Shortly before the major news networks called the election for Joe Biden on Saturday, Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien dialed into a private call for top donors and allies to insist his candidate could still win the race — and ask them one more time to chip in.
The margins are close, Stepien said, and the campaign is still fighting. And while he recognized the call was meant as a briefing on the recount fights and not a fundraiser, Stepien made an ask anyway: He urged the donors to go to the campaign website and give to Trump’s legal defense fund.
Much of the money raised by Stepien and the Trump campaign won’t go towards challenging election results, however, but to help set the stage for the president’s next act. The Trump campaign has a recount fund, but the money won’t go to it unless someone gives more than $8,333. Rather, 60 percent of a donation up to that amount for Trump’s “Official Election Defense Fund” is routed to a new PAC started this week by the president that can pay for a wide range of activities — but is likely legally barred from spending on recounts, lawyers say. The remaining 40 percent goes to the Republican National Committee, which is allowed — but not required to — spend on the recount. Prior to Tuesday, the majority of a donation went to helping Trump’s campaign cover its debt.
Trump’s insistence that there was voter fraud and demands for recounts are helping create post-election unity among his base, and raise money the president can use to keep his political career afloat after January, political fundraisers and campaign finance experts told POLITICO.
“He has always understood that money equals power, and now he wants to have a bunch of money and it’s going to give him a seat at the table. That’s what he’s doing,” said Richard Painter, White House ethics lawyer for George W. Bush.
If Trump can keep his base of largely white, working class conservatives going forward, he can keep enduring influence over the Republican Party, Painter added.
“He has these blocs of voters that other Republicans didn’t have, and probably won’t have in the future — and that’s what he wants to raise this money to control,” Painter said.
While many Republicans in Washington have privately dismissed the president’s claims about a stolen election as a flailing publicity stunt, Trump’s narrative is proving far more compelling to voters: A full 70 percent of Republicans don’t think the election was free or fair, a recent POLITICO/Morning Consult poll found. And politicians who have backed Trump throughout his presidency have increasingly lined up behind the president. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said this week that Trump is “100 percent within his right” to challenge the election results.
Conservatives who flourished during Trump’s administration have become nearly as vocal about election interference as the president himself. Dan Bongino, the commentator and podcaster whose posts are among the most-shared on Facebook on a near-daily basis, has unleashed dozens of posts a day alleging suspicious vote tallies and warning his supporters not to cow to moderates and liberals.
“We don’t owe them a concession because there’s nothing to concede. This election’s not over,” Bongino said in a video posted to Facebook on Tuesday.
Bongino is also an investor in — and prolific user of — Parler, the right-wing news media site billing itself as an alternative to Twitter that became the most downloaded free app on iTunes in recent days, as Twitter repeatedly censored Trump’s claims of fraud.
On Parler, people seeking money off the election fraud claims include QAnon supporter Marjorie Taylor Greene, who last week won election to Congress in Georgia, and has in recent days repeatedly circulated a “STOP THE BIDEN STEAL!” petition and fundraising link to her followers.
In the coming months, Trump could use money from his new PAC, called Save America — the existence of which was reported for the first time by The New York Times on Monday — to travel the country and stage rallies, which can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. He could promote candidates who were loyal to him and make donations to their campaigns. And, if he wanted to, he could place his family members and former administration officials on payroll, and continue to host lavish events at his properties without tripping up campaign finance law.
“Former presidents have all sort of faded away after their last election. Trump is clearly a different person,” said Ben Ginsberg, an election lawyer who served as counsel to the Bush-Cheney campaign and the RNC. “He can go in and help candidates that he likes, he can use the money to advocate on issues as they come up if he wanted to do that. He can keep a donor list fresh.”
So-called “leadership PACs” affiliated with lawmakers have come under scrutiny in recent years for their lax spending rules. In recent years, congressional lawmakers have used such PACs to travel to Puerto Rico and London, fly on private jets, pay dues at private membership clubs and book rooms at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C., a report by the good government group Issue One found. Such PACs are much less tightly regulated than lawmakers’ campaign committees, which carry strict rules about how a candidate can spend donors’ money.
Lawmakers are generally prohibited from using leadership PAC money to fund their campaigns, which makes it unlikely that Trump would legally be allowed to use his leadership PAC money to help fund the legal fights, legal experts told POLITICO.
“I don’t think the FEC has ever said leadership PACs can be used for this purpose, and I don’t think they would” allow it, said Adav Noti, former counsel at the Federal Election Commission.
The Biden campaign is also raising money into a legal fund. Those funds go to the DNC and to the Biden campaign’s recount fund, both of which are allowed to spend money fighting Trump’s election challenges.
Currently, when a donor clicks on one of the Trump campaign’s fundraising solicitations or donates on Trump’s website, they are taken to the “Official Election Defense Fund.” That will allocate 60 percent of the donation to the leadership PAC, and 40 percent to the RNC. Once the donor has given $5,000 to the PAC — the maximum amount allowed for a PAC donation — then money will go to Trump’s recount fund and the RNC.
Before Trump created the PAC on Monday, the website said a share of the donation would go towards paying the campaign’s debts.
“It’s extremely misleading,” said Noti, who noted the RNC already had money set aside for recounts and other post-election legal proceedings that it may spend in the coming weeks. The DNC has a similar account.
Though Trump’s attempt to overturn the election results could help him build a valuable foundation for the months to come, some establishment Republicans are increasingly concerned the push will suck money and energy from their party’s biggest challenge in the coming months: the high-stakes pair of runoff Senate races in Georgia that will determine which party has control of the Senate.
Senate Republicans have also made a joint fundraising page to collect money for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue — but it didn’t attract the widespread social media attention of Trump’s efforts.
“The real question for conservatives is, do you want Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi to have unfettered power?” said Scott Jennings, a Republican consultant. “The answer to that will be a resounding, ‘No.’”