The president isn’t the only Trump who appears to be exploring the boundaries of campaign fundraising. Aides to his son Donald Trump Jr. have formed a political action committee called Save the U.S. Senate PAC that is focused on the runoff elections in Georgia in early January. It will produce ads starring Trump Jr. that aim to boost turnout for the contests.
If you are not intimately familiar with the nuances of federal election law, you may be curious how money can be raised into these committees and how it can be spent. To explain, we reached out to Lawrence Noble, former general counsel to the Federal Election Commission and adjunct professor at American University’s Washington College of Law.
Save America PAC
What it can receive: Contributions from individuals or other committees of up to $5,000 per year.
What it can spend: The PAC can make contributions of $5,000 per year to other campaign committees — but is otherwise largely unlimited in how it spends what it has received.
Trump’s Save America PAC is a leadership PAC, a type of committee formed by current or former elected officials. Many prominent members of Congress, past and current, have similar committees, allowing them to take contributions that can be used to contribute to other candidates or to fund political activity.
Or, really, to fund basically anything. The money in the Save America PAC, unlike money contributed to a standard campaign committee, can be used to benefit Trump in innumerable ways. Memberships at golf clubs. Travel. Rallies. Even payments directly to Trump himself, as long as he declares it as income.
“With a candidate committee, there is a personal-use prohibition,” Noble explained. “So they cannot use money in a candidate committee for anyone’s personal use: They can’t pay exorbitant salaries, they can’t give gifts to people. If you’re talking about a leadership PAC or an independent expenditure PAC” — more on that in a bit — “there’s no prohibition on how they use the money.”
One restriction is that Trump can’t use all of that money to pay off the debt incurred by his actual presidential campaign. He can only give $5,000 to that campaign committee, same as any other. Given that the campaign has been so energetic about fundraising for the leadership PAC, either Save America has to pay the campaign for the cost of its email list or it is receiving a non-monetary contribution from Trump’s campaign itself that both entities would need to declare.
The goal here is to allow people like, say, former House speaker John A. Boehner to stay in the mix, raising some money to jet around and contribute to his old allies. But because of the relatively spare limitations imposed on such committees, there’s a lot of leeway in how the controlling candidate can use the money.
Donors to the committee, of course, probably don’t know any of this. Yes, there’s some fine print once you get to the contribution page explaining that the money given will go to Save America up to a certain point, but the impression one gets from the campaign’s voluminous emails is that the money will go to Trump’s dubious efforts to wrench a second term from the jaws of electoral defeat.
To some extent, it could. Rudolph W. Giuliani, for example, who serves as Trump’s personal attorney, occupies some nebulously defined space between Trump the individual, Trump the candidate and Trump’s actual campaign. Giuliani’s work directly for the campaign, like representing it in court, would have to be paid by the campaign. (According to the New York Times, he requested $20,000 a day for his efforts.) Other appearances, like the one Giuliani made Monday in Arizona, might be on Save America’s dime, depending on the role he’s playing. It’s all murky, probably delineated in documents drafted by lawyers who know where the lines are drawn and how pliable they happen to be.
Save the U.S. Senate PAC
What it can receive: Unlimited contributions from nearly anyone, including businesses (which seems likely) and labor unions (which doesn’t). It cannot take money from foreign nationals, however.
What it can spend: As much as it wants on whatever it wants, as long as it isn’t coordinating with a campaign committee or subsidizing campaign expenses, including by contributing to the campaign.
The PAC started by Trump Jr.’s aides — presumably with his blessing or input — has fewer boundaries on what it receives and slightly more on what it spends.
Save the U.S. Senate PAC can be given millions of dollars by corporations or individuals that are then spent on “independent expenditures.” The key word there is “independent”: The money can’t be spent in coordination with a political campaign.
The reason should be obvious. If the PAC could raise millions of dollars with the stroke of a pen and then be told by a campaign where to spend it, there would be no use in regulating how campaigns raise and spend money. They’d simply find big donors to give to IE PACs and then tell them how best to use it.
So when the Trump Jr. PAC hits the ground in Georgia, it can’t coordinate with the campaigns of the Republican Senate candidates or help cover the campaigns’ costs. It can’t, for example, pay 80 percent of the salary of a staffer for a candidate, allowing the campaign to pay one-fifth of what it would normally.
What it can do, though, is spend money on anything else. Noble’s explanation of how leadership PACs are unburdened by personal-use prohibitions applies here, too.
This is interesting to consider in the context of Kimberly Guilfoyle, Trump Jr.’s girlfriend. During the campaign, the Trump campaign was accused of hiding significant spending by passing it through companies operated by Brad Parscale, then Trump’s campaign manager. That reportedly included a salary for Guilfoyle, who was representing the campaign at events. With the creation of the Save the U.S. Senate, Guilfoyle could simply be paid directly by the PAC for the work she does — or for doing nothing. So, too, could Trump Jr. or the aides that set it up.
Again, there are a lot of ways in which things could get wonky. Political action committees are usually big, complicated endeavors that demand careful attention from experts to avoid crossing legal lines. But they were created under the assumption that they would be used in the way the creators envisioned: by good-faith political actors looking solely to bolster their political voice.
That’s not necessarily a fair assumption about what Trump plans to do.
“The problem with figuring all of this out is that it doesn’t appear that they’re actually following any strategic plan that fits within the campaign finance laws,” Noble explained. “I always feel like you’re chasing them, trying to figure out exactly what they’re doing and how it fits together.”
What has obviously happened so far is Trump and his team have figured out a way to parlay his base’s concerns about the election — concerns Trump has been hyping for months — into a well-stocked bank account with few limitations on how it is used.