Donald J. Trump will exit the White House as a private citizen next month perched atop a pile of campaign cash unheard-of for an outgoing president, and with few legal limits on how he can spend it.
Deflated by a loss he has yet to acknowledge, Trump has cushioned the blow by coaxing huge sums of money from his loyal supporters — often under dubious pretenses — raising roughly $250 million since Election Day along with the national party.
More than $60 million of that sum has gone to a new political action committee, according to people familiar with the matter, which Trump will control after he leaves office. Those funds, which far exceed what previous outgoing presidents had at their disposal, provide him with tremendous flexibility for his post-presidential ambitions: He could use the money to quell rebel factions within the party, reward loyalists, fund his travels and rallies, hire staff, pay legal bills and even lay the groundwork for a far-from-certain 2024 run.
The post-election blitz of fundraising has cemented Trump’s position as an unrivaled force and the preeminent fundraiser of the Republican Party, even in defeat. His largest single day for online donations actually came after Election Day — raising almost $750,000 per hour Nov. 6. So did his second-biggest day. And his third.
“Right now, he is the Republican Party,” said John McLaughlin, a Republican pollster who worked on Trump’s re-election campaign. “The party knows that virtually every dollar they’ve raised in the last four years, it’s because of Donald Trump.”
During the campaign, many of the large expenditures, like television and digital ad buys, were routed through a secretive LLC called American Made Media Consultants. That allowed the Trump campaign and its joint committee with the national party to effectively shield many details of its spending, including who was being paid and how much. More than $700 million has gone through the LLC since the beginning of 2019.
What no one knew was that the LLC represented yet another intermingling of Trump’s political, financial and familial interests. New documents reviewed by The New York Times show that Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law and a senior campaign adviser, served on the board — and was named on drafts of the incorporation papers. So was John Pence, the nephew of Vice President Mike Pence and a senior Trump adviser.
Tim Murtaugh, a spokesman for Trump, said both Lara Trump and John Pence resigned from the board in October 2019. “There was never any ethical or legal reason why they could not serve on the board in the first place,’’ he said. He added that neither was paid for being on the board.
American Made Media Consultants was the subject of a complaint to the Federal Election Commission this year that accused it of “laundering” funds to obscure the ultimate beneficiary of Trump campaign spending. Filings show the vast majority of funds were spent after Lara Trump resigned from the board. The complaint is pending.
For Trump, the quarter-billion dollars he and the party raised over six weeks is enough to pay off all of his remaining campaign bills and to fund his fruitless legal challenges and still leave tens of millions of dollars.
Trump’s plans, however, remain extremely fluid. His refusal to accept Joe Biden’s victory has stunted internal political planning, aides say, with some advisers in his shrinking circle of confidants hesitant to even approach him about setting a course of action for 2021 and beyond.
Those who have spoken with Trump say he appears shrunken, and over his job; this detachment is reflected in a Twitter feed that remains stubbornly more focused on unfounded allegations of fraud than on the death toll from the raging pandemic.
Trump has talked about running again in 2024 — but he also may not. He has created this new PAC, but a different political entity could still be in the works, people involved in the discussions said. Talk of counterprogramming Biden’s inauguration with a splashy event or an announcement of his own is currently on hold.
Trump had been tentatively planning to go to Georgia on Saturday, according to a senior Republican official, to support the two Republicans in Senate runoff races there. But he is still angry at the state’s Republican governor and secretary of state for accepting the election result and simply doesn’t want to make the trip. There is some discussion about him going after the Christmas holiday.
Still, the Trump political apparatus has taken advantage of the grassroots energy and excitement over the two runoffs to juice its own fundraising. Email and text solicitations have pitched Trump supporters to give to a “Georgia Election Fund,” even though no funds go directly to either Republican senator on the ballot, irritating some Senate GOP strategists.
Instead, the fine print shows 75% of the donations to the Georgia fund go to Trump’s new PAC, called Save America, with 25% to the Republican National Committee.
After weeks of shouting “FRAUD” to supporters in emails and asking them to back an “Election Defense Fund” (which also sent 75% of donations to his new PAC), the Trump operation has subtly shifted its tone and focus, returning to more sustainable pre-election themes, like hawking signed hats and opposing socialism.
Trump and the RNC did spend about $15 million combined in legal costs and other spending related to disputing the election between Oct. 15 and Nov. 23, according to federal records.
Even some of his biggest postelection spending that his campaign labeled recount-related was routed through the LLC that Lara Trump served on the board of, including $2.2 million for “SMS advertising,” better known as text messaging.
For a sense of scale of just how much money Donald Trump will have at his disposal, the new Trump PAC’s $60 million-plus haul — and counting — is about as much money as he spent to win his party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
Some campaign finance experts have speculated that Trump might try to use the excess of cash in his new PAC, formally known as a leadership PAC, to pay for his own personal future legal quagmires as he faces investigations once he leaves office. (A senior Trump adviser said they don’t expect the money to be used for personal legal needs.)
“A leadership PAC is a slush fund,” said Meredith McGehee, executive director of Issue One, a group that supports increased political transparency. “There are very, very, very few limits on what he can’t spend money on.”
In the last five years, Trump has never shied from spending hundreds of thousands of dollars from his contributors on his private businesses, a practice he could continue or expand while out of office.
Just since mid-October, the Trump Victory Committee, a joint account operated with the RNC, has paid more than $710,000 to the Trump Hotel Collection, while his re-election account has continued to pay more than $37,000 per month to rent space in Trump Tower.
It is not clear where his post-presidential operation will be based or who will run it, although several advisers expect it will be in Florida, where he is planning to move.
But as a former president, Trump will be allocated a certain amount of taxpayer money for staff and office space for life after leaving the White House, and he is beginning to have discussions about which aides from the West Wing will accompany him.
His senior political advisers — Bill Stepien, Justin Clark and Jason Miller, among others — are among those who may stay involved with him politically.
While Trump’s post-presidency remains largely shapeless, he has demonstrated his desire to exert his control on national politics, especially among Republicans.
He has already endorsed Ronna McDaniel, a close ally, to serve another term as chair of the RNC. He has floated primary challenges to Republicans, such as Gov. Brian Kemp of Georgia, who have crossed him by rejecting his baseless theories of election fraud. He has even asked aides how he can retain control of the party if he isn’t a candidate.
One person close to Trump said that he has sounded less certain about declaring he’s running in 2024 than he had just two weeks ago. That uncertainty is causing anxiety for a number of advisers and aides to the president, some of whom might join other campaigns but are stuck in limbo until Trump makes up his mind. Announcing for president would trigger tighter rules on Trump’s political spending and added financial disclosures, including of Trump’s personal finances, that simply operating a PAC would not.
Trump’s future ambitions have also created a cloud over who exactly will control some of the most valuable assets from the 2020 campaign, including Trump’s lengthy list of supporters from whom he has raised hundreds of millions of dollars. Both the RNC and Trump are entitled to some of this valuable voter data, and efforts at “decoupling” the data are under way but expected to last months.
“There’s no bully pulpit as large as the presidency, but nevertheless, President Trump is likely to play a significant role in the future of the Republican Party,” said Whit Ayres, a Republican pollster. “It’s very difficult to imagine him following the same pattern as George W. Bush, Barack Obama and other presidents have followed in keeping their mouths shut and letting the new president try to govern.”
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