Just when it seemed like former President Donald Trump’s dark money maze couldn’t get any darker, it looks like someone shot the lights out.
At least, that’s the impression experts in nonprofit law took away from a pair of previously unreported tax filings from the dark money arm of Trump’s political machine, America First Works.
Those experts said it appears from the filings and other incorporation records that the advocacy group—which raised almost no money in 2021—has closed down its original Virginia entity and opened another one in Washington, D.C., under the same name, with the same board of directors.
The question is why—and it comes as Trumpworld is laying the groundwork for a second Trump term. Or, as Axios put it, “a sprawling infrastructure already preparing to staff a new administration and immediately enact major policies,” which Trump allies see as a key differentiator with potential GOP rival Ron DeSantis.
The upshot, however, is that 2021 was essentially a rebuilding year for Trump’s dark money machine. That work not only came at a cost, it also appears to have happened in a black box, adding another layer of opacity on top of a fundraising and advocacy network that’s already grown so convoluted even legal experts have a hard time untangling it.
In this instance, not only is it hard to follow the money, it’s hard to say for sure whether there’s all that much money to follow in the first place. At least, there appears to be a lot less of it flying around in the fractious 12 months after Trump left the White House.
If you’re looking for lucidity, however, the following is not for the faint of heart.
AFW is a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization, which are often colloquially called “dark money” groups. These groups can raise funds in unlimited amounts, and while they don’t have to disclose their donors’ identities, the organizations can use a chunk of that unattributed money for political activity.
According to its 2021 tax filing, which was first obtained by The Daily Beast, AFW—which raised about $51 million the previous year—doled out millions of dollars in transfers and grants.
That filing shows that the funds all went to a handful of groups that make up a financial and political support network behind the former president.
Those transactions included a $3 million grant to AFW’s 501(c)(3) counterpart, America First Policy Institute, and an additional $250,000 to Make America Great Again Policies—a lesser known entity which has reported having a cost-sharing agreement with a new pro-Trump super PAC. AFW also paid another $250,000 for “research” to Republican opposition research firm America Rising, according to the document.
The group also reported about $75,000 in in-kind contributions (under its old name, America First Policies) to a latent Trump super PAC called America First Action. That’s on top of a $1.75 million contribution to the same super PAC—a number that exactly offsets the amount in illegal donations the super PAC received from a Canadian billionaire in 2018, which it was ordered to refund last spring.
If these transactions seem confusing, with multiple similarly named organizations serving the same purpose, experts say that’s almost certainly part of the point—or at least a welcome side benefit, making the maze maddeningly difficult to follow.
But the filing also reveals one data point with comparative lucidity: While AFW spent money, its revenue essentially fell to zero. That was a significant drop, from $51 million to just $33.00, leaving the group with about $1.2 million in the bank.
Brendan Fischer, deputy director of government watchdog Documented, said that drop-off, in an off-election year, could not simply be chalked up to a change in political cycles.
“America First Works served as the dark money arm of Trump’s campaign in 2020, and it is not uncommon for a politically active dark money group to see a decline in revenue during a non-election year. But this drop is precipitous, and can’t be explained by election cycles alone,” Fischer told The Daily Beast.
Instead, Fischer and other experts said it appears AFW quietly underwent a wholesale change, while keeping up outward appearances that it never stopped functioning.
“The in-kind contributions of staff time and office space indicate that AFW employees were still working and on the payroll in 2021,” Fischer said. Further, AFW’s website issues press releases, and its social media accounts are active.
“It also would be understandable if AFW was just going to spend down its existing funds and close up shop, but that’s not what’s going on either,” Fischer said, pointing out that AFW didn’t appear to make any meaningful political expenditures or donations in 2022. “Instead, for some unexplained reason, AFW set up a new entity with the same name.”
AFW did not reply to a request for comment for this article.
But that website offers a clue in its first press release, from Nov. 5, 2021. The title, however—“AFPI Launches New Political Arm: America First Works”—is a lot clearer than the reality.
“Today, America First Policy Institute (AFPI) announced the establishment of its affiliated advocacy organization, America First Works,” the release says. It calls AFW “a 501(c)(4) that will ignite the spirit of the nation,” which “seeks to transfer power back to the American people and away from government elites by engaging in grassroots advocacy to affect change at the federal, state, and local level.”
But as mentioned above, “America First Works” already existed. It was originally called America First Policies, a group Trump allies first created in 2017, and which raised that whopping $51 million in 2020.
According to IRS records first reported by the Center for Public Integrity, America First Policies changed its name to America First Works the month before the press release.
But last December, an AFW spokesperson told The Daily Beast it wasn’t a name change; America First Policies had been “sold” to America First Works “in a private deal” earlier this year, the spokesperson said.
“This is a different organization, under completely new ownership,” the spokesperson added. He declined to reveal the price of the nonprofit’s “sale,” a concept legal experts have questioned.
However, previously unreported tax filings now show that another “America First Works” was created that same year, this one in Washington, D.C.
AFW1 reported a $140,100 grant to the new America First Works (AFW2), which AFW1 cites as a related entity. But The Daily Beast also obtained AFW2’s tax filing, which shows that the two groups share a slate of directors and that the grant comprised all of AFW2’s revenue for 2021. Almost all the money—around $132,000 of it—was spent on a “security deposit,” the document shows, though it discloses no other underlying assets.
Again, all of these moves and name changes seem designed to do one major thing: confuse.
But Lloyd Mayer, an expert in nonprofit law at the University of Notre Dame, said the filings also suggest a reset.
“This is some sort of shuffle or reorganization to move the entity to D.C. for some reason, and an attempt to transfer resources to the new D.C. entity and other groups. Why they decided to make that first entity passive, I can’t tell, but I don’t know why you’d particularly do that,” Mayer told The Daily Beast. “I’m not aware of any regulatory advantage, and in fact it would appear the opposite, because D.C. is Democratic-controlled and Virginia is not.”
Other filings suggest a shift in AFWs. For instance, Virginia incorporation records show that AFW1 dissolved and voluntarily terminated its status with the state last December. And the IRS notified AFW2 of its nonprofit status in a declaration letter in August.
“Sometimes when you see these types of changes going on, it’s a power struggle behind the scenes, but you can’t tell for sure without being in the room,” Mayer noted.
Phil Hackney, a nonprofit law expert at University of Pennsylvania, shared Mayer’s analysis, calling the move a “head-scratcher.” Hackney also noted that last year the D.C. attorney general scored a $750,000 settlement from Trump’s inaugural committee over allegedly misspent nonprofit funds.
At the end of the day, however, it appears Trumpland has taken a revenue hit. The once-mighty nonprofit revenue stream appears to have dwindled to a trickle following the election, according to known tax records and public reports.
One 501(c)(4)—AFW—raised almost no money in 2021, down from $51 million. And while a new 501(c)(4), MAGA Policies, appears in Florida incorporation records, it does not show up in employer identification number searches in the IRS database, or in Massachusetts, where it is headquartered. The proTrump 501(c)(3) “America First Policy Institute” brought in only about $15 million in 2021, according to its tax filings, with Axios reporting that the group employs about 160 people on a $27 million budget this year.
Despite the confusion—“or maybe because of it,” Hackney told The Daily Beast—“it’s very important for the public to keep tabs” on the financial structure bolstering the Trump movement.
“These are things donors don’t likely know, either,” he said.