Billionaire speech shows line between campaigns and super PACs erased

Tom Barrack standing on stand at the RNC, speaking.
Tom Barrack. (Image credit: C-SPAN)

Many viewers may have seen the speech given by billionaire investor Tom Barrack during the final night of the Republican convention and wondered, “Who is this guy? Why the corny jokes about Caesar salad and Irish wakes? Why all the talk of lions and gazelles? Why did he compare Donald Trump to a jeweler?” Barrack is not just Donald Trump’s friend, he founded Rebuilding America Now, one of the super PACs backing Trump. As far as we know, he is the highest-ranking super PAC figure to actually appear at a party convention. According to data from our Real-Time Influence Explorer, this group reported raising only $2.2 million last quarter, well below the figures initially quoted by Barrack and his allies.

Sunlight’s Political Party Time shows that Barrack has hosted fundraisers for Trump Victory that have attracted such luminaries as RNC chair Reince Priebus and RNC finance head Lewis Eisenberg. Money from the fund goes to the Trump campaign, the RNC and several state Republican parties.

The line between campaigns and super PACs, never clear, has become almost completely erased. The Federal Election Commission has ruled that candidates can attend super PAC fundraisers (although they cannot actually ask for contributions for over $5,000). Trump and Mike Pence have just announced that they will headline events for Rebuilding America Now. And on the Democratic side, Correct the Record, a super PAC devoted to defending Hillary Clinton from attacks, openly coordinates with her campaign; the group argues that it can do so because it posts all its activity on its website. Throughout this presidential campaign, we have seen super PACs managed by candidates’ former staff, funded by candidates’ longtime supporters, and with fundraisers attended by those same candidates.

Super PACs are only allowed to collect unlimited contributions because they are not allowed to coordinate with candidate campaigns. But Barrack’s speech shows the illusion of this “independence.” If a super PAC bigwig can give a prime-time speech supporting a candidate backed by his group, how independent can such a group be?