Trump’s PAC faces scrutiny amid intensifying legal investigations

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WASHINGTON (AP) – Donald Trump, who has more than $115 million on multiple political committees, has positioned himself as a uniquely indomitable force in the GOP that would almost certainly have the resources to swamp his rivals , if he were to launch another presidential campaign.

But that huge pile of money also turns out to be a potential vulnerability. Its primary fundraising vehicle, Save America PAC, is subject to new legal scrutiny after the Justice Department issued a round of grand jury subpoenas requesting information about the political action committee’s fundraising practices.

The scope of the probe is unclear. Grand jury subpoenas and search warrants issued by the Justice Department in recent days related to numerous issues, including Trump’s PAC, according to people familiar with the matter, who asked not to be identified to discuss an ongoing investigation. The subpoenas are asking for records and testimonies, and asking at least some of the recipients for their knowledge of the effort to engage in voter fraud, one said.

The subpoenas also require records of communications with Trump-allied attorneys who supported efforts to overturn the election results and plotted to field fake voters in battleground states. A particular focus appears to be on the “Save America Rally” that preceded the January 6, 2021 riot in the US Capitol, the person said.

The probe is one of several criminal investigations Trump is currently facing, including how documents with secret markings ended up at the former president’s Mar-a-Lago club. Regardless of Save America’s ultimate role in the investigation, the spate of developments has focused attention on the PAC’s management, how it raised money, and where those funds were directed.

Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich slammed the subpoenas, saying an “armed and politicized Justice Department” is casting “a blind web to intimidate and silence Republicans fighting for his America First agenda.” Justice Department officials declined to comment.

While Trump holds more than $115 million on various committees, the vast majority of it is stored at Save America. The PAC ended July with more than $99 million in cash, according to fundraising records — more than the Republican and Democratic national campaign committees combined.

Trump has continued to raise small donations in the months since, frustrating fellow Republicans who were struggling to raise funds ahead of the November midterm elections.

Save America is set up as a “Leadership PAC” designed to allow political figures to raise funds for other campaigns. But the groups are often used by potential candidates to fund political travel, polls and staff while “testing the water” in front of potential presidential candidates. The accounts can also be used to donate money to other candidates and party organizations, helping potential candidates build political capital.

Much of the money Trump has amassed was raised in the days and weeks following the 2020 election. At this point, Trump supporters were bombarded with a non-stop stream of emails and texts, many in capital letters and brazenly lying about a stolen 2020 election and asking for money for an “election defense fund.”

But such a fund never existed. Instead, Trump used the money elsewhere. He has funded dozens of rallies, paid staff and used the money to travel while announcing an expected presidential bid in 2024.

Other editions were rather unusual. There was the $1 million donated last year to the Conservative Partnership Institute, a nonprofit that employs Cleta Mitchell and former Trump chief of staff Mark Meadows, both of whom encouraged Trump’s failed attempt to win the 2020 election to fall.

According to Smithsonian spokeswoman Linda St. Thomas, there was the “charitable donation” of $650,000 to the Smithsonian Institution in July to fund portraits of Trump and the former first lady who would one day appear in the National Portrait Gallery will be hanging.

Much of the money has also been used to fund another type of defense fund — one that has paid for the legal fees of Trump confidants and assistants called to testify before the Jan. 6 committee.

Overall, Trump’s sprawling political operation has spent at least $8 million on “legal advice” and “legal fees” for at least 40 law firms since the riot, according to an analysis of campaign finance disclosures.

It’s unclear how much of that money went towards employee legal fees after a congressional committee began investigating the origins of the attack. But at least $1.1 million was paid to Elections LLC, a firm founded by former Trump White House ethics attorney Stefan Passantino, according to campaign finance and business records. Another $1 million was paid to a legal trustee housed at the same address as Passantino’s firm. Passantino did not respond to a request for comment Monday night. Payments were also made to firms specializing in environmental regulations and real estate matters.

According to records, only about $750,000 had been paid out to candidates for Congress through July, with an additional $150,000 to candidates for state office. Trump is expected to increase his political spending now that the general election is in full swing, although it remains unclear how much the notoriously frugal former president will ultimately agree to spend.

Trump has long been coy about his plans for 2024, saying a formal announcement would trigger campaign finance rules that would, in part, force him to create a new campaign committee bound by strict donation limits.

Meanwhile, Trump officials have been discussing the prospect of creating a new super PAC or repurposing an existing one to get closer to an expected announcement. While Trump hasn’t been able to use Save America to fund campaign activities after a run has started, aides have discussed the possibility of moving at least some of that money to a super PAC, according to people familiar with the talks.

Campaign finance experts are divided on the legality of such a move. Some, like Richard Briffault, a Columbia Law School professor and campaign finance expert, said he sees no problem.

“There might be some hoops he has to jump through,” he said. But “I don’t see a problem with it going from one PAC to another … I don’t see what would block it.”

Others disagree.

“It is illegal for a candidate to wire a significant amount of money from a lead PAC to a super PAC. You certainly can’t make $100 million,” said Adv Noti, a former Federal Election Commission attorney who now works for the Campaign Legal Center, a Washington-based good governance group focused on money and politics.

And whether or not Trump would face any consequences is another question.

For years, the FEC, which oversees campaign finance laws, has been deadlocked. The commission is split equally between Republicans and Democrats, and a majority vote is required to take enforcement action against a candidate.

Indeed, legal experts say that since the start of his White House run in 2016, Trump has repeatedly violated the campaign finance law with no consequences.

Since his 2016 campaign, more than 50 separate complaints have been filed against Trump alleging he violated campaign finance laws. In about half of those cases, FEC lawyers concluded that there was reason to believe he might have broken the law. But the commission, which now includes three Trump-appointed Republicans, has repeatedly bogged down.

The list of dismissed complaints against Trump is extensive. In 2021, Republicans on the commission dismissed claims, backed by FEC attorneys, that a Trump-orchestrated hush money payment by his former attorney to pornographic film star Stormy Daniels amounted to an unreported donation in kind. In May, the commission was similarly deadlocked over whether his campaign broke the law by concealing how it spent money during the 2020 campaign.

And over the summer, the commission dismissed complaints related to Trump’s threat to withhold $391 million in aid to Ukraine unless Ukrainian officials opened an investigation into the relationship that President Joe’s son Biden, Hunter Biden, had with a Ukrainian gas company called Burisma, which is the FEC’s attorney investigating a possible violation of the Campaign Finance Act.

“There is no legal basis whatsoever for believing that Congress intended the FEC to oversee official acts of government potentially intended to assist in the re-election of an incumbent,” the three-commission Republican said in a written letter late last month Explanation.

That means any enforcement action would likely have to come from the Justice Department.

“He has nothing to fear from the Federal Election Commission until either its structure changes or there is a change in the FEC commissioners,” said Brett G. Kappel, a veteran campaign finance attorney with Washington-based firm Harmon Curran works and has represented both Republicans and Democrats. “That doesn’t mean he has nothing to fear from the Justice Department, which appears to be already investigating Save America. From what I can see, there are several allegations of fraud that could be the subject of an investigation by the Department of Justice.”

Meanwhile, Trump and Save America continue to rally contributions from grassroots supporters, blowing up fundraisers with aggressive demands like “This needs to be done NOW” and threatening donors that their “Voter Verification” ad polls will be “OUT OF” are DATE,” even as some of the Republican Senate contenders who supported Trump and helped cross the finish line in the primary are struggling to raise funds.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., has urged those candidates to ask Trump for money the former president has so far been reluctant to provide. This has resulted in candidates, some of whom presented themselves as McConnell antagonists during their primaries, pandering to McConnell and the Senate Leadership Fund, the super PAC he controls and has a $100 million reserve.

It also strengthens McConnell’s hand in his long-simmering feud with Trump, who has urged GOP senators to oust the Republican from Kentucky. Some close to Trump concede the candidates could use the money but said he doesn’t see it as his responsibility to fill the void.

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Colvin reported from New York.

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