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How Trump can — and can't — spend his Save America PAC funds

06.12.20, 06:11

The Trump campaign's fundraising shows no signs of abating, though Election Day was over a month ago. Since November 3, the campaign, Republican National Committee, Trump Victory and Trump Make America Great Again joint committees, and President Trump's new political action committee, Save America, have collected $207.5 million in donations, his campaign announced Thursday.

"These tremendous fundraising numbers show President Trump remains the leader and source of energy for the Republican Party, and that his supporters are dedicated to fighting for the rightful, legal outcome of the 2020 general election," campaign manager Bill Stepien said in a statement. 

As the president's election challenges continue with lawsuits and recounts in battleground states — without a change in the voting results in any state so far — his campaign website is begging supporters to give to his "election defense fund" with a meaningless pitch: "Please contribute ANY AMOUNT in the NEXT HOUR and you can increase your impact by 1000%!" (It had earlier claimed "ALL GIFTS 1000%-MATCHED," but that language has been removed.)

established on November 9. The campaign website originally said 60% of donations would go to the Save America PAC and then hiked it to 75%. 

The president has broad latitude in how he spends the cash raised for his leadership PAC, but there are some restrictions. He can't pay his campaign's legal bills with those funds, for instance.

The expenses Trump can't pay with Save America funds

Although the Trump campaign is still explicitly soliciting for "Election Defense Funds," money donated to his Save America PAC cannot be used to support Mr. Trump's own campaign or the cost of litigation arising from his campaign, Brendan Fischer, Federal Reform Program director at the Campaign Legal Center, told CBS News.

And Fischer pointed out on Twitter that none of the funds raised by Save America paid for Mr. Trump's legal or recount expenses. Instead, much of the money initially raised was used to pay fundraising expenses to WinRed, the conservative fundraising platform used by the RNC.

Mr. Trump and Republicans appear to be paying their post-election legal bills, however; they're just using a separate recount account and the RNC's legal account. 

Save America also cannot be used to retire Mr. Trump's campaign debt. Going into November, he seemed to be running low on cash, with just $60 million in cash on hand and $160 million owed for TV ads alone. 

But Fischer noted that Mr. Trump has mostly paid off his campaign debt with money raised just after the election from people who may have believed they were giving to his "official election defense fund."

In the first week after November 3, that fine print on Mr. Trump's fundraising page for that "election defense fund" "showed that small donations would largely go towards 2020 debt retirement," Fischer said. That changed on November 9, when Mr. Trump's leadership PAC was established and small donations were then largely shifted to Save America. 

Below the first set of fine print, the website states that donors may specifically direct their donations to the recount/legal account, but if the donor gives on a recurring basis, those funds "shall be subject to TMAGAC's prevailing allocation formula at the time of receipt." That is, subsequent automatic donations will mostly go to Mr. Trump's Save America PAC.

How can Trump spend his leadership PAC funds?

Fischer said Save America funds can be used for the president's post-White House political operation "to keep former campaign staff on the payroll, to fund Trump's travel and expenses when he is campaigning for other candidates, and to help finance rallies and events (as long as the rallies and events are pitched as supporting other candidates or political issues rather than as Trump 2024 events)."

He noted that it's "not entirely uncommon for politicians who are out of office, but eyeing another run for office, to use leadership PACs to sustain a political operation between elections."

Campaign finance watchdogs have referred to leadership PACs as "slush funds" for candidates over the years because although they were intended to enable politicians to spend the funds on other candidates' races, the money is often used for more personal expenses that cannot be paid for by campaign funds. This is because, as Fischer notes, the Federal Election Commission "hasn't interpreted the personal use ban to apply to leadership PAC funds."

What this means is that "although Trump cannot use campaign funds to pay himself or his family members excessive salaries, or to buy enough copies of Don Jr.'s book to land it on the bestseller list, he might try to use leadership PAC funds for such purposes," Fischer said. The Campaign Legal Center has also pointed out instances where politicians have drawn from their leadership PACs to pay for trips to Disney World, golf excursions, Broadway tickets and luxury hotel stays.

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