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Opinion Trump faces a new threat: Scrutiny of ‘stop the steal’ money scam

Former president Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., on Sept. 3. (Mary Altaffer/AP)

The upstanding folks around Donald Trump have been hit with a wave of new subpoenas in connection with the Justice Department investigation into efforts to overturn the election, the New York Times reports. Some appear aimed at probing his Save America PAC, which raised an enormous pile of cash ostensibly to fight the “stolen” election, then channeled the loot elsewhere.

That’s surely one of the most reprehensible scams the former president has perpetrated. And so, if it’s producing new legal vulnerabilities for Trump and his allies, well, it couldn’t be happening to a nicer bunch of grifters.

There are approximately 40 new subpoenas, according to the Times, and some are aimed at probing efforts to get fake presidential electors appointed to further Trump’s plot to thwart certification of President Biden’s victory. That’s commanding much attention, as the Justice Department’s investigation of that particular scheme appears to be seriously advancing.

But the Times also reports this:

For months, associates of Mr. Trump have received subpoenas related to other aspects of the investigations into his efforts to cling to power. But in a new line of inquiry, some of the latest subpoenas focus on the activities of the Save America political action committee, the main political fund-raising conduit for Mr. Trump since he left office.

The Associated Press adds more, reporting that subpoenas have been issued to seek “information about the political action committee’s fundraising practices.”

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This is of interest because the Save America PAC’s “fundraising practices” seem to represent the moment when the “big lie” monetized itself into the “big grift” in spectacular fashion.

As the Jan. 6 House select committee documented, Trump and his allies raised as much as $250 million with countless texts and emails that were full of lies about the 2020 election. Some missives, which were sent out in the run-up to Jan. 6, 2021, called for donations to an “Official Election Defense Fund.”

But that fund didn’t exist, the committee demonstrated. Much of the money flowed to the newly created Save America PAC, not “election-related litigation.” That PAC donated millions to groups connected to top Trump advisers, the committee claimed, such as former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows.

In short, Trump’s 2020 lies didn’t just incite the Jan. 6 attack. They also raked in extraordinary sums from people who were likely despairing about Trump’s loss and believed his lie that the election had been stolen from them.

Barbara McQuade, a former U.S. attorney, points out that a Justice Department investigation into this scheme would likely build on what the Jan. 6 committee learned. Federal prosecutors have likely collected much of the same documentation.

If so, McQuade says, it might implicate something such as wire fraud, which requires use of electronic communications.

“Proving a fraud can sometimes be a fairly easy task,” McQuade told me. “All you need to show is that people raised money by representing one set of facts, while knowing that those facts were false.”

McQuade characterized how these charges might look: “They said the election was stolen because they wanted to get people riled up and extract money from them.” An alternate falsehood, McQuade said, might be that the cash was raised with the promise of fighting the “stolen” election but was funneled to other purposes.

We don’t know who, specifically, might be targeted in such an investigation or who it might lead to. But the Times says subpoenas went to “a wide variety” of people around Trump, “from low-level aides to his most senior advisers.”

There’s a certain clarity to this particular scam that is sometimes missing from the Jan. 6 saga. When they defend efforts to overturn the election, Trump propagandists have muddied the waters by suggesting he merely exercised legal options he legitimately thought were open to him.

But in the case of this fundraising, the story might prove much cleaner: Trump and his advisers knew the election hadn’t been stolen from him, but lied relentlessly to the contrary, apparently for the express purpose of getting people to send money that wasn’t even used to “stop the steal.”

It’s unclear whether this investigation, like other ongoing ones, will ever result in charges. But either way, the revelations are politically damaging, in part because this con is so easy to grasp and the contempt for its marks is so glaring.

What’s more, such probes also stoke the investigative interest of news organizations. That’s already happening: An Associated Press exposé digs into the Save America PAC and documents sordid details about what was actually done with the “stop the steal” booty:

Trump has dedicated the money to other uses. He’s financed dozens of rallies, paid staff and used the money to travel as he’s teased an expected 2024 presidential run.

Unfortunately, Trump’s use of the money for rallies while feinting toward a 2024 run makes it less likely that the scam’s victims will hold it against him. They likely see the rallies as a way for Trump to fight back against the stolen election — on their behalf — and view the possibility of another run as a thrilling prospect, as a way to achieve vengeance over it.

So a good number of Trump’s victims might never be the wiser. But the rest of the country surely will be.