For Trump, one last fundraising scam before leaving office

Team Trump isn't just lying to supporters about the election results; they're also playing a highly sketchy game with their own financial supporters.
Image: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets audience members at a campaign rally in Bangor
U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump greets audience members at a campaign rally in Bangor, Maine on June 29, 2016.BRIAN SNYDER / Reuters

Donald Trump has an unusually ugly record when it comes to separating those he perceives as fools from their money. After all, the outgoing Republican president ran a fraudulent charitable foundation, and created a fraudulent "university" which was designed to do little more than rip off its "students."

The Republican never fully abandoned these practices after arriving in the White House. Indeed, this Reuters report yesterday suggested Trump is trying to pull off one last fundraising scam before leaving office.

As President Donald Trump seeks to discredit last week's election with baseless claims of voter fraud, his team has bombarded his supporters with requests for money to help pay for legal challenges to the results: "The Left will try to STEAL this election!" reads one text. But any small-dollar donations from Trump's grassroots donors won't be going to legal expenses at all, according to a Reuters review of the legal language in the solicitations.

It's effectively a scam wrapped in a scam. Team Trump starts by falsely telling its followers that there's an election conspiracy -- indeed, the campaign has sent dozens of messages along these lines to donors in recent days -- which it then follows by encouraging supporters to help combat the made-up conspiracy by sending the president's political operation some money.

But those who grab their wallets probably won't realize that their money may not go toward election lawsuits at all, despite Team Trump's deceptive pitch. From the Reuters report:

A donor would have to give more than $8,000 before any money goes to the "recount account" established to finance election challenges, including recounts and lawsuits over alleged improprieties, the fundraising disclosures show. The emailed solicitations send supporters to an "Official Election Defense Fund" website that asks them to sign up for recurring donations to "protect the results and keep fighting even after Election Day." The fine print makes clear most of the money will go to other priorities.

For example, if you were inclined to believe the president's ridiculous election conspiracy theories and decided to send his operation $1,000 to help support his "Official Election Defense Fund," $600 of your contribution would go toward Trump's new political action committee, called "Save America." The Republican National Committee would get the other $400.

How much would go toward the so-called "recount account"? Not one penny, unless you contributed several thousand dollars.

Paul S. Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, told the Washington Post, "It's a straight-up bait and switch." Dana Milbank added:

[The money from small donors] will be used to extend Trump's influence over the RNC during the Biden presidency and to build up his leadership PAC, which amounts to a "slush fund" for Trump's personal use. "There is no limit to how much Donald Trump can pay himself or any member of his family under 'Save America,'" Ryan notes.

In other words, the president and his allies aren't just lying to their supporters about the election results; they're also playing a highly sketchy game with those who've made the mistake of trusting Trump with their own money.

Making matters just a little worse, it creates a perverse set of incentives: Trump could honor his own country's democracy enough to respect this year's election results, but the moment he acknowledges his defeat, prospective donors will no longer feel the need to contribute to the "Official Election Defense Fund" or pump money into the "recount account."

The longer the president keeps the anti-election charade going, the more opportunities he'll have to bring in more cash.

In an unfortunate way, it's a fitting end to a difficult 2020 for conservative donors. This was the year several prominent figures on the right -- the NRA, Steve Bannon, et al. -- were accused of misusing funds raised by unsuspecting contributors.

It was seven years ago when MSNBC's Chris Hayes wrote, "Much of movement conservatism is a con and the base are the marks." The observation was true at the time, but it's even more important now.

The Washington Post's Paul Waldman recently added, "Conservative operatives ... have always viewed the right's rank-and-file with utter contempt, as little more than a collection of fools to be taken advantage of."

It's something Republican donors probably ought to keep in mind the next time they receive a hysterical appeal about Donald Trump's "Official Election Defense Fund."