Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Don the Con


President Two-Scoops. Photo by Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press.

Am I reading this right? Per Josh Dawsey and Michelle Ye Hee Lee in yesterday's WaPo, they're not even particularly hiding it; the report doesn't exactly say so, but the campaign against nonexistent election fraud looks like a simple con—a fund-raising effort using a cause they know to be hopeless to make money for other purposes:

President Trump’s political operation has raised more than $150 million since Election Day [$170 million per New York Times], using a blizzard of misleading appeals about the election to shatter fundraising records set during the campaign, according to people with knowledge of the contributions.

The influx of political donations is one reason Trump and some allies are inclined to continue a legal onslaught and public affairs blitz focused on baseless claims of election fraud, even as their attempts have repeatedly failed in court and as key states continue to certify wins for President-elect Joe Biden.

Much of the money raised since the election is likely to go into an account for the president to use on political activities after he leaves office, while some of the contributions will go toward what’s left of the legal fight.

Off the emotions of "small-dollar donors" who contribute when "the president is under siege" for the "Official Election Defense Fund"—

“Our democracy and freedom is at risk like never before, which is why I’m reaching out to you now with an URGENT request,” reads an email to donors from Vice President Pence. “President Trump and I need our STRONGEST supporters, like YOU, to join the Election Defense Task Force. This group will be responsible for DEFENDING the Election from voter fraud, and we really need you to step up to the front lines of this battle.”

Only there is no Official Election Defense Fund. The checks go to the Trump Make America Great Again Committee founded in February 2017, two or three weeks after the inauguration, a superPAC jointly run by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee, the one you may remember getting fingered this past July for money laundering after it funneled $170 million in contributions through a network of shell companies into a bunch of campaign businesses, most notably the Brad Parscale–founded America Made Media, and thence who knows where, but for example to

an app called Phunware, which Parscale has said was created and is “directly owned” by the campaign, but which has never appeared in the campaign’s spending reports because, as the complaint alleges, it was paid through AMMC

which struck us all at the time, I think, but we didn't really talk it out, as a pretty good way for Boss Donald to squirrel away his cut of the take, if he was taking one, and not necessarily to use for "political activities".

Because since the election, according to the WaPo story, there's been more:

As of Nov. 18, that committee also shares its funds with Save America, a new leadership PAC that Trump set up in early November and which he can use to fund his post-presidency activities.... is loosely regulated and could be used to personally benefit the president after he leaves the White House....

Leadership PACs do not face the same restrictions on “personal use” expenses as candidate committees do. They were established to allow members of Congress to raise money for their allies on Capitol Hill through fundraising vehicles separate from their campaign committees. The money is often used for what is called donor cultivation: feting wealthy supporters in the hopes that they will write big checks back to the leadership PAC and other committees.

It's Save America, which started out taking 60% of the contributions raised for the fictional "Official Election Defense Fund" and has been taking 75% since 19 November, and Trump can do whatever he wants with that three-scoops share. 

The story doesn't suggest he might just put it in his own bank account, in other words, but it's pretty clear he could, without any consequences; FEC just doesn't look at leadership PAC spending. It's one of those norms nobody ever thinks of violating. Even young Duncan Hunter only stole his $250,000 from his personal campaign committee; if he'd ripped off his leadership PAC instead (every congressman has one), he would not be in prison today. One of those norms, like presidents releasing their tax returns, or putting their financial interests in a blind trust, or not running businesses where foreign diplomats could spend millions of dollars in return for a favor, that Trump has specialized in ignoring.

You see what I'm saying: Trump, and his full partner in the Trump Make America Great Again Committee Ronna Romney McDaniel, are raising this money under blatantly false pretenses, not because they have any hope whatever of reversing the election and keeping their promise to the donors, but because they just want the money; McDaniel perhaps only for "legitimate" campaign purposes, but there's no reason to assume Trump wouldn't use it to pay off his and his family's personal lawyers in their own jungle of litigation (as he's been known to do, illegally, with contributions to his charity), or indeed just salt millions away for himself, maybe in those bizarre golf course account books.

It would certainly be a simpler explanation for why this crazy legal campaign goes on long after anybody could keep imagining it might succeed, and why McDaniel in particular remains such an active participant. WaPo can't say it, because it would violate journalistic ethics such as they are, but this looks a lot like another crime, on Donald's part—another hard one to prosecute, perhaps, but follow the money.

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