To open an email from former President Donald Trump’s Save America committee is to be berated, flattered, dismissed and forgiven, sometimes all in one message.
The emails take readers from the depths of reproach — “Today is the FINAL Day to reach our End-of-Month goal – where have you been?” — to the sweet relief of needy embrace — “Before I go on stage to speak, I must know if I have YOUR SUPPORT.”
Emotions spike with all-caps countdowns, as some unspecified deadline rushes near: “My son, Don, emailed you. Team Trump emailed you. And now I’m emailing you one more time.”
Or the missives burst with urgent, giddy revelations: “I just couldn’t wait any longer to tell you this EXCITING NEWS. MY FATHER JUST RELEASED OFFICIAL TRUMP-EDITION GOLF BALLS,” Donald Trump Jr. purportedly hollars.
Amid this flood of amped-up entreaties — and I do mean flood; on August 5, a random Friday, I got 15 of these emails — one specific tactic appears repeatedly.
It follows the same format: If you donate in x timeframe (an hour, a day), we will multiply your contribution by x amount. One recent message promises that donations will be increased by 1000 percent, another by 10x.
Such a promise, if it were being substantiated, would almost certainly run afoul of contribution limits. The Save America joint fundraising committee (which is comprised of two PACs, Save America and Make America Great Again) allows a $5,000 contribution max from either an individual or another PAC — in line with the annual cap on such donations under the Federal Election Commission (FEC).
Under Trump’s 10x matching scheme, any contribution above $500 would create issues, assuming a single wealthy donor was matching the contribution. Instead, the committee would have to have a bunch of different wealthy donors lined up — wealthy donors who hadn’t yet contributed — to circumvent that $5,000 donation cap. That’d be logistically intensely difficult, and even more so when these offers hit the inboxes of Trump acolytes every few days.
So what’s going on here? Is there actually a matching donor? A cast of many wealthy matching donors who rotate through annually? The Save America committee did not respond to TPM’s questions.
The matching model makes more sense in the charity and nonprofit world, where it’s often used, and where donations are far less regulated. Without contribution limits, one very rich donor could plop down a lump sum, and smaller donors could realistically be promised a match for their donations.
Yet, infeasibility aside, the claim of matching donations is a ubiquitous practice in political solicitations, and doesn’t discriminate by party: a bunch of Democrats have been known to use it too. Numbers like a 10x match, however, were unusual. Until Trump.
“Everyone has used this matching thing,” Brett Kappel, a lawyer at Harmon Curran who specializes in campaign finance, told TPM. “Trump just did it on a larger scale.”
If the matching promises are indeed going unfulfilled, they would live in the murky median between unscrupulous plea and fraudulent misrepresentation, experts told TPM.
There is not a specific campaign finance law dealing with this kind of tactic. And the content of solicitations is largely out of the FEC’s wheelhouse.
“When the RNC or Trump campaign or whoever else puts out an email that in the next 12 hours, someone will match — I don’t think anybody regulates or verifies that,” Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told TPM. “It is deceptive but I’m not even sure it’s fraud — it’s just unscrupulous to make a promise and use that to get people to part with their money without verifying that you’re following through.”
There is some evidence that that may change, though.
A Nevada man pleaded guilty to one count of wire fraud last year after the Department of Justice found he had run scam PACs, which appeared to support the candidacies of Trump and then-candidate Joe Biden, respectively. Scammer James Bell made false filings with the FEC, the DOJ said, in which he claimed that he’d made expenditures on behalf of the campaigns. But most interestingly, the DOJ specifically mentioned Bell’s practice of promising nonexistent donation matches.
“The solicitations promised that individual donations would be ‘5x matched’ by Bell’s PACs,” the press release said, adding: “However, none of the individual donations was ever ‘5x matched’ by Bell or anyone else.”
The DOJ’s choice to single out the practice caught the eye of experts and politicians alike.
“That put candidates on notice when using match language to solicit money,” Stephen Spaulding, senior counsel for public policy and government affairs at Common Cause, told TPM. “It was a clear warning that you cannot materially misrepresent to donors whether or not there’s gonna be a match.”
The Bell case was part of a flurry of DOJ crackdowns on scam PACS. So far, the scams the department has focused on have been more sprawling than just deceptive matching promises alone. And other misleading practices — like a Trump gambit that tricked many ardent supporters into accidentally agreeing to sometimes financially ruinous recurring donations — have gotten more attention.
But experts agree that there should be reforms strengthening laws against donor hoodwinking like false matching promises.
And the FEC — though frequently stalemated along partisan lines — has asked Congress for more authority to defend donors from “scam PACs or committees that defraud their contributors.”
Right now, the toolbox is fairly sparse.
Going after PAC behavior “does require some creativity and aggressiveness by prosecutors, since we don’t have a really well articulated federal campaign finance regulatory scheme,” Michael Kang, professor at Northwestern’s Pritzger school of law, told TPM. “And the FEC — even if we had better laws, it’s not clear they’d do a lot.”
For Trump, who was recently raided by the FBI, who earlier this month was deposed by New York Attorney General Letitia James, and who famously continues to be ensnared in countless other legal entanglements, a campaign practice that toes the line — even if it may deceive some of his most loyal supporters — is probably fairly low on his list of concerns.
“The former President has many, many other more important legal issues facing him than mail and wire fraud,” Kappel quipped.