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Trump's fundraising efforts take a sketchy turn with bogus claim

While asking for money, Trump told prospective donors he'd vetoed the economic relief bill. That plainly wasn't true. It got me thinking: can he do that?
Image: Woman takes money out of her wallet
Anfisa Kameneva / Getty Images/EyeEm

As a rule, political fundraising letters are written in deliberately vague ways. Those responsible for writing these appeals are trained to be careful about giving prospective donors certain impressions, without being too explicit.

For example, when Donald Trump's political operation wanted to take advantage of interest in Georgia's U.S. Senate runoff elections, it sent out a message that said, "We MUST defend Georgia from the Dems!" The phrasing probably led contributors to believe that if they give Team Trump money, it'd benefit the Republican candidates in next week's races.

But we know that's not the case -- the president's operation has used Georgia for fundraising, without actually directing any money to the state -- and if you read the specific wording of the appeal, it relied solely on suggestions. There are no literal lies, only misleading insinuations.

This made it all the more notable last week when Team Trump sent a fundraising pitch that included a demonstrably false claim. The Wall Street Journal noted what the president's operation did after he denounced the bipartisan economic relief package that passed Congress.

The president's campaign began fundraising off of Mr. Trump's opposition to the coronavirus relief package. On Wednesday, the campaign sent out a fundraising email in Mr. Trump's name. "I need you to know that I will ALWAYS FIGHT for you. I will NEVER accept a bad deal, which is why I have sent the Covid Relief Bill BACK to Congress," the fundraising email said.

The timeline unfolded quickly: Congress approved the relief package on Monday; Trump denounced it as a "disgrace" on Tuesday; and the president's political operation told donors that Trump "sent the Covid Relief Bill BACK to Congress" on Wednesday.

Except, of course, that wasn't true. The president hadn't sent the bill back, and four days after the fundraising appeal reached donors, Trump actually signed the measure into law.

But donors saw the opposite message. "This bill is a DISGRACE," the president's written fundraising letter read. "It's called the Covid Relief Bill, but it has almost nothing to do with Covid, and it provides minimal relief for the American People.... I'm calling on my most fierce and loyal supporters to take action and STAND WITH ME in DEMANDING Congress rework this bill. Can I count on your support?" The text is accompanied by a series of links in which unsuspecting Republicans could show their "support" for Trump by sending him their money.

The usual caution in appeals, relying on vague and misleading impressions, was cast aside. Team Trump straight up sent out an appeal for money based on demonstrably false claims.

And that got me thinking: can they do that? Can a president ask for cash while lying?

I reached out to some experts to help clarify matters. Adav Noti, a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center, explained, "The laws and rules that protect political donors from misleading fundraising are quite weak. It's illegal to defraud donors by claiming you're raising money for political purposes when you're actually keeping the money – people have gone to prison for that. But it's generally not illegal for a politician to raise money around a position that differs from the position they take on actual legislation. Every once in a while a donor tries to sue to get their money back based on a politician not keeping fundraising promises, but those suits basically never succeed."

Paul S. Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause, came to the same conclusion, telling me, "Federal campaign finance law has only minimal 'truth in advertising' requirements."

But Ryan added that the Justice Department "has in recent years begun prosecuting so-called 'scam PACs' for violations of criminal wire- and mail-fraud statutes based on representations made in political fundraising solicitations.... It's certainly possible that the DOJ could investigate President Trump for fraudulent political fundraising in the new year."

The Campaign Legal Center's Noti was thinking along similar lines, explaining, "The President's statements about the COVID bill aren't even the most misleading part of the fundraising. What's truly hoodwinking donors is that most of the money is going to the President's new 'leadership PAC,' which is essentially a slush fund that can be used for his own and his family's personal expenses. That fact is buried in the fine print on the donation page, and it's certainly not what the donors think they are funding."

In recent weeks, Trump has faced accusations that his "Save America" political action committee may be approaching "scam PAC" status, raising money that could end up in the outgoing president's pocket. Last week's appeal from Team Trump makes matters just a bit worse.