‘Self-Funded’ Trump Now Propped Up by Super PAC Megadonors

By Alan Zibel

Dozens of megadonors have contributed $54.4 million to six groups backing President Donald Trump’s agenda, his reelection and Republican candidates for office, an analysis by Public Citizen has found.

Public Citizen analyzed [PDF here] contributions by large donors to six groups supporting Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The analysis reveals a large political operation backing Trump as well as Republican candidates. These six groups are fueled with contributions from corporate CEOs and other large donors as well as from dark money groups that do not disclose their donors.

The gusher of contributions to pro-Trump groups is a sharp contrast with the early days of Trump’s political career three years ago. Trump, who famously ran his primary campaign with a tiny staff, initially claimed to be self-funding his candidacy and avoiding big-money donors. This assertion, while not entirely accurate, was part of his appeal to voters.

Public Citizen’s analysis of Federal Election Commission data found that since the start of 2017 through mid-October 2018, the six pro-Trump groups have:

  • Raised $54.4 million from contributors who donated at least $100,000, with an average contribution of nearly $400,000.
  • Received contributions of at least $100,000 from 136 people and organizations.
  • Relied upon donations from the gambling, finance, real estate and energy sectors, largely from CEOs, senior executives, retired CEOs and spouses of CEOs.

Under federal law, political groups may participate in U.S. elections as long as they don’t coordinate their efforts with a candidate’s campaign. These groups have proliferated in recent years after the Supreme Court allowed unlimited contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals. Separately, another Supreme Court decision has led to the expansion of “joint fundraising committees” that allow donors to write six-figure checks, which then can be parceled out to other campaigns. Trump and his allies have made use of all of these strategies.

For the report, Public Citizen analyzed contributions by the six largest groups used by big-money donors to support Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The analysis excludes Trump’s official campaign committee, which is subject to the federal $2,700 cap on individual donations.

The six groups studied by Public Citizen have raised more than $153 million to date, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of that money has already been spent, with roughly $145 million in expenditures so far.

Pro-Trump groups are on track to far exceed what major donors spent to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012. That year, Priorities USA Action, the super PAC endorsed by Obama, raised $79.1 million. Of that money, $73 million came from 125 donors contributing at least $100,000. Since then, super PACs and other forms of big-money politics have mushroomed.

The Public Citizen analysis illustrates how giant fundraising committees, many of which have been able to accept unlimited contributions since the 2010 Citizens United decision, are become an essential piece of Trump’s round-the-clock political fundraising operation. Several Trump organizations have parallel “dark money” operations, which are structured as nonprofit “social welfare” organizations under the tax code and are not required to disclose their donors. These dark money groups often turn around and make contributions to super PACs.

Group Total contributions over $100K Total Contributions Spent Description
$31,537,911 $38,801,172 $35,994,963
Pro-Trump super PAC, led by Republican operative Brian Walsh
TRUMP VICTORY $14,512,652 $30,450,763 $27,274,789
Joint Fundraising Committee between Trump campaign, RNC, several state parties
FUTURE45 $5,242,555 $6,269,614 $6,233,204
Republican super PAC supported by Charles Schwab, Joe Ricketts and Paul Singer. Associated with the 45Committee, a dark money group.
$2,142,278 $4,052,421 $3,795,185
Leadership PAC set up by Vice President Mike Pence.
$650,000 $8,082,744 $8,582,778
Pro-Trump hybrid PAC/super PAC led by GOP Strategist Ed Rollins. Affiliated with dark money group Great America Alliance.
$310,553 $65,466,544 $63,162,636
Joint Fundraising Committee between Trump campaign and RNC.
Total $54,395,949 $153,123,258 $145,043,555
[table “51” not found /]

Source: Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsive Politics

The main super PAC backing Trump, America First Action, has been the leading vehicle for contributions from ultra-wealthy donors, raising a total of nearly $39 million to date, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. America First Action can take unlimited contributions, and has raised about $31.5 million from donors contributing at least $100,000, Public Citizen’s analysis found.

America First Action is affiliated with America First Policies, a dark money group founded shortly after Trump’s election. The group was started by aides, including Trump digital director Brad Parscale, who is now managing Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign; Pence chief of staff Nick Ayers, who turned down the job of White House chief of staff; and former top Trump campaign official Rick Gates, who is now cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

America First Policies has spent more than $9 million on television advertising, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. The money has gone toward ads promoting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Gina Haspel’s confirmation as CIA director, for the GOP tax bill that passed in late 2017 and to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In an IRS filing, America First Policies recently revealed that it had raised $22 million in 2017, exceeding the $4 million raised that year by its sibling super PAC, America First Action. Taken together, the groups have said they aim to raise a combined $100 million between both organizations in 2018. However, several corporate donors to America First Policies, including CVS Health, Southern Company and Dow Chemical, have said they will no longer give to America First Policies after MapLight reported their contributions and several outlets exposed racist and anti-Semitic remarks by America First staffers.

In its structure as a 501(c)(4) organization, America First Policies, is similar to the structure of Organizing for Action, a group started by former Obama administration officials to promote President Barack Obama’s agenda while he was in office. However, Unlike America First, the Obama group voluntarily disclosed its donors.

Trump allies also have set up two fundraising committees in conjunction with the Republican Party and state parties. These joint fundraising committees, Trump Victory and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, allow donors to write six-figure checks, which then can be parceled out to state political parties, other campaigns and national political parties. These kinds of fundraising vehicles were amplified by the Supreme Court’s 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decision, which eliminated aggregate caps on donations to federal campaigns, parties and political action committees. Meanwhile, according to Politico, the Republican National Committee and the official Trump campaign are planning to merge their 2020 fundraising operations and field mobilization efforts into the Trump victory organization, in an effort to avoid the kind of infighting that plagued the 2016 campaign.

The Trump political operation’s reliance on big-money donors is a sharp contrast from the early days of Trump’s candidacy, when he pledged to be independent of moneyed interests. Trump even said at a 2016 presidential debate that “special interests, lobbyists, donors, they make large contributions to politicians and they have total control over those politicians. I don’t want anybody to control me but the people right out there. And I’m going to do the right thing.”

On several occasions during his presidential campaign, Trump spoke about the influence of big money in politics. During a Republican debate in Miami, he blasted “special interests, lobbyists, donors” saying that they “make large contributions to politicians and they have total control over those politicians.” He called super PACs “a disaster,” claiming he could institute reforms because of his history of making donations to political candidates. With characteristic bluster, Trump claimed that “I know the system better than anybody else and I’m the only one up here that’s going to be able to fix that system because that system is wrong.”

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, disavowed super PACs, telling the Washington Post in fall 2015 that that, “Unlike other campaigns, we don’t have a quote-unquote designated super PAC that we tell people to give money to.” One early super PAC tied to Trump even shut down to avoid the campaign’s wrath. But by May 2016, Trump had softened his stance, telling MSNBC he was considering soliciting donations, because he did not necessarily want to dispose of valuable real estate assets. “I mean, do I want to sell a couple of buildings and self-fund?” Trump said. I don’t know that I want to do that necessarily, but I really won’t be asking for money for myself, I’ll be asking money for the party.”

By the time of Trump’s nomination, his campaign had retreated from its anti-super PAC stance. A close ally, billionaire private equity real estate investor Tom Barrack, launched the Rebuilding America Now super PAC in June 2016 to court big money donors. The New York Times has reported that this super PAC is now under investigation for possible illegal foreign contributions. In the weeks before the election, Trump sons Don Jr. and Eric Trump were attending super PAC events. As president, Trump has come full circle, morphing from a candidate who was critical of the corrosive influence of money in politics to a willing participant in the big-money politics that have defined the post-Citizens United era.

The Trump presidency has laid bare the need for sweeping ethics reforms in the executive branch and to the nation’s campaign finance laws. Public Citizen has long championed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and supports public financing of campaigns to end the massive influx of corporate and special interest money into our elections.

Next month, U.S. House lawmakers are expected to advance a set of important democracy reforms that include public financing of elections. They also include requirements for outside political groups to disclose their donors and for social media platforms to disclose who is paying for political ads. As a piece of the disclosure puzzle, Public Citizen has pushed for the Securities and Exchange Commission to require corporate disclosure of political spending, which Republicans in Congress have blocked for several years.

Below is a list of of major Trump donors:

[table “52” not found /]


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