The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump solicits ‘election defense’ donations that also finance his new leadership PAC

President Trump walks from the Oval Office to board Marine One and depart for Camp David from the South Lawn at the White House on May 15. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)

In the wake of the election, President Trump’s supporters have been peppered with texts and emails asking for donations to support legal battles contesting his loss to President-elect Joe Biden.

“We can’t allow the Left-wing MOB to undermine our Election,” one missive says. Another appeal asks donors to give to an “EMERGENCY Wisconsin Recount Fund,” which it claims was “just activated” to request a recount in the state.

But details outlined in the fine print show that a small portion of the donations would go toward these “election defense” funds to support recounts and lawsuits in several swing states.

The majority of each donation goes to a political action committee called Save America, which Trump set up in recent days and will allow him to support candidates and maintain political influence in Washington even after leaving office.

The “leadership PAC” is a loosely regulated fundraising vehicle that allows current and former elected officials to raise and spend money to maintain relationships with donors, and help their political allies.

Such committees are widely used by current and former members of Congress, often used to pay for travel, hosting donors at various events and donating to other candidates for office.

“The President always planned to do this, win or lose, so he can support candidates and issues he cares about, such as combating voter fraud,” Trump campaign manager Tim Murtaugh said in a statement.

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Save America was registered with the Federal Election Commission on Monday. The formation of the PAC was first reported by the New York Times.

The new fundraising appeals urge donors to “contribute ANY AMOUNT RIGHT NOW to DEFEND the integrity of our Election.” But according to the fine print, 60 percent of each donation goes to Save America and 40 percent goes to other committees, including the national party and the Trump campaign accounts.

These appeals came from the Trump Make America Great Committee, a joint fundraising committee that raises money for the Republican National Committee, Trump campaign and Save America. Appeals by such joint committees are required to disclose the allocation of their proceeds and expenses.

The appeals also automatically opt the donor in to making weekly recurring donations until mid-December and donating an additional $100 automatically on Nov. 11.

Last week, similar solicitations by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee came under fire because of language in the fine print claiming that 50 percent would go toward retiring the Trump campaign committee’s general election debt.

As of Oct. 14, the most recent data available, the Trump campaign had accrued $1.2 million in debt, according to its federal filing.

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Such appeals mislead donors into thinking they are responding to Trump’s appeal for funds to “stop the fraud,” but they probably do not realize the bulk of their money is being used for something else, said Brendan Fischer, who directs the federal regulatory work at the Campaign Legal Center, which supports greater restrictions on the role of money in politics.

“Small donors who give to Trump thinking they are financing an official election defense fund are in fact helping pay down the Trump campaign’s debt or funding his post-presidential political operation,” Fischer said.

Campaign Legal Center has called on the FEC to impose more limits on leadership PACs.

“Whereas Trump’s recount account may only be used for campaign-related legal expenses, a leadership PAC might be used to make contributions to candidates, to finance Trump’s travel and rallies, to pay for events at Trump properties, and for other purposes,” he said. “Trump is already financing ‘Save America’ using misleading fundraising appeals, we can only guess at how the money will eventually be used.”

In a statement, Biden’s campaign called such solicitations “unacceptable.”

“It is unacceptable for the outgoing president to exploit his own supporters and undermine faith in American democracy in this fashion when, as President-elect Biden said again today, the urgent need to come together and overcome this moment of crisis has never been clearer,” said Andrew Bates, Biden campaign spokesman.