WASHINGTON ― While President Donald Trump has raised many tens of millions of dollars with the promise of overturning his election loss last month, his supporters are mainly donating into a fund he could use for Big Macs, golf equipment and, if he wants, even more hush money payments.
Unlike political campaign and party committees, whose money cannot be converted to personal use by a candidate, Trump’s “Save America” is a so-called “leadership” PAC, with far less stringent rules regulating its spending.
“It’ll be a slush fund,” said Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer with the group Common Cause. “Trump could decide to pay himself $1 million a year out of this fund. That’s legal. He could pay [his children] Don Jr. and Ivanka, if he wanted to. It’s pretty clear that this is a classic bait-and-switch scheme.”
Neither the Trump campaign nor the Republican National Committee responded to HuffPost queries about Trump’s post-election fundraising. Save America’s first report for money raised and spent between Election Day and Nov. 23 is not due with the Federal Election Commission until later this week.
The Washington Post reported on Monday that Trump raised $150 million since Nov. 3, while The New York Times reported a $170 million total. Neither outlet broke down how much of that went to Save America versus Trump’s campaign and the RNC.
One top Republican fundraiser close to Trump laughed upon learning of the soon-to-be former president’s ability to use donor money for personal expenses. “Good for him,” he said on condition of anonymity. “I hope he does it to just to piss everybody off.”
Despite the prohibition against personally benefiting from money donated to his campaign, Trump as a candidate in 2016 and then as the sitting president for four years managed to circumvent that restriction by directing money ― both from his campaign as well as the RNC ― to his own businesses. These included his mixed-use Trump Tower building in New York City, his golf resorts, and his hotels, particularly the one just blocks from the White House in Washington, D.C. Those entities collected nearly $8 million between the time he took office and just before the election, according to a HuffPost analysis of FEC filings.
But much of that money went to pay operating costs of those businesses, with some smaller fraction winding up in Trump’s pocket. His Save America committee, in contrast, can pick up his personal expenses directly ― everything from travel and entertainment costs to mortgage payments to legal fees. It could even pay him a salary of however much he chooses to take.
Leadership PACs’ ostensible purpose is for elected officials to be able to raise and spend money to help colleagues win elections, thereby earning loyalty that those officials can use to further their own ambitions. They are typically created by members of Congress hoping to rise in their parties’ leadership ranks.
But while congressional ethics rules restrict members of the House and Senate from accepting income or other personal benefit from those PACs, no such restriction applies to Trump.
“The Trump campaign is running a fraudulent scam with the full assistance of the Republican Party.”
“Trump was a grifter before he was in the White House. He was a grifter while he was in the White House. There’s surely no reason to expect him to stop grifting as he leaves and once he’s gone,” said Robert Weissman, president of the watchdog group Public Citizen. “The special problem this time is, in conning his supporters, he’s also sowing deep distrust of the most basic institutions of our democracy, in ways that may have dire, long-term consequences.”
Most of the Trump campaign’s hundreds of texts and emails since Election Day to its list of small-dollar donors, in fact, have falsely suggested that Trump lost the Nov. 3 election because of fraud.
“Please contribute $5 IMMEDIATELY to DEFEND the Election from the Radical Left and you can increase your impact by 1000%,” read a Nov. 22 email.
“Our End-of-Month goal is crucial to ensuring we have the resources to DEFEND the Election, and we don’t want the President to see a list without YOUR NAME on it,” said another one five days later.
“We’re pacing behind our Deadline Goal! Pres Trump is doing something he’s never done before. ALL GIFTS 1000%-IMPACT FOR 1 HR. Donate NOW,” urged a text sent Monday. “We can’t let Biden & Kamala try to STEAL the Election.”
And an email on Tuesday read: “Making sure we have enough resources to protect the integrity of this Election is critical; especially when the Left and Fake News media are working overtime to try to STEAL IT.”
Those who click through the donation links wind up on a page for the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, which for four years has been a joint venture between the Trump campaign and the RNC, but which on Nov. 18 amended its mission to include Save America, the committee Trump registered six days after losing the election.
And while an animated color graphic urges donors to “Join the Election Defense Team,” the fine print beneath makes clear that the vast majority of donations will not send a single dime to any “election defense” effort.
According to that explanation, 75% of every donation goes to Trump’s Save America committee and 25% goes to the RNC’s general fund. Only after Save America has received $5,000 from any given donor does the Trump portion of the donation shift to a “recount” fund established within the Trump campaign. And only after the RNC portion of a donor’s total reaches $35,500 does that fraction start passing to the dedicated “legal proceedings” or “headquarters” funds that the RNC maintains.
Meaning that a single person’s donations must hit $6,666.67 before a single penny starts flowing to a dedicated recount fund. Because the emails and texts are sent to donors who typically give in the $20 or $50 range, the chance that any of the money winds up in either of the dedicated election funds is slim.
Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who unsuccessfully ran against Trump for the 2020 GOP presidential nomination, said Trump’s hardcore fans do not care. “I’ve brought it up to his supporters. They don’t believe it,” Walsh said.
“The Trump campaign is running a fraudulent scam with the full assistance of the Republican Party,” added Stuart Stevens, a top consultant to Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign. “No different than quack doctors selling fake cancer cures to desperate people. It’s shameful but true to form.”