President Trump’s political operation has raised more than $170 million since Election Day, using a blizzard of misleading appeals about the election to shatter fundraising records set during the campaign, according to people with knowledge of the contributions.
Much of the money raised since the election is likely to go into an account for the president to use on political activities after he leaves office, while some of the contributions will go toward what is left of the legal fight.
The people with knowledge of the fundraising amounts spoke on the condition of anonymity to disclose internal numbers. The Trump campaign declined to comment.
The surge of contributions has come largely from small-dollar donors, campaign officials say, tapping into the president’s base of loyal and fervent financial supporters, who tend to contribute the most when they feel the president is under siege or facing unfair political attacks. The campaign has sent nearly 500 post-election fundraising pitches to donors, often with hyperbolic language about voter fraud and the like.
“I need you now more than ever,” says one recent email that claims to be from the president. “The Recount Results were BOGUS,” another email subject line reads.
“Our democracy and freedom is at risk like never before, which is why I’m reaching out to you now with an URGENT request,” reads an email to donors from Vice President Pence. “President Trump and I need our STRONGEST supporters, like YOU, to join the Election Defense Task Force. This group will be responsible for DEFENDING the Election from voter fraud, and we really need you to step up to the front lines of this battle.”
The donations are purportedly being solicited for the Official Election Defense Fund, whose name is featured prominently atop the Trump campaign’s website.
There is no such account, however. The fundraising requests are being made by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising effort of the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. As of Nov. 18, that committee also shares its funds with Save America, a new leadership PAC that Trump set up in early November and that he can use to fund his activities after the presidency.
The money raised since Nov. 3 is a massive haul for such a short period, especially after the election, when losing campaigns typically ramp down their fundraising operations. By comparison, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee raised $125 million in the second quarter of 2020, according to federal records. The campaign account’s best single month was September, when it raised $81 million, according to available data.
The contributions, from thousands of grass-roots donors across the country, are split into several accounts, including the leadership PAC, an entity that is loosely regulated and could be used to personally benefit the president after he leaves the White House.
According to the fine print in the latest fundraising appeals, 75 percent of each contribution to the joint fundraising committee would first go toward the Save America leadership PAC and the rest would be shared with the party committee to help with the party’s operating expenses. This effectively means that the vast majority of low-dollar donations under the agreement would go toward financing the president’s new leadership PAC, instead of buttressing efforts to support the party or to finance voting lawsuits.
“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,” said Brendan Fischer, who directs federal regulatory work at the Campaign Legal Center, which supports greater restrictions on money in politics. “The average donor who gives in response to Trump’s appeal for funds to ‘stop the fraud’ likely doesn’t realize that their money is actually retiring Trump’s debt or funding his leadership PAC.”
Fischer said that “only bigger donors who’ve maxed out to Trump’s campaign or the RNC will see any portion of their contribution go to dedicated recount or legal funds.”
“The RNC has spent tens of millions of dollars over the last two years funding legal efforts in multiple states, and we continue the fight for election integrity across the country,” RNC spokesman Mike Reed said.
For some of the president’s die-hard supporters, the fact that most of the money goes toward the leadership PAC is not a concern.
Harold Burnham, a 78-year-old retiree in Maine who has given to Trump’s campaign multiple times in small amounts, said he gave about half a dozen times to the “Election Defense Fund” in response to recent appeals that have come since the election. In fact, all 12 members of his family who support Trump have given money to support Trump’s post-election efforts, he said.
Burnham said he is concerned about potentially fraudulent ballots being counted in the election and wants to donate so that those ballots can be investigated. He said he is aware that the majority of the donation goes toward the leadership PAC, which he thinks will be used to help Trump run again in 2024 or help finance a Trump-aligned candidate.
“I’m fine with that, because I’m hoping that if he doesn’t run for election, that somebody that he would support with conservative values would be running for president in ’24,” Burnham said. “It’s not big money, certainly. But every little bit helps if a million people are doing it.”
The money collected by the leadership PAC cannot be used directly for Trump’s own campaign purposes, but there are few other restrictions on how the money can be spent. For example, donations could be used to pay for events at Trump’s properties or to finance his travel or personal expenses.
Leadership PACs were established to allow members of Congress to raise money for their allies on Capitol Hill through fundraising vehicles separate from their campaign committees. The money is often used for what is called donor cultivation — feting wealthy supporters in the hope that they will write big checks back to the leadership PAC and other committees.
Over the years, leadership PACs have become must-have accessories on Capitol Hill, as well as among former elected officials who want to retain their political influence by helping other candidates raise money or by raising money on their behalf.
“It’s just such an area of lax restrictions — it’s really kind of breathtaking,” said Jessica Levinson, a campaign finance and ethics expert at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles.
Good-government advocates have been pushing for greater restrictions on leadership PAC spending, saying that without such rules, there is room for abuse. But the Federal Election Commission has not taken up the petition.
Without restrictions, Trump could push the envelope quite far in how he spends the money for personal gain, Levinson said.
“What concerns me is that President Trump has been a stress test on all of our legal systems, and here’s a legal system where it’s not even that rigid,” she said. “Whereas in other areas he really ran right up to the legal line or he just ran right past it, in this case, it’s more of like a very light groove rather than a line.”
On Nov. 18, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee struck a formal agreement with Save America, the Trump campaign and the RNC to raise money together through the joint fundraising committee and share the funds, according to federal records. By Nov. 19, the contribution share to Save America PAC had changed to 75 percent from the 60 percent it had been for more than a week, according to a review of the fundraising appeals.
This agreement allows Trump to raise money for multiple accounts at once, including the leadership PAC.
Leadership PAC funds can’t be used to finance the campaign activity of the officeholder or former official who leads the PAC. Any contributing from the PAC to support other candidates for office must be done within federal contribution limits, and that money must come from legal sources.
But beyond that, there are no restrictions on how the official can spend leadership PAC money, said Kate Belinski, a campaign finance legal expert who formerly served as a lawyer at the FEC’s Enforcement Division.
“There’s not really a legal mechanism that would prevent somebody from enriching themselves with the contributions that they receive into their leadership PAC in the same way that personal-use restrictions would prohibit that for a campaign committee,” she said.
One person with knowledge of the contributions said that many came from repeat donors and that emails with dire language about the president’s potentially losing tended to ratchet up the contributions. The person said the campaign had a plan before Election Day to dial up requests for money if the result of the election was not immediately clear.
“Trump is making hay while the sun is shining. He’s taking advantage of all the free media coverage to pay off his campaign debt and fill his coffers for whatever comes next,” said Dan Eberhart, a Republican donor. He added: “I would rather give to Romney 2012 than Trump 2020 at this point.”
In November, the Trump operation sent 498 emails asking for donations — setting a record for monthly fundraising requests from the campaign, according to a tally by @TrumpEmail, a Twitter account that has tracked the president’s fundraising requests since January 2018. By far the most common theme in the emails was an appeal for contributions to the “Election Defense Fund,” according to the account.
The campaign had struggled some with finances earlier this fall, officials said, with campaign manager Bill Stepien deciding to cut TV spending because he feared the campaign could run out of money. Officials said some money was wasted on unnecessary expenditures, such as a pricey Super Bowl commercial and blimps flying in some states.
But some Trump advisers said the money that has come in after the election is a reason the campaign should have never made the spending cuts.