Former U.S. President Donald Trump raised $250 million in donations in the weeks after the November 2020 presidential election for an organization ostensibly intended to fund court challenges in support of his false claims that the election was fraudulent. Instead, he directed that money to an unrelated political action committee, or PAC, according to congressional investigators.
In its second hearing about its findings, the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the United States Capitol made the case that the former president knew that he had lost the election but continued raising money from his supporters by sending out appeals for donations to an Election Defense Fund.
The committee played recordings of depositions given by former employees of Trump's campaign, one of whom said, "I don't believe there is actually a fund called the Election Defense Fund."
Another former Trump campaign staffer said the fund was simply a "marketing tactic."
Money went to leadership PAC
The committee said some of the money Trump's campaign raised in the weeks after the election went to paying down campaign debt and into the coffers of the Republican National Committee. A large amount also went to a new leadership PAC called Save America, which was formed three days after the election.
Under law, politicians with leadership PACs have broad latitude to spend the money they collect as they see fit.
Created in the 1970s, leadership PACs were originally intended to let political candidates raise money that they could use to support other candidates and political causes. But according to Robert Maguire, research director for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), vagueness in the law has meant the PACs are often used for other causes.
"What they've become, in many cases, are essentially slush funds," Maguire told VOA.
"We've had problems for years with members of Congress using leadership PAC money to pay for luxury hotel stays, private jet flights, rounds of golf and exclusive membership-only golf courses," he said, all within the bounds of the law.
Spending connected to Trump allies
Amanda Wick, a senior investigative counsel with the Jan. 6 committee, said in a recorded statement that the new PAC "made millions of dollars of contributions to pro-Trump organizations."
She said they included a $1 million contribution to the Conservative Partnership Institute, former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows' charitable foundation; $1 million to the America First Policy Institute, an organization employing "several former Trump administration officials"; $204,857 to the Trump Hotel Collection, and more than $5 million to Event Strategies Inc., the organization that managed Trump's rally on the morning of Jan. 6.
"Throughout the committee's investigation, we found evidence that the Trump campaign and its surrogates misled donors as to where their funds would go and what they would be used for," said Democratic Representative Zoe Lofgren, who serves on the committee.
Calling the contributions a "big rip-off," Lofgren added, "Donors deserve to know where their funds are really going. They deserve better than what President Trump and his team did."
Unethical but not illegal
Campaign finance experts say Trump's solicitation of funds for a nonexistent Election Defense Fund, and subsequent direction of that money to his leadership PAC was unethical, but probably stopped short of outright illegality.
"There's certainly a long list of examples of politicians and political committees stretching the truth or using inflammatory messaging in order to raise money," campaign finance expert Brendan Fischer told VOA. "But I think what the Trump campaign was doing in the wake of the 2020 election brought it to another level."
Fischer, an attorney and the deputy executive director at Documented, an investigative watchdog group, said donors were told their money was going to support a legal challenge.
"But in reality, the money raised went towards paying down the Trump campaign's debt, funding the Republican Party and financing Trump's newly created PAC, Save America. So, it was extremely messy. It went beyond the typical tenor of misleading fundraising appeals into something close to outright fraud."
Maguire of CREW said there were "very clear" ethical problems with how Trump raised the money. But he said the fundraising effort was probably legal.
"These kinds of statements and fundraising appeals are pretty well lawyered," he said, noting that the appeals appeared to contain fine print that left the Trump campaign the leeway to use the money as it saw fit.
Other groups focused on the ethical problems with Trump's approach.
"It was grift, pure and simple, but on a massive scale," said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of Common Cause, in a prepared statement. "Donald Trump was not content to just ignore the will of the American people and attempt to steal the 2020 election in a wide-ranging criminal conspiracy. He was determined to make a lot of money doing it."
Trump did not comment on the $250 million the committee claims he raised after the election. But he issued a 12-page statement June 13 criticizing the committee, which he characterized as a "Kangaroo Court."
"Seventeen months after the events of January 6th, Democrats are unable to offer solutions," he wrote. "They are desperate to change the narrative of a failing nation, without even making mention of the havoc and death caused by the Radical Left just months earlier. Make no mistake, they control the government. They own this disaster. They are hoping that these hearings will somehow alter their failing prospects."