Trump’s PAC faces scrutiny amid escalating legal investigations

WASHINGTON (AP) — With more than $115 million in various political committees, donald trump he has positioned himself as an exceptionally indomitable force in the GOP who would almost certainly have the resources to overwhelm his rivals if he launches another presidential campaign.

But that huge amount of money is also emerging as a potential vulnerability. Its main fundraising vehicle, Save America PAC, is under new legal scrutiny after the Justice Department issued a round of grand jury subpoenas seeking information on the political action committee’s fundraising practices.

The scope of the investigation is unclear. Grand jury subpoenas and search warrants issued by the Justice Department in recent days related to numerous topics, including Trump’s PAC, according to people familiar with the matter who requested anonymity to discuss an ongoing investigation. The subpoenas seek records as well as testimony and ask at least some of the recipients about their knowledge of efforts to engage in voter fraud, according to one of the people.

The subpoenas also request records of communication with Trump-allied attorneys who supported efforts to overturn election results and conspired to line up bogus voters in battleground states. One particular area of ​​focus seems to be on the “Save America Rally” that preceded January 6, 2021, insurrection in the united states capitolthe person said.

The investigation is one of several criminal investigations Trump is currently facing, including scrutiny of how documents with classified 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 events has drawn attention to the management of the PAC, how it has raised money and where those funds have gone.

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

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

Trump has continued to rack up small-dollar donations in the months since, frustrating other Republicans who have been struggling to raise money ahead of November’s midterm elections.

Save America is set up as a “leadership PAC” designed to allow political figures to raise funds for other campaigns. But potential candidates often use the groups to fund political travel, voting and staffing as they “test the waters” ahead of potential presidential bids. The accounts can also be used to contribute money to other candidates and party organizations, helping potential candidates build political capital.

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 nonstop stream of emails and text messages, many of which contained letters in capital letters and outright lies about a stolen 2020 election, soliciting cash for an “election defense fund.”

But such a fund never existed. Instead, Trump has put the money to other uses. He bankrolled dozens of rallies, paid staff and used the money to travel while he scoffed at a presidential bid expected in 2024.

Other expenses have been 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, who encouraged Trump’s failed attempt to nullify the 2020 election.

There was a $650,000 “charitable contribution” in July to the Smithsonian Institution to help fund portraits of Trump and the former first lady that will one day hang in the National Portrait Gallery, according to Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas.

Much of the money has also funded a different kind of defense fund, one that has paid the legal expenses of Trump confidants and aides who have been called to testify before the Jan. 6 committee.

Overall, Trump’s sprawling political operation has spent at least $8 million on “legal consulting” and “legal expenses” to at least 40 law firms since the insurrection, according to an analysis of campaign finance disclosures.

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

As of July, only about $750,000 had been given to candidates for Congress, with an additional $150,000 given to candidates for state office, records show. Trump is expected to increase his political spending now that the general election season is in full swing, though it remains unclear exactly how much the notoriously thrifty former president will ultimately agree to spend.

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

Trump aides, meanwhile, have been discussing the possibility of creating a new super PAC or repurposing an existing one as an expected announcement nears. While Trump was unable to use Save America to fund campaign activity after launching a run, aides have discussed moving at least some of that money to a super PAC, according to people familiar with the talks.

Campaign finance experts disagree on the legality of such a move. Some, like Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor and campaign finance expert, said he didn’t see a problem.

“There may be some hoops that you have to jump through,” he said. But “I don’t see any problem with it 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 make $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 any consequences is a different matter.

For years, the FEC, which oversees campaign finance laws, has been at a standstill. The commission is split evenly between Republicans and Democrats, and a majority vote is needed to take any enforcement action against a candidate.

Indeed, legal experts say Trump has repeatedly violated campaign finance law since launching his White House bid in 2016, without consequence.

Since his 2016 campaign, more than 50 separate complaints have been filed against him alleging that Trump violated campaign finance laws. In about half of those cases, FEC’s attorneys concluded there was reason to believe he may have broken the law. But the commission, which now includes three Republican Trump appointees, has repeatedly deadlocked.

The list of dismissed complaints against Trump is extensive. In 2021, committee Republicans rejected a claim, backed by FEC staff attorneys, that a Trump-orchestrated payment of money by his former attorney to pornographic movie star Stormy Daniels amounted to an in-kind contribution. undeclared. In May, the commission similarly deadlocked on whether his campaign broke the law by hiding how he was spending cash during the 2020 campaign.

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

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

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

“You have nothing to fear from the Federal Election Commission until its structure is changed or there is rotation among FEC commissioners,” said Brett G. Kappel, a longtime campaign finance attorney with the firm Harmon. Curran is based in Washington and has represented both Republicans and Democrats. “That doesn’t mean I have nothing to fear from the Justice Department, which is apparently already investigating Save America. From what I can see, there are multiple allegations of wire fraud that could be the subject of a Justice Department investigation.”

Meanwhile, Trump and Save America continue to collect contributions from rank-and-file supporters, launching fundraising solicitations with aggressive demands like “this needs to be resolved NOW” and threatening donors that their “Voter Verification” polling polls are ” OUT OF DATE,” even as some of the Republican Senate contenders Trump endorsed and helped cross the finish line in the primary are struggling to raise money.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, has urged those candidates to ask Trump for money, which the former president has so far been reluctant to provide. That has left candidates, some of whom cast as McConnell antagonists during their primaries, humiliated before 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-standing feud with Trump, who has urged Republican senators to oust the Kentucky Republican. Some people close to Trump acknowledge that 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.

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