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Trump committee raised millions to fight election fraud before Jan. 6. Here's how that money was spent.

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 6/17/2022 Erin Mansfield, USA TODAY
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A fundraising committee affiliated with Donald Trump sent out an urgent message to supporters on election night 2020 saying the president had activated an "Official Election Defense Fund" to protect the integrity of the election. 

Throughout November and December, the committee sent out dozens more similar emails soliciting money.  One sent from Team Trump in mid-December warned, “The truth is, we are pacing BEHIND our Election Defense Fund Goal.”

There was one big problem: The fund didn’t exist, according to Amanda Wick, senior investigative counsel for the House committee investigating the attack Jan. 6, 2021, on the U.S. Capitol. 

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Most of the money went to a leadership fund that in turn gave money to organizations where Trump allies work, contributed to dozens of candidates who supported Trump's false claims of a stolen election and paid former White House officials after Trump left office. 

The leadership fund, called Save America, was one of three pots of money stocked by the fundraising effort, according to documents on file with the Federal Election Commission. The other two were Trump's reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee

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The Jan. 6 committee argued the Trump campaign and its surrogates "misled" supporters by getting them to donate to fight widespread election fraud, even though most of the money was not spent on election litigation and Trump's inner circle repeatedly told him his claims of fraud were untrue. 

“Not only was there the Big Lie, there was the big rip-off,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., said at Monday's committee hearing. "They deserve better than what President Trump and his team did.”

Investigators for the committee said in a video presentation Monday that Trump and his allies raised $250 million off election lies, including $100 million in the first week after the election, most of which went to Save America.   

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The Trump Make America Great Again Committee solicits funds. © politicalemails.org The Trump Make America Great Again Committee solicits funds.

Where the money went

Save America raised $129.6 million from its inception on Nov. 9, 2020, through April 30, 2022, according to Federal Election Commission data. Most of the money – $84.3 million – came from the fundraising apparatus that led the email campaign, the Trump Make America Great Again Committee.

Save America spent less than a third of the money it received, and most of it went to various donations, production of advertisements and events, travel-related costs and political consulting. About $1.7 million was earmarked for "legal consulting." As of April 30, Save America was sitting on $106.7 million in cash. 

Save America paid $5.4 million to Event Strategies, a production company that worked on the rally on the Ellipse on Jan. 6 with organizers from Women for America First, and $1.5 million for advertisements through Facebook.

The committee gave $2.6 million to a political action committee called Take Back Georgia and $500,000 each to a super PAC called Wyoming Values and a PAC called Get Georgia Right.

It gave $1 million each to the America First Policy Institute, where former Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway serves as a chair, and the Conservative Partnership Institute. Former chief of staff Mark Meadows is a senior partner at the Conservative Partnership Institute, and Cleta Mitchell, a lawyer who participated in Trump’s call in January 2021 when he pressured a Georgia election official to "find" enough votes to give him a win in the state, is a legal fellow.

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The campaigns of 69 Trump allies running for office divided $350,000.

They include Harriet Hageman, who is running to unseat Rep. Liz Cheney, R-Wyo., the Jan. 6 committee's vice chair; Mark Finchem, who is running for secretary of state in Arizona; and Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-N.Y., who replaced Cheney in Republican leadership.

Money also went to Kelly Tshibaka, a Republican running against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska; Herschel Walker, who is running against Sen. Rafael Warnock, D-Ga.; Joe Kent, a GOP candidate for Congress in Washington; Rep. Lauren Boebert, R-Colo.; Rep. Beth Van Duyne, R-Texas; and Sen. Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa.

Save America spent more than $204,857 on lodging, meals and catering services at the Trump Hotel Collection. It paid "payroll" expenses of $98,716 to Trump social media strategist Dan Scavino, including a $2,000 year-end bonus, and $78,381 in "payroll" expenses to former aide Stephen Miller, who runs an organization that poses legal challenges to the Biden administration. 

U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., accuses a fundraising effort affiliated with Donald Trump of ripping off donors. © Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images U.S. Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., accuses a fundraising effort affiliated with Donald Trump of ripping off donors.

What this means

Ian Vandewalker, senior counsel at New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice, said Save America set itself up as a leadership PAC, an account that had fewer legal restrictions on how it spent its money than Trump’s campaign committee had.  

“You can raise money into a leadership PAC, and then you can basically do whatever you want with it,” Vandewalker said, “sit on it, give it to other committees, pay yourself, pay a vendor that you’re related to.”

Despite those looser regulations, Danya Perry, who served as an assistant U.S. attorney in the Southern District of New York from 2002 to 2013, said fundraising for the nonexistent “Official Election Defense Fund” has the building blocks of a “pretty clear cut” case of wire fraud. 

“It’s a much easier case, I think, than seditious conspiracy or obstruction of an official proceeding,” Perry said, referring to other prosecutions the Department of Justice is handling related to the Jan. 6 attack. “This is bread and butter for federal prosecutors.”

Perry compared potential prosecution for the “Official Election Defense Fund” to a federal wire fraud case against Trump ally Steve Bannon for the “We Build the Wall” campaign that raised $25 million. The main roadblock is figuring out who is responsible for the fundraising campaign. 

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"It’s not clear who committed the fraud, so how far up does that go?" she asked. "Did the campaign managers know about it? Did the lawyers know about it? Did Trump himself know about it? We obviously don’t know anything about that." 

Ann Ravel, a former Democratic commissioner for the Federal Election Commission, said this is another example of a "scam PAC" relatively common in fundraising related to Trump. 

"The problem with scam PACs like that is that the FEC doesn’t do anything about it," Ravel said. "It feels like it’s outside of their scope, and so they don’t really deal with that issue for the most part."

Ravel said the Department of Justice should handle scam PACs, but it is more likely to take cases involving massive fraud. "I’m not sure whether it’s a question of resources or whether they just want to take bigger cases," she said.

Vandewalker pointed to a Department of Justice case announced last year against a Nevada man who, among other things, said donations to his political action committees would be “5x matched” but never were.  

“Everybody saw (the case) as a sign that prosecutors are going to start cracking down on these false claims in political emails,” Vandewalker said.

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Many of the “Official Election Defense Fund” emails repeated a line urging donors to “Step up now and increase your impact by 1000%.”

“It’s never true when they say that,” Vandewalker said.

Ray La Raja, a political scientist and campaign finance expert at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said this campaign seemed to exploit small donors. 

"Small donors make impulse decisions to support something based on their emotions, and they’re just preying on these emotions to raise money," La Raja said. "And it’s fabricated." 

The House committee investigating the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, shows video of the attack during a hearing June 13 in Washington. © Pool, Getty Images The House committee investigating the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, shows video of the attack during a hearing June 13 in Washington.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Trump committee raised millions to fight election fraud before Jan. 6. Here's how that money was spent.

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