Trump's Election Grift? It's Called a ScamPAC
Constant demands for contributions to an "Election Defense Fund" that didn't exist were not only an attempt to enrich the Former Guy and his circle, but essential to controlling the GOP
We get to take a breather today because today’s J6 special committee hearing has been postponed. But it also allows us to dig into a theme from Monday: the post-election financial landscape. Do you have a friend who would like to join our community? If so, please:
On Tuesday, the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol, as seems to be their style, left us with a cliffhanger. If former President Donald J. Trump knew that he had lost the election fair and square, were his constant appeals to supporters—sometimes almost two dozen a day—for an “Election Defense Fund” fraudulent?
The inescapable answer is yes, of course, they were. But whether Trump’s appeals were criminal or not cuts right to the heart of how we finance elections in the United States—and how much of that money is siphoned off to activities and causes that go well beyond the races or causes which donors believe they are supporting. Since 1978, we have permitted candidates to create political action committees called “Leadership PACs” that permit candidates to raise money to extend their influence. According to the non-partisan campaign fundraising website, Open Secrets, “Leadership PACs are designed for two things: to make money and to make friends, both of which are crucial to ambitious politicians looking to advance their careers.” They pay expenses that can’t be funded by campaign committees, and they allow candidates to funnel money to other candidates.
First, what was “Election Defense Fund” a Leadership PAC? Answer: No, because it didn’t exist. But Save America, which is where over half the money ended up, after passing through another entity called the Save America Joint Fundraising Committee, is. “Part of what makes this jarring is the degree to which it’s a fraudulent scam wrapped in a fraudulent scam,” Steve Benen at MSNBC.com pointed out: “Trump started with a lie — the election results were illegitimate — and then added another lie on top of it by telling those who believed the first lie to go grab their wallets and contribute to Election Defense Fund that had nothing to do with defending elections.”
Instead, in its pitstop at the Save America Joint Fundraising Committee, some of the money went to expenses connected to the pre-insurrection rally on the Ellipse. In addition to the basic costs attendant to assembling a large group of conspiracy theorists, members of Trump’s inner circle got little payouts at this stage. Kimberly Guilfoyle, for example, earned $60,000 for a speech at the Ellipse rally on January 6 that lasted less than three minutes. This fee was actually paid through Turning Point Action, an arm of Charlie Kirk’s youth mobilization, Turning Point USA. But was Turning Point Action just another pass-through for “Election Defense Fund” money? Were other rally speakers—including members of Congress—paid as well? Unclear.
But we can probably be confident in this premise: that Trump and everyone connected with him were grabbing what they could on the way out the door. As my mother kept saying in the weeks before the First Family fled the White House: “I hope someone is counting the silver!”
One fact is indisputable, however: that the money that contributors believed would pay for court challenges and recounts was effectively being laundered and redistributed as quickly as possible. Their donations actually went to an FEC entity called the Save America Joint Fundraising Committee, registered on November 9, 2020, less than a week after election day. This fund collected and disbursed millions of dollars in the next two months. According to the committee’s senior investigative counsel, Amanda Wick, between its founding and January 6, Save America “made millions of dollars of contributions to pro-Trump organizations,” including former “Trump Chief of Staff Mark Meadows’s charitable foundation” and the “Trump Hotel Collection.”
Why the Trump Hotel Collection? It's unclear, except that because the rules for spending PAC money are far looser than the rules governing campaign money, candidates and their agents can use them for a broader range of things—including personal expenses. So there’s that.
But look at the disbursements made from almost $90 million of Save America Joint Fundraising Committee money in the first quarter of 2021. More than $58 million went to Save America and Make America Great Again PACs, and the rest of the money was plowed into media companies that were, and still are, busy promoting the Big Lie. Twelve million dollars went to Tatango, Inc., a company that runs text message campaigns; almost $5 million to WinRed, the GOP’s fundraising arm; $3.5 million to Red Spark Strategy, a digital advertising company; $2.9 million to Conservative Connector, an email marketing firm; and over $11 million in other advertising contracts—including over $2 million to Google.
These disbursements, in turn, brought in more money. So, in essence, for every dollar a small donor sent Donald Trump, they were investing 48 cents in an apparatus designed to keep fleecing them well beyond Joe Biden’s inauguration.
As Congresswoman Zoe Lofgren (D, CA-19) said in her opening remarks on Monday:
“Former President Trump’s plan to overturn the election relied on a sustained effort to deceive millions of Americans with knowingly false claims of election fraud. All elements of the plot relied on convincing his supporters about these false claims.
“Today, we’ll demonstrate the 2020 election was not stolen. The American people elected President Joe Biden. We’ll present evidence that Mr. Trump’s claims of election fraud were false, that he and his closest advisors knew those claims were false but they continued to peddle them anyway, right up until moments before a mob of Trump supporters attacked the Capitol.
“We’ll also show that the Trump campaign used these false claims of election fraud to raise hundreds of millions of dollars from supporters who were told their donations were for the legal fight in the courts.
“But the Trump Campaign didn’t use the money for that. The Big Lie was also a big rip off.
Yes, it was, and I want to emphasize this point: the money and the Big Lie were one, big Möbius strip of a scheme: the lie and the grift bleed seamlessly into one another. How much money has been raised to date from Trump’s election lies? According to Kenneth P. Vogel and Rachel Shorey of The New York Times, it’s $390 million. As of the first quarter of 2022, Trump retains control of $144 million of that money through his PACs.
And who are the people who got their pockets picked? Reporter Danny Westneat of the Seattle Times searched for some of the folks who contributed $2.7 million from Washington state, and he found a few. There was a babysitter who sent “twelve separate donations totaling $522,” which is a week’s pay, or 35 hours if you assume a wage of $15 an hour. Then there was “the school bus driver from Kitsap County who donated $300, the custodian in Port Orchard who gave $85,” and “the Costco clerk in Everett who plunked down a hefty $860.”
But here is what all of these poor people (and I am using the word “poor” in all senses) missed by shunning the mainstream media. Less than two weeks after the election, it was pretty clear that the “Election Defense Fund” was a grift. On November 16, 2020, Ann Ravel, the former chair of the Federal Election Commission and currently an expert in digital deception, appeared on CBS News to explain it. ”The term for raising money improperly,” she noted, “is called a "`Scam PAC,’ essentially, and that seems to be what is happening here.” She then said that “you could argue really strongly that it’s a fraud,” but one that the FEC rarely moves against. For a quick summary of the PAC landscape, you may wish to watch the whole interview:
So, where does this leave us? First, the fundraising for a non-existent “Election Defense Fund” potentially had multiple, immediate uses beyond keeping Trump in power. It could pay off outstanding campaign debt, enrich family members and loyal supporters, and plow money into the various businesses into which the Trump presidency had been pumping federal and campaign cash since 2015. But it also supported a vast propaganda campaign that simultaneously supported Trump’s Big Lie, amplified the popular rage that resulted in the January 6 insurrection, and persuaded Trump supporters to fund an apparatus designed to keep fleecing them for the indefinite future.
This story should also persuade us that, should we wish to invest in battling real election fraud, the various reforms urgently needed to ensure that votes are honestly counted and reported are just the tip of the iceberg. In addition, we badly need campaign finance reform. Because what Donald Trump has now done is use existing election law to create a structure and a donor base that has given him a vice grip over the Republican party.
And the autocrats in waiting—Ron DiSantis, Greg Abbott, and Josh Hawley, to name a few—are sure to duplicate it.
Was Rudy Giuliani drunk when he shoved saner heads aside on Election Night and told Trump he had to fight for an election that had been “stolen” from him? Probably, but that is hardly a surprise. “What's astounding is that 19 months later — after numerous lawsuits and audits failed to uncover any evidence of meaningful fraud — the leadership of the Republican Party is still on Giuliani's side,” writes Judd Legum at Popular Information. “Top Republicans refuse to acknowledge that Trump and Giuliani's claims of fraud were baseless.” And they aren’t drunk, as far as any of us in the media can tell. (June 14, 2022)
Trump’s defense against anything criminal, even as a CEO, has been that other people were responsible and that he didn’t know what others were doing in his name. All he knows is what he is “told,” so should the findings of the J6 select committee result in a criminal referral, expect him to throw the Rudy Giuliani/Lin Wood/Sidney Powell/Peter Navarro clown car under the proverbial bus. But, as Mona Charen points out at The Bulwark, the President of the United States is actually responsible for getting the best information possible—not trolling in the gutter of conspiracy until he hears what he wants to hear. “In our era of curated news and information silos, we must ask not, `What did he know?’ but `What was it that he knew or should have known?’” Charen writes. “This is the standard in tort law.” (June 14, 2022)
Maybe we don’t talk about how much generational strife is roiling progressive organizations because we don’t want to air dirty laundry in front of the GOP. But it’s a problem, particularly for a Democratic party that expects to get much of its energy on Election Day from progressive, grassroots organizations. At The Intercept, Ryan Grim has done in-depth reporting across multiple organizations and finds they spend excessive time just managing conflict. Yes, remote work is an issue, and so is heightened social consciousness. But so are expectations from younger workers that workplaces will accommodate all of their expectations, and if they don’t, it must reflect inequity. “The belief was widespread,” Grim writes of one summit where executive directors discussed the problem. In the eyes of group leaders dealing with similar moments, staff were ignoring the mission and focusing only on themselves, using a moment of public awakening to smuggle through standard grievances cloaked in the language of social justice.” And who are the too-frequent targets of their rage? Executives of color. (June 13, 2022)
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