other purposes. His new webpage states that 90% of all donations go to Save America PAC, which he created in the days following his Nov. 3 loss, while 10% go to MAGA PAC. Donations are limited to $5,000 per year.
Trump is the first one-term president in modern times to nevertheless try to remain a force in national politics after losing reelection. He was able to raise $76 million for Save America in the weeks between the election and the Jan. 6 Capitol insurrection by claiming, in hundreds of fundraising texts and emails, that the money would let him pursue challenges to the election results and help Republicans hold Georgia’s two Senate seats. In the end, though, he spent none of that money for those purposes.
“Republican dollars were probably much more needed in Georgia,” said Paul Ryan, a campaign law expert with the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, adding that while Trump now claims he will help Republicans in the midterms, he is not required to. “He has shown a total and complete willingness to raise money for a stated reason and to spend it on something else. I have no doubt he will continue doing that.”