Nov 11 (Reuters) – As President Donald Trump seeks to discredit last week’s election with baseless claims of voter fraud, his team has bombarded his supporters with requests for money to help pay for legal challenges to the results: “The Left will try to STEAL this election!” reads one text.
But any small-dollar donations from Trump’s grassroots donors won’t be going to legal expenses at all, according to a Reuters review of the legal language in the solicitations.
A donor would have to give more than $8,000 before any money goes to the “recount account” established to finance election challenges, including recounts and lawsuits over alleged improprieties, the fundraising disclosures show.
The emailed solicitations send supporters to an “Official Election Defense Fund” website that asks them to sign up for recurring donations to “protect the results and keep fighting even after Election Day.”
The fine print makes clear most of the money will go to other priorities.
A large portion of the money goes to “Save America,” a Trump leadership PAC, or political action committee, set up on Monday, and the Republican National Committee (RNC). Under Federal Election Commission rules, both groups have broad leeway in how they can use the funds.
The Trump campaign, the RNC and Trump’s new Save America PAC did not respond to requests for comment.
Leadership PACs such as Save America are often set up by prominent political figures to spend money on other candidates, while also paying for personal expenses, such as travel and hotel stays.
The disclosures would allow Trump and the RNC to channel the donations into other political causes or campaigns, such as the two high-stakes January Senate runoff races in Georgia that could determine control of the Senate and are likely to rank among the most expensive races in U.S. history.
Trump’s solicitation website carries a banner headline that says “OFFICIAL ELECTION DEFENSE FUND” and “CONTRIBUTE NOW.”
Scrolling down the page would take a donor to the fine print, which shows that donations are split between “Save America,” which gets 60% of the money, and the RNC, which gets the other 40%. None of the money flows to Trump’s official”recount” committee fund until Trump’s Save America share reaches the legal contribution limit of $5,000, according to the disclosures.
That means that, before a dollar goes into the recount fund,Save America would receive $5,000 and the RNC around $3,300. Donations to the recount committee are legally limited to $2,800.
If a Trump donor gave $500, for instance, $300 would go to Trump’s Save America PAC, $200 would to the RNC – and nothing would go to his election defense fund.
One Republican political strategist said Trump is misleadingsupporters who might give small donations to whatever cause heapproves.
“It’s important to be up front with people – especiallythose who are digging deep into their pockets to come up with$25,” said Michael DuHaime, a former political director at theRNC. “If you tell them it’s going for legal fees, well then itshould go for legal fees.”
Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who helped found the NationalDiversity Coalition for Trump and served on the president’s 2016transition team, says he sees no problems with diverting themoney to the leadership PAC or the RNC.
“I see this as two pockets on the same pair of pants. Itdoesn’t matter if it goes into the left or the right pocket,“Scott said. “In the end, the money will be used for a legitimatepurpose that his supporters will get behind.”
FLURRY OF LAWSUITS
The fundraising pitches have channeled Trump’s rage and hisrefusal to accept the results of an election that major mediaoutlets called on Saturday for his Democratic opponent JoeBiden, the former Vice President. Most of the Republican Partyhas fallen in line with Trump’s rhetoric, either by stayingsilent or publicly supporting the election challenges.
Trump’s campaign has filed a flurry of lawsuits to overturnthe results in key states without producing evidence to back hischarges of illegal voting. Trump’s lawsuits have insteadgenerally alleged violations of process, such as a lack ofaccess for Republican observers. Legal experts said none of thecases were broad enough to invalidate the number of votesrequired to overturn Biden’s presumed victory.
Judges have quickly dismissed many of the lawsuits. Stateelection officials, including Republicans, have said there wasno widespread fraud.
As the president fights what Democrats have called hisinevitable ouster from the White House, his fundraising campaignseeks to replenish campaign coffers that were depleted duringthe presidential race, according to Federal Election Commissiondata.
Trump’s re-election team kicked off 2020 with an impressivecash advantage, thanks to a massive fundraising operation,including joint efforts with the Republican Party. But theadvantage evaporated as Trump’s campaign burned through $1.4billion of the $1.6 billion raised over the past two years.
By mid-October, the Trump campaign and the Republican Partyreelection team were left with $223.5 million and had to scaleback advertising. The Trump campaign itself only had $43 millionentering the final three weeks of the presidential election,while Biden and the Democrats had $432 million in cash for thefinal stretch, including $177.3 million in Biden’s campaign.
Trump’s post-election fundraising emails – sometimes issuedhourly over the last several days – used names such as theElection Defense Task Force and the Official Election DefenseFund. Initially, the disclosures said that Trump would steer alarge part of the contributions to pay down campaign debt.
But the disclosure language changed after Trump’s campaigntreasurer, Bradley Crate, incorporated the Save Americapolitical action committee on Monday. Crate did not reply torequests for comment.
Unlike campaign funds, which have tight controls on how theycan be spent, leadership PACs such as Save America carry fewrestrictions. Republicans and Democrats alike have drawncriticism for using them to pay family members and to fundluxury events in exotic locations. A 2018 report by the CampaignLegal Center and Issue One, two groups that advocate campaignfinance reform, said some leadership PACs have been used asvehicles to “subsidize lavish lifestyles” of politicians “ontheir donors’ dimes.”
Larry Noble, former general counsel at the Federal ElectionCommission, said Trump could use the committee to finance apost-election political career. He said the pitch is misleadingfor donors who don’t read the fine print.
“He’s really making a big deal about the challenge to theelection, and that may very well be why a lot of people may givewithout paying attention to, or understanding, what thepolitical language is,” Noble said. “It’s pretty dangerous toour democracy to use attacking our elections as a fundraisingtool.”
The North Carolina Republican Party has launched a similarstrategy, using the election challenges as a way to raise moneyfor other purposes. In several mass emails to potential donorsthis week, the party says – alongside images of Trump – that itis seeking money to help protect the integrity of the elections.
The legal disclosures, however, show the money is going toan account to pay for the party’s overhead costs and notdirectly to any challenges of this presidential election. Trumpwon North Carolina’s 15 electoral votes.
“They should be more transparent,” said one prominent NorthCarolina Republican, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Ifthey are soliciting money to help with a legal challenge, andinstead the money is going to pay the salary of the politicaldirector, that doesn’t seem right.”
Tim Wigginton, a spokesman for the North Carolina RepublicanParty, said in a statement that the party wants to “ensure everylegal ballot is counted” but did not address questions aboutwhether the fundraising appeals are misleading or why thedonations are not being directed to legal defense.(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Joe Tanfani; additionalreporting by Tom Hals and Tim Reid; editing by Brian Thevenot)