Trump Fundraising Drive Could Give Him Stranglehold on the GOP

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Roger Sollenberger, Asawin Suebsaeng
·7 min read
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Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty
Photo Illustration by The Daily Beast/Getty

On Sunday, Donald Trump’s fundraising machine charged back to life after its January lull, blitzing fans with emails and texts on the heels of the ex-president’s CPAC keynote address, urging them to “donate” to “SAVE AMERICA!” It worked, netting Trump and his team more than $3 million off of that speech, according to an adviser, bringing the committee’s on-hand total north of $80 million.

That cash was divvied up between three political committees tied to the former commander-in-chief, two of them formed just days before he riled up the CPAC crowd packed into a ballroom at the Hyatt Regency Orlando. The new setup indicates that Trump is bent on raking in cash like someone who is mounting a run—or who wants to pressure anyone who thinks they can take him on.

Over the weekend, Trump’s team converted his old campaign into a PAC and added a new joint fundraising committee to the mix, an overhaul designed to crush the revolt he faces from a small faction of elected Republicans tired of lugging the baggage that accompanies an alliance with the broadly unpopular former president.

Trump ditched his official candidate committee in favor of a nonconnected committee—a fundraising vehicle not tied to a candidate, party, or corporate interest—called MAGA PAC. It’s a move that will enable him to accept more money from individual contributors over a longer period of time. He can also carry on his tradition of self-enrichment, tapping the new PAC as a personal slush fund, including for hanging legal debts incurred as an officeholder and candidate.

Additionally, unlike a super PAC setup, this allows Trump to directly fund candidates of his choosing—a key part of his post-presidency ploy to retain the loyalty of politicians who might be tempted to move on from the MAGA era.

The moves also signal an opportunity to wall off dissenters from influential megadonors, specifically with the introduction of the new joint fundraising committee, Save America (also the name of his leadership PAC), which can accept high-dollar checks. Two people familiar with the new political and fundraising operation say that Trump himself views it as yet another way to maintain his hold on the GOP, and to keep candidates and potential endorsees or primary challengers subordinated to the MAGA ethos.

Those sources added that Trump plans to continue his fundraising partnership with the Republican National Committee, but has at the front of his mind the fact that he will likely clash with other Republican leaders and political influencers over certain candidates and races in the future. That potential dissonance means it is vital for Trump, allies say, to continue to build his own massive war chest as “leverage,” as Trump has described it.

In recent conversations in Florida, Trump has scoffed at the limited efforts to challenge his authority in the party, specifically mocking a new anti-Trump super PAC, named Americans Keeping Country First. The new entity was announced on the eve of his CPAC speech by allies of outspoken Trump critic Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) to back Republicans who were willing to impeach or convict Trump. The super PAC can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, and will also draw support from a new “dark-money” nonprofit.

Kinzinger’s allies are entering a crowded space. The anti-Trump GOP landscape, dominated in the 2020 election cycle by the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump super PACs, also includes groups headed up by the likes of former Trump White House spokesperson Anthony Scaramucci, former Illinois Rep. Joe Walsh, and veterans of the George W. Bush administration, as well as a number of smaller special-interest organizations. In a recent discussion, Trump compared the Kinzinger-aligned super PAC to a bad business opportunity for “RINOs,” one person familiar with the matter said.

Campaign finance specialist Brett Kappel told The Daily Beast that the new fundraising configuration gives Trump flexibility.

“The two new PACs presumably have different purposes, and the joint fundraising committee allows them to raise money from their major donors for both purposes simultaneously,” Kappel said.

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Because Trump decides who the joint fundraising committee funds, he can intimidate challengers with what will in all likelihood become a fundraising juggernaut, and dangle the money as an incentive to stand by his side. MAGA PAC, which cannot accept large lump sums from individuals, may be less effective in this regard. The fine print on Trump's latest fundraising appeals reflects this, stating that 90 percent of the joint committee’s receipts will go to his leadership PAC, leaving MAGA PAC with a 10 percent cut.

Brendan Fischer, director of reform at the Campaign Legal Center, a campaign finance watchdog group, says that when it comes to funding, the former president still holds the upper hand.

“Trump has stockpiled tens of millions of dollars for his leadership PAC that he can use to maintain his political influence,” Fischer said. “It is notable that Trump's recent public statements threatening to throw his weight behind primary challengers were released on Save America letterhead: Trump has the resources to back up those threats with millions of dollars.”

Republicans looking ahead to competitive primaries, especially from candidates who tow the Trump line, will almost certainly feel the pressure: Trump’s official 2020 campaign committee pulled in more than $1 billion across four years, and the full campaign apparatus, including affiliated committees, raised around half a billion dollars in the six weeks between Oct. 15 and Nov. 23 alone.

As for who reaps the rewards, however, the former president appears to be biding his time. The joint vehicle is currently only linked with Trump’s own committees, but he can still raise money with the RNC through their partnership committees, Trump Victory and Trump Make America Great Again, which the national party can then distribute to any of its affiliated candidates.

Additionally, MAGA PAC has fundraising agreements with just four state-level Trump affiliates, in Colorado, Georgia, South Carolina, and New Jersey. Two of those state-level committees have already filed to terminate, but the other two, in Georgia and South Carolina, allow Trump to exert sway over the Senate midterms those states will hold in 2022.

Trump has also been reportedly preparing to launch his own super PAC headed up by former 2016 campaign chief Corey Lewandowski, but has not yet filed with the FEC. On Monday, Axios reported that former 2020 campaign manager Brad Parscale had created yet another super PAC, called American Greatness. The group currently shows no direct links to Trump's operation, Axios reported, but Parscale, who recently rejoined the former president's inner circle after stepping away in October amid a domestic incident, can use the entity to support candidates aligned with Trump's political brand.

Kappel said that all told, Trump has carved out a seat of power to influence the direction of the party from the outside.

“There are a number of strategic advantages” for the new committees, he observed. “For example, individuals can contribute up to $5,000 per year, and the PAC does not have to file FEC reports as frequently as a campaign committee does in non-election years.”

Kappel also pointed out that regulations only require MAGA PAC to publicly disclose its donors every six months in a non-election year, not quarterly, offering contributors an extra degree of anonymity.

The new PACs could solve a major fundraising problem that appeared to take the campaign by surprise last year. By the summer of 2020, thousands of Trump’s small-dollar individual donors had already hit the federal limit, and since the campaign was spending far more than it took in, officials scrambled for cash to carry them over the finish line.

Still, Fischer noted that the new committees are somewhat restrained by federal regulations.

“MAGA PAC and the leadership PAC both acknowledge on their FEC filings that they are affiliated committees, so they share that $5,000 contribution limit,” Fischer told The Daily Beast. “So if a donor gives $2,500 to MAGA PAC and $2,500 to Save America, that person has still reached the maximum amount.”

Fischer said that he can see “no obvious financial benefit” to Trump fundraising for two committees that share a single limit, but the new joint committee can accept big money from high rollers, and Trump decides who else gets in on that action in the months ahead.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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