Trump’s PAC comes under scrutiny amid intensification of legal investigations

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WASHINGTON (TBEN) — Sitting on more than $115 million in various political committees, Donald Trump has positioned himself as a unique indomitable force in the GOP who would almost certainly have the resources to overwhelm his rivals if he launched a new presidential campaign .

But that huge pile of money also emerges as a potential vulnerability. Its main fundraising vehicle, Save America PAC, is under new legal investigation after the Justice Department issued a series of grand jury subpoenas seeking information about the political action committee’s fundraising practices.

The scope of the probe is unclear. Grand jury subpoenas and search warrants issued by the Justice Department in recent days have covered numerous topics, including Trump’s PAC, according to people familiar with the case who requested anonymity in an ongoing investigation. to discuss research. The subpoenas seek both documents and testimony and, according to one of the people, ask at least some of the recipients about their knowledge of attempts to commit voter fraud.

The subpoenas also demand records of communications with Trump-allied attorneys who supported efforts to overturn the election results and who colluded to draft fake voters in battlefield states. One specific area of ​​focus appears to be the “Save America Rally” that preceded the Jan. 6, 2021 U.S. Capitol uprising, the person said.

The investigation is one of several criminal investigations Trump is currently facing, including investigating how documents with secret markings ended up at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago club. Regardless of Save America’s ultimate role in the investigations, the flurry of developments has drawn attention to the management of the PAC, how it raised money and where those funds went.

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich dismissed the subpoenas, saying an “armed and politicized Justice Department” was casting “a blind net to intimidate and silence Republicans fighting for its America First agenda.” Representatives of the Department of Justice declined to comment.

While Trump has over $115 million in various commissions, the vast majority of it is stored at Save America. The PAC ended July with more than $99 million in cash, according to fundraising data — more than the Republican and Democratic national campaign committees combined.

Trump has continued to boast of small-dollar donations in the months since, frustrating other Republicans struggling to raise money ahead of the November midterm elections.

Save America was set up as a “leadership PAC” designed to allow political figures to raise money for other campaigns. But the groups are often used by candidate candidates to fund political travel, polls and personnel while “testing the waters” ahead of potential presidential elections. The accounts can also be used to contribute money to other candidates and party organizations. candidates build political capital.

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Much of the money Trump has amassed was raised in the days and weeks following the 2020 election. That’s when Trump supporters were bombarded with a non-stop stream of emails and texts, many capitalized and blatant lies about a stolen 2020 election, asking for money for an “election defense fund.”

But such a fund never existed. Instead, Trump has spent the money on other purposes. He has funded dozens of rallies, paid staff and used the money to travel while teasing an expected presidential run in 2024.

Other editions were more unusual. There was the $1 million donated last year to the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit that employs Cleta Mitchell and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, both of whom helped Trump’s failed bid to reverse the 2020 election. , encouraged.

According to Smithsonian spokesperson Linda St. Thomas, there was the $650,000 “charitable donation” to the Smithsonian Institution in July to help fund portraits of Trump and the former first lady that will one day hang in the National Portrait Gallery.

Much of the money also funded another kind of defense fund — one that paid for the legal fees of Trump confidants and aides called to testify before the Jan. 6 commission.

In all, Trump’s extensive political operation since the uprising has spent at least $8 million on “legal advice” and “legal costs” to at least 40 law firms, according to an analysis of campaign finance disclosures.

It’s unclear how much of that money went toward legal costs for staffers after a congressional committee began investigating the origin of the attack. But at least $1.1 million has been paid to Elections LLC, a company founded by former Trump White House ethics attorney Stefan Passantino, according to campaign finance and corporate data. An additional $1 million was paid to a legal trust at the same address as Passantino’s company. Passantino did not respond to a request for comment Monday night. Payments have also been made to companies specializing in environmental regulation and real estate.

By July, only about $750,000 had been handed out to candidates for Congress, with another $150,000 in candidates for state office, data shows. Trump is expected to ramp up his political spending as the general election season is in full swing, though it remains unclear how much the notoriously frugal former president will end up spending.

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Trump has long been hesitant about his 2024 plans, saying a formal announcement would lead to campaign finance rules that would, in part, force him to create a new campaign committee that would be tied to strict fundraising limits.

In the meantime, Trump operatives have discussed the prospect of creating a new super-PAC or repurposing one that already exists as it moves closer to an expected announcement. While Trump couldn’t use Save America to fund campaign activities after launching a run, aides have discussed the possibility of moving at least some of that money to a super PAC, according to people familiar with the talks.

Campaign finance experts are divided on the legality of such a move. Some, such as Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor and campaign finance expert, said he saw no problem.

“There may be some hoops he has to jump through,” he said. But “I don’t see a problem with moving from one PAC to another…I don’t see what would block it.”

Others disagree.

“It is illegal for a candidate to transfer a significant amount of money from a leadership PAC to a super PAC. You certainly can’t do $100 million,” said Adav Noti, a former Federal Election Commission attorney who now works for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based good governance group focused on money and politics.

And whether or not Trump would face consequences is another matter.

For years, the FEC, which oversees campaign financing laws, has been in jail. The committee is split equally between Republicans and Democrats, and a majority vote is required to take enforcement action against a candidate.

Indeed, legal experts say Trump has repeatedly violated the campaign finance law since launching his White House campaign in 2016 to no avail.

Since his 2016 campaign, more than 50 separate complaints have been filed against him alleging Trump violated campaign finance laws. In about half of those cases, FEC attorneys concluded there was reason to believe he had broken the law. But the committee, which now includes three Trump-appointed Republicans, has repeatedly been deadlocked.

The list of dismissed complaints against Trump is extensive. In 2021, Republicans on the committee rejected the claim, supported by the FEC’s staff attorneys, that a Trump-orchestrated hush money payment by his former attorney to porn movie star Stormy Daniels amounted to an unreported in-kind contribution. In May, the committee similarly remained at a standstill over whether his campaign broke the law by hiding how it spent money during the 2020 campaign.

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And over the summer, the commission dismissed complaints stemming from Trump’s threat to withhold $391 million in aid for Ukraine unless Ukrainian officials opened an investigation into President Joe Biden’s son Hunter Biden’s relationship. with a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma, which the FEC’s lawyer determined was a possible violation of the campaign finance law.

“There is no legal basis to believe that Congress intended the FEC to oversee official government actions that could be intended to aid the re-election of an office holder,” the committee’s three Republicans said. in a written statement late last month.

That means any enforcement action will likely have to come from the Department of Justice.

“He has nothing to fear from the Federal Election Commission until the structure is changed or there is a turnover among the FEC commissioners,” said Brett G. Kappel, a long-time campaign finance attorney with Washington-based firm Harmon Curran and has represented both Republicans and Democrats. That doesn’t mean he has nothing to fear from the Justice Department, which apparently is already investigating Save America. As far as I can see, there are multiple allegations of fraud that could be the subject of an investigation by the Justice Department.”

In the meantime, Trump and Save America continue to bring in contributions from grassroots supporters, blow up fundraising solicitations with aggressive demands like “this needs to be taken care of NOW,” and threaten donors to “DATE” their “voter verification” canvas surveys, even if some of the Republican Senate candidates who Trump endorsed and helped to cross the finish line in primaries are struggling to raise money.

Senate Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has urged those candidates to ask Trump for money, which the former president has so far been reluctant to provide. That has led the candidates, some of whom presented themselves as McConnell antagonists in their primaries, to creep up to McConnell and the Senate leadership fund, the super-PAC he controls and has $100 million in reserve.

It also strengthens McConnell’s hand in his long-dormant feud with Trump, who has urged GOP senators to oust the Kentucky Republican. Some close to Trump acknowledge the candidates could use the money, but said he doesn’t see it as his responsibility to fill the void.

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Colvin reported from New York.