Politics

Trump raises more than 150 million appealing to false election claims

Jabin Botsford
President Donald Trump speaks at a news conference on Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. Jabin Botsford / Washington Post

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WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s political operation has raised more than $150 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.

The influx of political donations is one reason Trump and some allies are inclined to continue a legal onslaught and public affairs blitz focused on baseless claims of election fraud, even as their attempts have repeatedly failed in court and as key states continue to certify wins for President-elect Joe Biden.

Much of the money raised since the election probably will 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’s 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 donations is largely from small-dollar donors, campaign officials say, tapping into the president’s base of loyal and fervent donors who tend to contribute the most when they believe the president is under siege or facing unfair political attacks. The campaign has sent about 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 Mike 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.”

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The donations are purportedly being solicited for the Official Election Defense Fund, which is blazed in all red across the Trump campaign’s website, with an ominous picture of the president outside the White House.

There is no such account, however. The fundraising requests are being made by the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, a joint fundraising committee that raises money for the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee (RNC). As of Nov. 18, that committee 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 post-presidency activities.

The money raised since Nov. 3 is a massive haul for such a short period, especially after the election, when losing campaigns typically slow their fundraising operation. 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 donors across the country, are split into several accounts, including the leadership PAC 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% 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 most low-dollar donations under the current agreement would go toward financing the president’s new leadership PAC, instead of efforts to support the party or to finance voting lawsuits.

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“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 the role of 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 spokesperson Mike Reed said.

The leadership PAC could be spent, for example, to pay for events at his own properties, or to finance his travel or personal expenses. There are few limitations on how money going to the group can be spent.

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% from 60% as it had been for more than a week, according to a review of the fundraising appeals.

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Leadership PACs do not face the same restrictions on “personal use” expenses as candidate committees do. They 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 hopes 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.

One person with knowledge of the contributions said that many were repeat donors, and that emails with dire language about the president 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 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 an interview this month, Texas donor Doug Deason said “some people are writing big checks because they are fired up.”

On Monday, the final day of the monthly fundraising period, Trump was on track to reach 500 fundraising emails. In November, the Trump operation set 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.

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The campaign had struggled with finances early this fall, officials said, with campaign manager Bill Stepien deciding to cut TV spending because he feared that 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 over the skylines of states. But some Trump advisers said the money that has come in after the election was a reason the campaign should have never made the cuts.

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