If you want to get rich, start a religion. L. Ron Hubbard said so and he should know. Failing that, start a political party. No one would take Donald Trump seriously as a religious figure (would they?), but it’s no surprise that the most grasping president ever to occupy the Oval Office has thought about forming his own political party, the ‘Patriot party’. Trump being Trump, he changed his mind almost immediately. Creating a new political party is hard work:there are lots of rules to follow, legal requirements that can’t be ignored if you’re going to get your big payday. The main one — perhaps most discouraging for Trump — is that the political party actually has to exist. You have to put candidates on the ballot across the country, collect signatures, form committees, register members. Trump has never been strong on detail or follow-through.
The Patriot party may have been a useful fiction, one that Trump himself believed for a time, like many of his lies. It was a threat to hold over Republican senators before his second impeachment trial. This earned a grudging respect from Rick Wilson, the man behind the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. He told me that Trump was right about his power to ‘blow a hole in the GOP from which it would never, ever recover’. It would be destroyed in many states. ‘You’ve got a Patriot party together in Florida and no Republican ever wins [there] again.’ But it turned out that the number of Republican senators ready to convict in the impeachment trial wasn’t quite as high as Trump had feared. The need for a Patriot party suddenly didn’t seem so urgent. He was also talked out of the idea because, as the New York Times’s Maggie Haberman tweeted, some folks ‘gently pointed out to him’ that you couldn’t threaten a third party and run your own candidates in Republican primaries. Perhaps, too, someone with political experience informed Trump that his new party wouldn’t get a cent until elections in two years’ time. Forget about it!
On the other hand, a PAC is ready cash. Trump ginned up a new political action committee, Save America, after the election. It received more than $30 million between late November and year’s end, according to accounts sent to the Federal Election Commission in January. Another $45 million or so is on its way to Save America, just a few days too late to make it into that accounting. So far, then, a cool $75 million. That figure was given to me by the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington, DC pressure group that tries to keep America’s elections clean. Their chief litigator, Adav Noti, said Trump could even cut himself a multimillion-dollar salary check from Save America, because it’s what’s known as a ‘leadership PAC’: it doesn’t have to spend on any particular campaign.
Paying yourself a huge salary would be a little obvious, even for Trump, but the point is that the money is sitting there waiting for him to use it more or less as he pleases. Save America is Trump’s slush fund.
This is money extracted from loyal MAGA supporters for the legal fight to ‘Stop the Steal’. It may be of passing interest that Save America has not, at the time of writing, spent a single dollar on legal fees. In fact, so far Save America hasn’t spent on anything at all, except a couple of hundred thousand dollars to its payment processor, an unavoidable expense.
The cash infusing Save America represents both the down payment from a future, lucrative new revenue stream and the tail end of a massive fundraising effort by the Trump 2020 campaign. The genius of Stop the Steal was that you could ignore the inconvenient fact that November 3 had come and gone: the dollars would keep rolling in. Ben Sasse, the Republican senator from Nebraska, said in a late December Facebook post that he thought Trump had raised ‘well over’ half a billion dollars by persuading his followers that he was mounting a ‘ferocious legal defense’ of his ‘stolen’ election ‘victory’.
Here again, Trump may have believed his own words, psychologically unable to accept the fact of his defeat, listening to any crank like Rudy Giuliani who made it into the Oval Office to tell him he had really won. But Trump’s enablers knew that both the claims about the election and the legal effort itself were fantasy. Sasse cast a cold clear eye over this in his Facebook post in a remarkable indictment of the man who was — and is — still the head of Sasse’s party. ‘There are no penalties for misleading the public. But there are serious penalties for misleading a judge, and the president’s lawyers know that — and thus they have repeated almost none of the claims of grand voter fraud that the campaign spokespeople are screaming at their most zealous supporters. So, here’s the heart of this whole thing: this isn’t really a legal strategy — it’s a fundraising strategy.’
At the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) they think that Sasse’s figure of half a billion raised since the election is about right. This rich bounty was divided up between the Trump campaign (to pay off 2020 debt) and the Republican National Committee (a few hundred million there) before finally — because there was just so much money — overflowing into Save America. Perhaps only a couple of million dollars from that stupefying total of half a billion went into court actions to challenge the election result. The CLC lawyer, Noti, says there’s a legal term for when you tell people they’re giving you money for one thing and then you spend almost all of it on something else: fraud. What really made Noti’s blood boil, he says, was seeing small donors — ‘unsophisticated folks’ — paying $10 or $20 and then getting automatically charged 10 or 15 times more. ‘And they did it on the word of the sitting president of the United States.’
We don’t know how former President Trump will spend the money that continues to flow in. We still don’t know exactly how he
spent a large part of what he raised during the 2020 campaign. Trump’s reelection effort sucked up some $1.26 billion from donors and almost half of it, $600 million, was given to a secretive shell company incorporated in the state of Delaware, American Made Media Consultants (AMMC). Delaware is the United States’s own Cayman Islands, the place you go when you really don’t want people to know what you’re doing with your money. The president of American Made Media Consultants was Eric Trump’s wife, Lara, and both she and Don Junior’s girlfriend, the former Fox News star Kimberly Guilfoyle, have been accused of taking large, undisclosed salaries from the company. The presiding genius of the whole operation was said to be Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, effectively the Trump campaign’s manager, whoever actually held the title.
Did Kushner get any of the $600 million? Did Trump? AMMC was a black hole; the Campaign Legal Center has filed court papers calling it virtually a money-laundering operation. Some believe that Trump will now raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, and spend the remainder of his life grifting off the people who once put him in the Oval Office.
‘Donald Trump is a very limited-competence character,’ says Rick Wilson. ‘He does not have a lot of new tricks.’ Trump had no choice in this, Wilson thinks. Both creditors and prosecutors were closing in; he is more desperate for money than ever before.
‘Donald Trump is in for a very ugly time.’ Wilson has been saying something similar for the last five years. The difference now is he might be right. Trump has some huge bills coming due and no one can see how he can pay them. This is a familiar problem for him — his companies went bankrupt four times in the 1990s. Back then, he seemed to thrive under pressure that would have broken lesser men, imbued as he is with an almost psychotic love of risk-taking, unable to believe that he could ever fail. The current crisis is just another opportunity for ‘winning’. Save America is working well, but contributions are limited to $5,000. Parties can take in much more. Perhaps he was too quick to jettison the Patriot party. Maybe Jared could look at that. Either way, it doesn’t matter whether you have a PAC or a party, you can raise money for anything you like and secretly give it back to yourself. And it’s all perfectly legal! A thing of beauty. It would be a crime not to do it. Forget the Wall, bringing jobs home, the election victory: this could be Trump’s greatest con yet, his masterpiece.
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s March 2021 US edition.