By Jarrett Renshaw and Joseph Tanfani
(Reuters) – When President Donald Trump tried to discredit last week's elections with unsubstantiated allegations of election fraud, his team bombarded his supporters with requests for money to fund legal challenges for the results: "The left will try these Steal choice! ”Reads a text.
Small-scale donations from Trump's grassroots donors are not used at all for legal costs, according to a Reuters review of the legal language in the inquiries.
A donor would be required to give more than $ 8,000 before any funds are transferred to the “recount” account set up to fund election issues, including recounts and alleged deficiency claims.
Inquiries sent by email send supporters to an Official Election Defense Fund website asking them to sign up for recurring donations to “protect the results and keep fighting after election day”.
The fine print makes it clear that most of the money goes to other priorities.
Much of the money goes to Save America, a Trump Leadership PAC (PAC) or political action committee set up on Monday, and the Republican National Committee (RNC). According to the rules of the Bundestag Electoral Commission, both groups have a wide range of leeway in using the funds.
The Trump campaign, RNC, and Trump's new Save America PAC did not respond to requests for comment.
Leadership PACs like Save America are often set up by prominent political figures to spend money on other candidates while paying for personal expenses such as travel and hotel stays.
The disclosures would allow Trump and the RNC to use the donations for other political purposes or campaigns, such as the two Georgia runoff elections in January, which could determine control of the Senate and probably the most expensive races in the region count US history.
Trump's advertising website has a banner heading with the words "OFFICIAL ELECTION DEFENSE FUND" and "CONTRIBUTE NOW".
Scrolling the page would take a donor to the fine print, showing that the donations are split between Save America, which receives 60% of the money, and the RNC, which receives the other 40%. None of the funds will flow into Trump's official "Recount" committee fund until Trump's Save America share has reportedly reached the statutory contribution limit of $ 5,000.
That means Save America would get $ 5,000 and the RNC would get around $ 3,300 before a dollar goes into the recount fund. Donations to the recount committee are limited by law to $ 2,800.
For example, if a Trump donor gave $ 500, $ 300 would go to Trump's Save America PAC, $ 200 to the RNC – and nothing would go to his election defense fund.
A Republican political strategist said Trump was misleading supporters who might give small donations for any purpose he advocates.
"It's important to be up front with the people – especially those who dig deep into their pockets to make $ 25," said Michael DuHaime, former RNC political director. "If you tell them there will be legal costs, there should be legal costs."
Darrell Scott, an Ohio pastor who helped found the National Diversity Coalition for Trump and served on the President's 2016 transition team, sees no problem redirecting the money to the leadership PAC or the RNC.
“I see these as two pockets on the same pair of pants. It doesn't matter if it goes in the left or right pocket, ”said Scott. "In the end, the money will be used for a legitimate cause that his supporters will leave behind."
FLURRY OF LAWSUITS
The fundraiser has channeled Trump's anger and refusal to accept the election results that major media outlets called on Saturday for his Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, the former vice president. Most of the Republican Party has followed Trump's rhetoric, either by remaining silent or publicly supporting the election challenges.
Trump's campaign has filed a series of lawsuits to reverse the results in key states without providing evidence to support his illegal voting allegations. Instead, Trump's lawsuits have generally alleged violations of the process, such as a lack of access for Republican observers. Legal experts said none of the cases are wide enough to invalidate the number of votes required to undo Biden's suspected victory.
The judges were quick to dismiss many of the complaints. State election officials, including Republicans, said there had been no widespread fraud. Only a handful of Republican senators have recognized Biden's victory. Many others haven't, but some Republicans have suggested their patience with Trump's legal battle could soon run out.
While the president is fighting what the Democrats have called his inevitable overthrow from the White House, his fundraiser seeks to replenish the campaign coffers used up during the presidential contest, according to the Bundestag Electoral Commission.
Trump's re-election team kicked off 2020 with an impressive cash advantage thanks to a massive fundraiser, including a joint effort with the Republican Party. However, the benefit vanished when Trump's campaign burned $ 1.4 billion of the $ 1.6 billion raised over the past two years.
By mid-October, the Trump campaign and Republican Party's re-election team had $ 223.5 million left and had to cut advertising. The Trump campaign itself was only $ 43 million in the last three weeks of the presidential election, while Biden and the Democrats had $ 432 million in cash for the last stretch, including $ 177.3 million in Biden's campaign.
Trump's post-election fundraising emails, sometimes sent hourly for the past few days, used names like the Election Defense Task Force and the Official Election Defense Fund. Initially, the disclosures said Trump would steer a large portion of the contributions to pay off campaign debts.
The disclosure language changed, however, after Trump's campaign treasurer Bradley Crate joined Save America's political action committee on Monday. Crate did not respond to requests for comment.
Unlike campaign funds, which have tight controls on how they can be spent, PACs for executives like Save America have few restrictions. Republicans and Democrats alike have criticized the use of it to pay family members and fund luxury events in exotic locations. A 2018 report by Campaign Legal Center and Issue One, two groups advocating campaign funding reform, found that some executive PACs were used as a means of promoting “lavish lifestyles” by politicians To subsidize their donors' costs.
Larry Noble, former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, said Trump could use the committee to fund a political career after the elections. He said the pitch was misleading for donors who don't read the fine print.
"He's doing a really big deal with the election challenge and that may very well be why a lot of people give without paying attention to or understanding the political language," said Noble. "It is quite dangerous for our democracy to use attacks on our elections as a means of raising funds."
The Republican Party of North Carolina embarked on a similar strategy, using the election challenges to raise funds for other purposes. In several mass emails to potential donors this week, the party says – alongside pictures of Trump – that it is seeking money to protect the integrity of the elections.
However, the legal information shows that the money will be transferred to an account to pay for the party's overhead costs, and not directly for the challenges of these presidential elections. Trump is expected to win North Carolina's 15 electoral votes.
"They should be more transparent," said a prominent Republican from North Carolina on condition of anonymity. "If you ask for money to help with a legal challenge and instead the money pays the political director's salary, it doesn't seem right."
Tim Wigginton, a spokesman for the North Carolina Republican Party, said in a statement that the party "wants to make sure that every legal ballot is counted," but did not address questions about whether the appeals for funds are misleading or why the donations are not directed Legal defense.
(Reporting by Jarrett Renshaw and Joe Tanfani; additional reporting by Tom Hals and Tim Reid; editing by Brian Thevenot)