Support The Bulwark and subscribe today.
  Join Now

Trump’s ‘Save America’ Scam

His PAC never launched a “legal defense fund,” despite deceitful ads that raked in millions.
September 19, 2022
Trump’s ‘Save America’ Scam
(Composite / Midjourney)

In 2019, Donald Trump’s charitable foundation was fined $2 million for misusing funds and ordered to shut down. The foundation’s misdeeds included:

  • improperly furthering Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign;
  • funding the purchase of a 6-foot portrait of Trump;
  • buying ads to promote Trump hotels; and
  • paying settlements for legal claims against Trump unrelated to the charity.

In short, Trump abused his foundation’s special tax status as a charity to help himself.

But losing the foundation and forking over $2 million wasn’t enough to teach Trump a lesson. Neither was the $25 million he paid to settle with the Trump University students he duped. Trump went on to scam his supporters on a much grander and more dangerous scale in the aftermath of the 2020 election with his Save America political action committee—which, as the New York Times reported this month, is now a subject of interest to a federal grand jury.

Now he’s using the same tactics to raise money off the FBI’s search of Mar-a-Lago.

Trump’s Save America ruse is reasonably straightforward.

Immediately after the media called the election for Joe Biden on November 7, 2020, a joint fundraising committee between the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee called the Trump Make America Great Again Committee blasted Trump supporters with numerous donation requests. Many of those pleas asked for money to fund an “Official Legal Defense Fund.” Trump registered a new Save America PAC on November 9. Then, as explained by the Washington Post, Save America discreetly skimmed 75 percent of each contribution.

The pitch worked exceedingly well. In the eight weeks after the 2020 election, Save America PAC raked in upwards of $30 million—and when you add in donations to the other combined Trump and RNC entities during that period, the overall haul was reportedly more than $250 million. To put that into context, by the end of September 2020, the Trump campaign only had $63 million on hand for the final month of campaigning, and the Biden campaign had $177 million.

To raise that kind of dough, many solicitations led donors to believe their donations would go into an “Official Election Defense Fund.” Some examples—from between only November 7 and November 10—are available here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here. Which gives you an idea of how heavily the Trump operation bombarded donors with this particular kind of appeal.

But it wasn’t true. The House January 6th Committee found that the “Official Election Defense Fund” never existed.

And while the “Official Legal Defense Fund” was not referenced in every solicitation sent, a review of post-election emails sent by the Trump operation shows an overwhelming focus on challenging the election results. For example, many other solicitations asked donors to contribute to Trump’s “Official Election Defense Task Force” or a “Critical Election Defense Fund.”

In June, Amanda Wick, a senior investigative counsel for the Jan. 6th Committee, delivered a video presentation on this topic. In the video, Gary Coby, the former Trump campaign digital director, is asked whether it would be fair to call the election defense fund a “marketing tactic.”

“Yes,” said Coby—describing it as “just topic matter . . . where money can potentially go to be, how money can potentially be used.”

So where did all the money go, if not to an official legal defense fund to challenge the election results? And was raising all this money in this way legal?

Trump’s Save America PAC is constructed as a “leadership PAC” with relatively loose rules governing what can be done with the money. The main restriction is that a politician cannot use PAC money to fund his or her own campaign, which means that Trump has great latitude to do what he likes with the money, so long as he doesn’t use it to directly support a 2024 presidential bid.

Traditionally, a leadership PAC is used by candidates to raise and distribute money for other candidates. Trump did do something roughly along these lines with some of the money. Approximately $4.2 million was spent funding efforts to elect Republican senators in the January 5, 2021, Georgia runoffs, which, coincidentally enough, also galvanized Trump’s “Stop the Steal” efforts.

And the Trump campaign did mount legal challenges, floundering as they were. His lawyers lost 61 out of 62 cases and, joining a long line of former Trump lawyers, say they weren’t fairly paid for their services. In a separate case brought by Dominion Voting Systems, Trump’s lead campaign lawyer Rudy Giuliani has testified that he was not paid for his services.

All told, Save America has reportedly raised over $135 million. But Trump, instead of spending the money paying his election lawyers, seems to have hoarded it, saving it for other purposes. Press reports and FEC filings show that:

  • Save America gave nearly $8.7 million to Event Strategies Inc., the company that organized Trump’s Jan. 6th rally on the Ellipse. According to FEC filings, most of those funds were spent from March 2021 through June 2022.
  • The New York Times reported that Save America paid more than $3.1 million in “legal consulting” fees and salaries for a number of former Trump aides who were subpoenaed to testify to the Jan. 6th Committee and who have been subpoenaed for other inquiries related to the seizure of classified documents at Mar-a-Lago.
  • Weeks after the formation of the Jan. 6th Committee, Save America gave $1 million to the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit that employs Mark Meadows and Cleta Mitchell, Trump’s former chief of staff and former legal adviser. Meadows and Mitchell are both implicated in the overlapping inquiries from the Jan. 6th Committee and the Department of Justice.
  • Save America gave $1 million to America First Policy Institute, a think tank set up by former Trump officials to promote Trump’s agenda. Earlier this month, it hosted a speech by Trump’s son-in-law and former White House advisor Jared Kushner.
  • Save America donated $650,000 to the Smithsonian to pay for portraits of Trump and former first lady Melania Trump.

Although Save America was never really a legal defense fund, Politico reports that Trump now has apparently tapped into it to pay for a pricey lawyer—not to defend his false claims about the 2020 election, but to defend himself in various legal and investigatory proceedings now underway.

It is unclear whether Trump will get away with raising PAC money under the guise of an “official election defense fund” and spending it to boost unrelated personal and political interests.

Given how broadly the laws are written regarding PACs, and the fact that the Federal Election Commission doesn’t seem vigorous about enforcement, it’s possible that the Save America PAC swindle may go unpunished.

A useful comparison is the case of Steve Bannon, Trump’s former White House adviser, who is currently facing fraud charges for allegedly soliciting donations to build a wall along the southern border. In Bannon’s case, the entity was not a PAC but WeBuildTheWall, Inc., a charitable “social welfare” nonprofit organization, which is under tighter restrictions than PACs about how their funding can be spent—but the misleading of donors is comparable.

Manhattan prosecutors say that Bannon repeatedly promised donors that the organization’s leader, Brian Kolfage, would “personally not take a penny of compensation from these donations.” That pitch was effective; the charity raised more than $25 million. But the marketing tactic was not true. Bannon is said to have helped Kolfage secretly pocket more than $350,000. To obscure the transfer of funds, Bannon is accused of routing significant amounts of money through third-party entities, including those he controlled. (Kolfage pleaded guilty to a fraud charge earlier this year.)

If all this sounds familiar, it’s because federal prosecutors previously charged Bannon for these transgressions in 2020. Bannon never faced any consequences for them, however, because Trump issued him a pardon on his last day in office before the case could go to trial. This time, Bannon faces New York state courts, where Trump’s federal pardon does not apply.

Meanwhile, Trump has revived his requests to support what he now calls his “Official Trump Defense Fund.” After the FBI searched Mar-a-Lago for classified documents, Save America blasted supporters with requests for help. USA Today found that:

Fifteen of the emails reference an “Official Trump Defense Fund,” language that is strikingly similar to the “Official Election Defense Fund” that the House committee probing Trump’s role in the Jan. 6 Capitol attack said likely never existed.

And yet again, the marketing tactic worked: Save America’s emails brought it as much as $1 million a day last month. After all, why would the mere possibility of prosecution lead Trump to give up on a successful racket that lets him practically print money by hitting up gullible admirers?

Amanda Carpenter

Amanda Carpenter is an author, a former communications director to Sen. Ted Cruz, and a former speechwriter to Sen. Jim DeMint. She was formerly a Bulwark political columnist.