Trump raised $200m from false election claims. What happens to the money now?
The president could use the funds to ensure he and his allies remain a powerful force in US politics
Last modified on Sat 19 Dec 2020 04.04 EST
The battle is lost. The supreme court and electoral college have spoken. Even the Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, so adept at remaking the rules for political advantage, has acknowledged that Donald Trump will not be the next president.
But the money flowing into Trump’s political coffers suggests that defeat will not drive the soon-to-be-former president into the political shadows.
Trump has been on a fundraising drive since the election, rapidly bringing in an astonishing $200m or more on the back of his false claims that the vote was rigged.
His campaign bombarded supporters with emails and text messages – as many as 30 a day – pleading for donations to a fighting fund to challenge the result. But with the election settled, that is not where the money is going.
Most of the cash is directed to Save America, an organisation formed as a leadership political action committee (Pac) shortly after the election. Leadership Pacs were designed to allow individuals to raise money in support of a favoured candidate and Trump cannot legally use the proceeds to directly fund a run for office himself, such as another bid for the presidency in four years.
But Brendan Fischer, a campaign finance specialist at the Campaign Legal Center, said Trump’s fundraising was unprecedented and evidence of undimmed political ambition.
“I can think of no other president who has set up a leadership PAC immediately after losing an election and begun fundraising for it furiously. This is entirely, entirely unique,” he said.
“I think it’s basically going to be the vehicle for Trump’s post-White House political operation.”
Trump raised the money in a blitz of appeals for donations to what was billed as an “official election defense fund” without clear mention of Save America. An aggressive sales pitch was built around the president’s false claims that the election was rigged – even as one legal challenge after another was struck down.
“We need YOUR HELP to DEFEND the integrity of our Election,” said one email.
Another email carried the subject line: “The Recount Results were BOGUS.”
The money flooded in but most of it will go nowhere near fighting the outcome of an election that is already settled. Some was used to pay off Trump’s campaign debt, and 25 cents in every dollar goes directly to the Republican party. The remainder is paid to Save America.
“We’d expect that there’s well over $100m in the leadership Pac account by this point,” said Fischer. “That is exceptional. That is a lot of money, far more than any other leadership Pac that I can think of has raised.”
Fischer said that is an indication that Trump is not planning to quietly retreat from the political stage to write his memoirs.
“The creation of his leadership Pac is certainly an indication that Trump plans to remain very active in politics, and is aiming to remain a major political player,” he said.
“Because leadership Pacs are loosely regulated, he could use the funds not only to keep his campaign staff on the payroll, but also to potentially benefit financially. He could use the leadership Pac to pay himself a salary, to pay family members a salary. There’s a lot of things you can do with this.”
Jennifer Victor, associate professor of political science at George Mason University, said the smart move would be for Trump to use the money to fund the election of political loyalists to keep Trumpism alive.
“Is he savvy enough as a political operator to use that money to essentially build a broad coalition in which he is the center and the doler-out of the money that could strengthen his political position? It’s hard to say because his political movement so far has been so centered around himself,” she said.
“He would have to have an interest in building the Republican party around Trumpism, which has kind of been happening quite naturally over the last number of years. But to make that a permanent feature of the Republican party he would have to then use the political capital that has built around his name for the benefit of party, which means giving it to other candidates.”
Victor said that created a headache for the Republican party leadership if it hoped to move beyond Trump.
“He will be not just a past president and candidate, but a candidate who won the second-highest vote total of any American candidate ever, second only to Joe Biden. So he has this enormous base of followers. At the same time, he’s always defied the democratic norms and the norms of the Republican party,” she said.
Then there is Trump’s stated desire to run for president again in four years.
“Save America cannot be used to support Trump’s campaign, but there are a number of ways that it could be used to lay the groundwork for a run for office in 2024,” said Fischer.
“Probably where it’s going to be more useful is to finance Trump’s campaigning in support of another candidate. It can potentially pay for rallies in support of another candidate. It can be used to pay for ads that are run ostensibly independently of the candidate that he’s supporting.”
That could include funding a run for office by one of his own children. Speculation is already swirling around the possibility of Ivanka Trump running for the US Senate in Florida.
All of which maintains president’s political profile and influence in the Republican party, particularly as he has proved adept at turning other people’s campaign events into de facto Trump rallies.
What Trump cannot use the donations for is to resolve the legal and financial problems he faces when he leaves the White House which may stand in the way of future political ambitions.
Manhattan’s district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr, is leading a criminal investigation into Trump’s business dealings. New York’s state attorney general, Letitia James, is heading a civil probe after the president’s former lawyer, Michael Cohen, told Congress Trump inflated the value of his assets to secure bank loans and then reduced them to cut tax.
The investigations recently expanded to examine consulting fees that may have gone to the president’s daughter Ivanka . She responded to news of the inquiry by calling it politically motivated harassment.
Trump loses his protection from criminal prosecution when he leaves office. While he claims to have the power to pardon himself before he departs the White House, any such move would only apply to federal crimes, not charges brought by New York or any other state.
The president is also facing huge debt repayments. Trump has personally guaranteed about $420m in debt owed by his businesses which has to be repaid in the coming years, according to the New York Times.
The bulk of those debts are with Deutsche Bank. Last month Reuters reported that the bank was trying to sever ties with the president.
The Trump Organization, the president’s umbrella group that is currently overseen by his two sons, owes about $340m to Deutsche Bank. The loans, which are against Trump properties, start coming due in two years.“