For all of his golden toilets, former President Donald Trump is notoriously stingy—with his personal funds as well as the hundreds of millions of dollars he’s extracted from his supporters over the years. And that’s all the more reason why government watchdogs are raising the alarm about a new campaign finance filing that shows, one month ahead of the midterm elections, an eye-popping $20 million political donation from Trump.
The contribution—Trump’s largest ever by far—went from his Save America leadership PAC on Oct. 3 to a new Trump-aligned super PAC, called Make America Great Again Inc. That same day, an old pro-Trump super PAC threw another $8.9 million behind the new group.
Super PACs can spend unlimited amounts of money to support candidates, so on its face, the donation could be said to be a generous contribution from Trump to the MAGA cause during a critical election. But as a number of campaign finance experts explained, the specifics here suggest Trump is really trying to get around laws that would otherwise prevent him from spending his personal stash on a 2024 presidential run.
Paul S. Ryan, a veteran campaign finance lawyer now serving as deputy executive director at the Funders’ Committee for Civic Participation, said that was “the only plausible explanation.”
“The only thing Trump cannot do with the millions and millions of dollars he’s raised into his leadership PAC is support himself. The only plausible explanation for this move is to convert that money to be spent on his own campaign,” Ryan told The Daily Beast.
Jordan Libowitz, communications director at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, made the same observation.
“Trump can use Save America money for pretty much whatever he wants—except backing his own campaign,” Libowitz said. “If he wanted to use it to help Republicans in the midterms, he would just do that. Trump is always about Trump. This looks like a way for him to move the money to help his candidacy before he declares.”
When Trump created Save America after the 2020 election, he established it as a leadership PAC, which has benefits and drawbacks. For Trump, the obvious benefits would be the lax regulations on spending—leadership PACs are notorious as “slush funds” for personal expenses. Trump could take the millions he raised and spend them on his businesses, his pals, and his wife’s preferred luxury designer, for instance.
But the big drawback for Trump, as he prepares his 2024 comeback, is that he can’t use leadership PAC money to fund his own political activity. That’s a lot of money—a total $138 million raised so far—with about $70 million still just sitting there in his flagship fundraising account.
However, one thing Trump could do with that money is spend unlimited amounts of it helping out his allies. In fact, Save America could act exactly like a super PAC in that regard. Which, according to Documented deputy executive director Brendan Fischer, suggests Trump’s team is trying to “manufacture deniability” so they can spend the money later backing Trump’s 2024 presidential run.
“Once Trump becomes a candidate, it would clearly be illegal to transfer Save America funds to a super PAC. But Trump appears to be trying to manufacture deniability by making the transfers now, and by having MAGA Inc. spend some amount in the 2022 midterms. That way, Trump’s team might argue that Save America gave to MAGA Inc. to support Trump-endorsed candidates, and it just so happened that the super PAC ended up with leftover money that it independently chose to spend backing Trump’s 2024 run,” Fischer said.
Further, if Trump’s goal truly was to support MAGA midterm candidates, Fischer continued, there is zero reason for Trump to give Save America funds to a super PAC. In fact, the move actually puts more limits on how Trump could help his friends.
“As a hard money PAC, Save America actually has MORE flexibility to support other candidates than a super PAC,” Fischer explained. “Both Save America and MAGA Inc. can spend unlimited amounts on ads supporting candidates, but only Save America can also make direct contributions to candidates. By transferring Save America funds to a super PAC, the money can no longer be used for direct contributions.”
Ryan concurred. “Moving the money suggests he wants to spend it on himself,” he said. “It’s illegal, but that seems to be the motivation and he will likely get away with it.”
Ryan was referring to federal laws that restrict candidates from coordinating with super PACs on fundraising and spending efforts—a charge that is notoriously difficult to prove.
Aaron Scherb, senior director of legislative affairs at Common Cause, said it appears Trump will skate, thanks to historically lax federal enforcement on the question.
“Coordination is still certainly illegal here, although the FEC has shown next to no appetite for enforcing coordination rules and laws. There’s not a smoking gun here per se, but it seems like exploitation of a loophole, and three GOP commissioners have shown zero willingness to investigate and enforce existing coordination laws,” Scherb said. “Until they do, special interests and dark money groups will continue to exploit loopholes at the expense of everyday voters.”
But with this loophole, Trump has turned the traditional “dark money” move on its head. For years, candidates have tried to find loopholes that would allow them to tap into super PAC money, which can be raised from megadonors and corporations in unlimited amounts. Trump’s Save America PAC, however, has a much different donor base.
“What Trump does is prey on small donors,” Ryan said. “He doesn’t need to go the super PAC megadonor route, because he’s taking every dollar he can scam from small-dollar, often elderly donors, and getting it into his campaign coffers. This move sort of seems to serve that purpose—finding a way to put that scammed money to political use.”
The Justice Department has reportedly opened an inquiry into Save America’s fundraising practices, after members of the Jan. 6 House Committee laid out what they allege to have been a wire fraud scheme to bilk donors out of hundreds of millions of dollars through election lies.
Fischer said that, at the end of the day, the bottom line won’t lie.
According to FEC reports, the MAGA Inc super PAC has already spent about $11 million on the midterm elections. However, Fischer noted, that doesn’t mean the group used any of Trump’s money, since the super PAC had also already raised more than $11 million from sources other than Save America.
“This means that the $20 million transferred from Save America to MAGA Inc is effectively still available for Trump’s 2024 run,” Fischer said. “And any transfers from Save America to the super PAC in these final weeks before the election will likely never be spent.”