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Trump cracks down on deceptive fundraising by others using his name

While being known for his own false and misleading emails, Trump faces armies of unaffiliated fundraisers who ape his message and sometimes threaten Republicans in Trump’s name

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich, a candidate for U.S. Senate, was sent a cease-and-desist letter for his fundraising appeals. (Randy Hoeft/AP)

Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich has spent months groundlessly telling Republicans that they can be on “Trump’s Team” or “Endorse Trump for President in 2024” by giving to his U.S. Senate campaign.

“Are you turning your back on Pres. Trump?” one Brnovich fundraising ad asked last year. “Renew your 2022 membership before it is too late.”

Such appeals pushed the actual team of advisers around Trump to a breaking point in June, after Trump endorsed Brnovich’s rival, Blake Masters, for the Senate seat in Arizona. In a cease-and-desist letter obtained by The Washington Post, an attorney for Save America, Trump’s political action committee, threatened legal action if Brnovich did not stop using Trump’s image and name in misleading ways.

Trump’s lawyer pointed to a recent email with the subject line “ACCOUNT TERMINATION NOTICE” that threatened potential donors with losing “[a]ny chance of continuing to receive our Trump polls, Trump rally alerts, and 2024 Endorsement opportunities” if they did not give money to Brnovich.

“Your use of President Trump’s name, image, and/or likeness is likely to deceive individuals into believing President Trump supports, endorses, or otherwise promotes your candidacy for U.S. Senate in Arizona — he does not,” the attorney wrote, while adding that the wording of the email could confuse people into thinking they were giving to Trump.

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The letter was one of dozens of demands that Trump’s attorneys and aides have sent in recent years. But those efforts have not stopped the deceptive solicitations that flood Republican phones and inboxes daily. Eighteen months after leaving office, Trump remains the biggest draw for GOP donors, especially those who give small contributions. While he continues to rake in money, he also faces armies of unaffiliated fundraisers who ape or mimic Trump appeals and sometimes threaten or bully Republicans in Trump’s name to get money.

At the same time, Trump himself is no stranger to misleading fundraising appeals. His team often sends a dozen or more appeals in a day to gin up money, often with suspect claims, like saying donations will be matched 700 percent.

In one small example on Friday, a text message to Trump’s fundraising list began, “LIVE FROM MAR-A-LAGO! Pres Trump: It’s me, your FAVORITE President.” But Trump is not at Mar-a-Lago, having moved for the summer to his golf club in Bedminster, N.J.

The former president has complained that some of the emails from his team are “cheesy” and that they are annoying his supporters, in the words of one adviser, who, like others quoted in this report, spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal deliberations. At one point, Trump told his team to slim down the emails, but he was then advised that would cost his PAC money, which he did not want, another adviser said.

The data-driven consultants behind the unaffiliated appeals have honed their craft to the limits of absurdity, because in online fundraising there is no reward for coloring inside the lines and little punishment for fooling donors. Frequently, solicitations are designed to trick donors into thinking they are giving to Trump himself, a misrepresentation belied only by the fine print.

One recent text message solicitation from Sen. Bill Hagerty (R-Tenn.), a recent golf partner of the president who is not running for election this year, urged donors to renew their “2022 official Trump Membership” or “be labeled a Joe Biden supporter.”

“You do NOT want to disappoint Pres. Trump,” the message said, without any mention that it was from Hagerty’s campaign. A link led donors to a webpage with a photo of Trump and a countdown clock, alongside text warning that the reader has only “60 minutes to correct the record.” A single line of smaller text on that page discloses that contributions benefit Hagerty’s campaign.

The Brnovich campaign did not respond to requests for comment; the Hagerty campaign declined to comment. Among those advising the Brnovich campaign is National Public Affairs, a consulting firm founded by two veterans of Trump’s own campaign team: former Trump 2020 campaign manager Bill Stepien and former deputy campaign manager Justin Clark.

Another tactic is to just use a large photo of Trump with language that suggests he is the beneficiary of the fundraising, with phrases like “10x Patriot Match” and “Red Wave Supporter Status: Unlocked.” That language was used on a recent appeal by the Republican State Leadership Committee, a group that works to elect state legislators, and by the Republican state parties in multiple states including Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis is running for reelection while his allies drum up support for a potential 2024 challenge to Trump. The only mention on the appeal of where the money would go comes in the legal disclosure fine print.

“It is one of the massive conundrums for the Republican Party today. How do you fundraise without a Trump message?” said one of the party’s digital fundraising consultants. “The reason people do these things is because they work.”

The problem has become more acute in recent months as small-dollar donations to Republican Party efforts have fallen, a trend strategists blame both on donors having less disposable income because of inflation and on their fatigue with the relentless fundraising appeals. Receipts from small-dollar donors at the Republican National Committee have fallen significantly in recent months, people familiar with the matter said.

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Trump’s advisers have so far been selective in how they try to police the unauthorized use of his political brand, often reaching out privately in phone calls and text messages to candidates to tell them their behavior is not okay. Defeated Ohio candidate Jane Timken, who did not receive an endorsement from Trump in her campaign for U.S. Senate, was pressured to remove a giant photo of Trump from her “endorsements” website after one such call.

“We’re not at war with them. We want to play ball because we are all in the same party on the same mission,” said one Trump fundraising adviser. “But we don’t want to be taken advantage of.”

Trump has become particularly angry when an ad threatens one of his voters with his punishment if they don’t give or when candidates he is not supporting use his name and likeness, advisers said.

“In Republican politics, President Trump’s endorsement wins races at an unprecedented rate and nearly every dollar being raised and every vote being earned is thanks to the movement and brand he created,” Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said in a statement. “It’s no surprise that every candidate in the nation is trying to tap into it.”

In March 2021, Trump’s operation sent cease-and-desist letters to the Republican National Committee, the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the National Republican Congressional Committee. After some public legal wrangling, the threats were resolved with an agreement that Trump’s advisers would be able to approve fundraising solicitations using his name and likeness before they went out.

That has allowed groups such as the NRSC to fundraise with phrases like “Donate now to protect Trump’s legacy” and “What’s going on? Your Trump supporter status is unknown!”

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But similar agreements have not been struck with other parts of the party. Trump’s advisers have sent a cease-and-desist letter to Anthony Bouchard of Wyoming, a Republican challenging the Trump endorsee for the U.S. House. They also fired off a letter in April to the campaign of Rep. Nancy Mace (R-S.C.), accusing her of “unlawfully” using “the name, image, and/or likeness of President Donald Trump for Nancy Mace for Congress fundraising purposes.”

Mace earned Trump’s ire for criticizing him after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Despite Trump’s endorsement of her primary opponent earlier this year, Mace was able to win renomination to her seat in June. A representative of the Mace campaign declined to comment.

Confusing donors in campaign appeals is largely unregulated, and extends far beyond plays on Trump’s name and likeness. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, has been fundraising over text messages with the phrase, “we MUST meet our end-of-quarter goal if we’re going to take back the Senate.”

All the money raised in the appeal goes to Scott’s personal Senate campaign — but he does not face reelection until 2024.