Trump Is Fundraising For Legal Help Fighting A ‘Stolen’ Election. Nearly All The Money Is Actually Going Elsewhere.

US President Donald Trump points as he visits his campaign headquarters in Arlington, Virginia, November 3, 2020. (Photo by SAUL LOEB / AFP) (Photo by SAUL LOEB/AFP via Getty Images)
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November 10, 2020 5:25 p.m.

The Trump campaign has been unrelenting in recent days with its all-caps, bold font, exclamation-point-ridden fundraising appeals: “THE DEMOCRATS WANT TO STEAL THIS ELECTION!” “We can’t allow the Left-wing MOB to undermine our election.”

They urge supporters to make donations to President Donald Trump’s election integrity defense, to ensure he has the “resources” he needs to keep the election from being “stolen.” 

In reality, there is no election defense fund; the donations are siphoned into a mix of various committees. Up until Tuesday, some of the money was being used to pay down the Trump campaign’s debt. As of Tuesday morning though, the formula was changed to funnel most of the money into Trump’s new leadership PAC called Save America. 

“Donors who are giving in response to this urgent fundraising message to help defend the integrity of our election are actually helping fund Trump’s post-presidential political vehicle,” Brendan Fischer, director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told TPM. 

In the fine print of the fundraising blasts, it lays out that 60 percent of the contributions will first go to the new PAC, up to the maximum contribution of $5,000. The remaining 40 percent goes to the RNC up to the maximum $35,500. If that first 60 percent of the donation exceeds $5,000 the remnants go to the campaign’s “recount account”; if the 40 percent exceeds the $35,500 RNC maximum, only then does it go to the RNC’s legal defense fund. 

“Not a penny is dedicated to a legal expense account unless donors have maxed out their contributions to the first two committees, $5,000 to the leadership PAC and $35,500 to the RNC,” said Paul Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. 

Far from arming Trump in his fight against the election results, in most cases, most of the money will end up in the new leadership PAC. (Trump’s baseless claims of election theft are widely acknowledged to be the complaints of a sore loser which, while harmful to democracy, are completely lacking in validity.)

The Trump campaign did not immediately return a request for comment.

The creation of the PAC was first reported by the New York Times Monday night. The paper cast it as a way for Trump to maintain his power and authority over the party, and to harness his prolific fundraising abilities. 

Some see it as something darker. 

Calling leadership PACs “notorious” for being abused as slush funds, Ryan predicted that Trump will keep the coffers full by teasing a possible 2024 run, all the while finding ways to funnel money back to his businesses and family members. 

“This is a way that he can fleece his supporters to support his own lifestyle for the next few years regardless of whether he even runs in 2024,” Ryan said.

Trump couldn’t legally use the leadership PAC for a federal campaign, though he could use it to travel and give to other campaigns, keeping himself politically relevant. 

Brett Kappel, a campaign finance expert at the Harmon Curran law firm, added that there is another benefit for Trump in the PAC.

“The prohibition on the personal use of campaign funds also does not apply to leadership PACs — so leadership PAC funds could be used to pay the legal fees Trump will incur after he leaves office,” he told TPM.

This willingness to bait and switch his own supporters, like the willingness to pretend that President-Elect Joe Biden did not win this election legally and decisively, is not the work of Trump alone. Establishment Republicans are propping him up. 

“The allocation formula is entirely by choice, and the Trump campaign and RNC decided on that allocation formula,” Fischer said. “There is nothing stopping them from saying that 60 percent of the donations go to the recount account, or that even 100 percent of every donation goes to the recount account until it’s maxed.” 

“Oh yeah, the RNC is on the gravy train,” Ryan added.

The leadership PAC gives Trump an additional incentive to continue pretending that he can legitimately overturn a lost election, and the prospect of his sustained power within the party seems to be enough to get members of his administration and most congressional Republicans on board too. Some are even hijacking the idea to fill their own campaign war chests: South Dakota governor Kristi Noem’s (R) panicky “Democrats stealing the election” appeals flow right to her reelection account.

The ones abandoned on the freezing tarmac in this scheme? Trump’s supporters. Plus anyone who cares that Trump and his lackeys are kicking democracy in the shins on their way out.

“The underlying behavior of the sales pitch — in the post-election litigation really undermining the integrity of the election — makes this entire scheme by Trump and the RNC despicable,” Ryan said.

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