Trump’s post-election cash grab floods funds to new PAC

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President Donald Trump has been on a relentless, misleading and highly lucrative fundraising drive since losing reelection, telling supporters that they can help overturn the results if they donate while directing the bulk of the cash to his newest political group instead of the entities fighting in court.

The Trump campaign announced Thursday evening that the president’s fundraising operation raised $207.5 million since Election Day, parts of which were detailed in campaign finance reports filed later Thursday night. It’s a remarkable sum for a post-election period, usually the time when campaigns wind down.

Trump has ginned up much of that money with alarmist fundraising pitches multiple times a day, pleading for help. “We MUST defend the Election from the Left!” one text signed by Trump and sent on Wednesday read. “I've activated a 1000% offer for 1 HOUR to put America FIRST. Step up & act NOW.”

But the majority of that money is likely not going to any sort of legal account. Trump’s fundraising operation is instead sending it to a new political organization created by the president: a leadership PAC called Save America PAC, a type of vehicle popular with both parties on Capitol Hill but long derided by watchdogs as essentially a type of slush fund, with few restrictions on how the money they raise can be spent.

Trump’s frenzied fundraising pitches are channeling most of the money raised to Save America, the leadership PAC he created just days after major media outlets projected Biden had defeated him. Current fundraising appeals from Trump solicit money for a joint fundraising committee, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, which is directing 75 percent of each contribution to Save America, up to a $5,000 legal limit. Only after that point does money start flowing into a recount account set up by Trump’s presidential campaign. (The remaining 25 percent of donations go to various accounts for the Republican National Committee.)

“Leadership PACs can be used to effectively keep your campaign staff on the payroll, keep them in your orbit, pay for travel, pay for rallies, even for polling,” said Brendan Fischer, the director of the federal reform program at the Campaign Legal Center, which supports greater regulation of these entities. “Trump could potentially use his new leadership PAC to not only preserve his influence within the Republican party after he leaves the White House, but also to potentially to benefit him and his family financially.”

One thing Trump wouldn’t be allowed to use the leadership PAC money for: directly financing a 2024 presidential bid, should he announce plans to run again. But in addition to other campaign-like activities, Trump could use his PAC to weigh in on Republican primaries through big-money independent ad buys.

The Trump campaign also announced that the fundraising operation will report raising $495 million in various post-election filings, which cover activity from Oct. 15 through Nov. 23, due to the FEC on Thursday. That total will not include Save America, which was formed after the election. Fox News first reported the massive-post Election Day haul.

Republicans are acutely aware that Trump can wield his platform — along with his leadership PAC war chest and email list, easily the most valuable donor list in Republican politics — as a cudgel to shape the future of the party.

“This is about maintaining relevance in 2022 to potentially set up 2024, all while freezing the [presidential primary] field,” said Dan Eberhart, a major Republican donor, who also noted that if Trump is able to “be a part of the story of taking back the House” in 2022, then it could “show momentum in the midterms, he could be exceedingly relevant in 2024.”

The Trump campaign is also eager to stoke the fact that the rank-and-file is still on the president’s side. “These tremendous fundraising numbers show President Trump remains the leader and source of energy for the Republican Party, and that his supporters are dedicated to fighting for the rightful, legal outcome of the 2020 general election,” Bill Stepien, Trump 2020 campaign manager, said in a statement, alluding to the president’s conspiracy theories that he actually won the election.

Matt Gorman, another GOP strategist, noted that Trump’s post-White House strength won’t be determined by a PAC. Rather, “the power of Trump has always laid more in his megaphone than in his money,” he said.

President-elect Joe Biden also broke a major milestone: His campaign reported raising and spending more than a billion dollars. His campaign spent down close to zero to defeat Trump, reporting just $1.6 million left in cash reserves. Only one presidential campaign in history spent more than Biden's: Mike Bloomberg’s short-lived, self-funded primary run earlier this year, which shelled out more than $1.1 billion.

Biden, who started off his campaign struggling to equal other Democrats' fundraising during the primary, ended up overseeing the most successful fundraising operation in the history of American politics while defeating an incumbent president. Trump's campaign, for comparison, raised just under $690 million and spent a little under $734 million. It ended the filing period with $18.4 million in the bank and $11.3 million in debt.

Biden's presidential transition has also been raising money to fund its operations, especially before the General Services Administration made government funding available 10 days ago. The Biden transition fund, which is organized as a nonprofit, does not file with the Federal Election Commission. It will disclose its donors in February.

Other campaign finance disclosures reveal more than just the president’s haul. From the ludicrously expensive Georgia Senate runoffs to the full extent of Democrats’ strong small-dollar fundraising, here are four other notable takeaways from the campaign finance filings covering Oct. 15 through Nov. 23.

Georgia Senate races attract big money

With control of the Senate hanging in the balance, the pair of Georgia Senate runoffs between GOP Sen. David Perdue and Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democrat Raphael Warnock are expected to be among the most expensive ever. The races already attracted a ton of big money just in the first few weeks.

The NRSC, Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, had $36.8 million in the bank, as of Oct. 23, to help fund its defense of the two incumbents. It also reported raising over $75.5 million — including an $8 million loan — in the roughly five-week period the report covers, a major fundraising boon for the party. (For comparison’s sake: the NRSC reported raising $32.7 million in September, the last full month covered in a single FEC report.)

Republicans have launched an all-hands-on-deck fundraising effort for the pair of runoffs, with famed Republican strategist Karl Rove helming a joint fundraising committee between the NRSC and the two GOP candidates that has already raised tens-of-millions of dollars.

Senate Democrats’ DSCC, meanwhile, raised about half that in the same time period. The party committee reported raising $35.6 million, without taking in any loans. Republican also maintain a cash advantage, carrying $36.8 million in reserves (with $18 million in debt) to Democrats’ $17.5 million in the bank (with $20.6 million in debt).

The Georgia candidates themselves are not required to file new FEC reports until Christmas Eve.

Super PACs are also poised to play a major role in the race as well, as they have in cycles-past.

The Senate Leadership Fund, the Republican super PAC helmed by allies of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, brought in over $104 million in the filing period, with over 70 percent of that coming after Election Day. The group spent an eye-popping $112.6 million in that same period.

“Money isn’t everything, but fundraising is an early leading indicator of enthusiasm,” Steven Law, the president of the group, said in an interview with Fox News on Wednesday announcing the totals.

SLF’s opposite number, Democrats' Senate Majority PAC, similarly raised and spent a lot of money in the same time period. SMP raised just shy of spending $90 million and dropped $107 million in spending.

What separated the two super PACs was how much they had in cash reserves on Nov. 23. SLF had $60.8 million in the bank, while SMP spent itself down much closer to zero, with just $2.1 million left in reserves.

Still, some Republicans complained that the party’s efforts in Georgia could have even more support, if Trump weren’t redirecting resources to himself. Eberhart, the GOP donor, said that Trump was “taking resources and attention away from Georgia.”

“As a Republican, the thing to do right now is to make [Mitch] McConnell stronger by winning these two seats in Georgia, and Trump has taken both money and oxygen away from that [by his] failure to concede and fundraising efforts,” Eberhart said.

ActBlue continued to rake in small-dollar cash

ActBlue, the preferred Democratic digital fundraising platform, notched another record in 2020, processing $4.8 billion in online donations to 22,000 left-leaning candidates and causes throughout the two-year election cycle, ActBlue announced.

That enormous total showed up in Democratic coffers up and down the ballot, where those candidates routinely smashed fundraising records. But cash wasn’t enough to carry Democrats to major down-ballot victories, with the party narrowly holding onto its House majority and the Senate still hanging in the balance in Georgia.

Even so, ActBlue’s strength is clear: More than 71 percent of the 14.8 million unique donors were first-time donors to the platform, demonstrating its exponential growth in just two years. Of those donors, more than half contributed more than once during the cycle, and about half also gave to a presidential primary candidate and another campaign later in the cycle — a sign of how they were able to turn small-dollar donors into a renewable resource for Democrats.

WinRed, the GOP’s answer to ActBlue, has handled $1.9 billion in donations in the last 16 months. (It only launched in mid-2019). The platform said it has processed $804 million in October and November — and $350 million since Election Day.

Senate Dems make strange bedfellows with Never Trumpers

The Lincoln Project was spawned by a group of “Never Trump” Republican operatives trying to sink the president’s reelection bid. But the group, flush with cash from enraged Democratic donors, soon set its sights on Senate Republicans the group deemed to be Trump enablers.

The Lincoln Project launched bombastic ads that mirrored its attacks on the president. (One, for example, compared South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham to a “parasite” that used footage of a decomposing fox.)

And for that mission, it found a willing partner: Senate Democrats’ main outside groups. Senate Majority PAC, which is run by allies of Senate MInority Leader Chuck Schumer, gave $550,000 to The Lincoln Project on Oct. 30, according to new FEC reports. Majority Forward, the nonprofit group affiliated with SMP, also gave $650,000 to The Lincoln Project in mid-October, after previously donating to the group.

The disclosure that Senate Democrats’ big money arm was working with a group of Republican consultants, even ones who disavowed the president, provoked eye-rolls from some Democrats.

“WTF SMP,” a Democratic aide who worked on a Senate campaign texted after a POLITICO reporter tweeted out the fundraising figures. “This is why Dems lose. I’m just stunned.”

The GOP’s most prolific donors never abandoned Trump

Trump’s formidable campaign fundraising machine was eventually lapped by Biden’s huge financial surge. But big donors stepped into the void to try to close the gap.

Several prominent Republican megadonors shelled out millions to Preserve America PAC in the closing weeks of the presidential race, which was launched at the tail end of the summer as Trump was getting drubbed on the TV airwaves.

The biggest donors were Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, who collectively gave the super PAC $15 million in the latter half of October. Altogether, the megadonor couple donated $90 million to Preserve America over the course of the campaign, part of an enormous $200 million they gave in disclosed donations to outside groups in 2019 and 2020. Before Thursday’s filing deadline, the Adelsons had given $180 million, according to a tracker from the Center for Responsive Politics.

Bernie Marcus, the founder of Home Depot, also gave $5 million at the end of October to Restoration PAC.

America First Action, the super PAC Trump endorsed as his preferred vehicle for outside spending, also had its patrons in the closing weeks of the race. The group raised over $21 million over the same period, with $10 million of that coming from Linda McMahon, Trump's former small business administrator who now leads the super PAC.

On the Democratic side, Priorities USA Action, one of the largest pro-Biden super PACs, brought in $14 million in that same time period.

Anita Kumar contributed to this report.