The feuds and funders behind the pro-Donald Trump super PACs
Throughout the Republican primaries, Donald Trump made the case that he wouldn’t be subject to influence from big donors or special interests because he was self-funding his campaign (which was only sort of true). He denounced super PACs, tweeting, “This whole Super PAC scam is very unfair to a person like me who has disavowed all PAC’s & is self-funding,” and called on other candidates to “disavow” their super PACs. Since securing the nomination, however, Trump’s fundraising operation has become a lot more traditional — and successful. He set up a joint fundraising committee with the RNC and state Republican parties, and his campaign reported that it raised $80 million in July. (However, we won’t be able to verify that until they’re required to file with the FEC on Aug. 20).
But this newfound fundraising success is yet to reach the pro-Trump super PACs. None of them has raised much more than $5 million, while the largest pro-Clinton super PAC, Priorities USA, has raised more than $100 million; together, Clinton’s campaign and Priorities USA have already reserved nearly $100 million in TV ad airtime. As Mother Jones’ Russ Choma has noted, Trump has something of a super PAC problem on his hands, as “a motley crew of pro-Trump super-PACs have sprouted up, each claiming to be the real Trump super-PAC,” leaving “some of Trump’s would-be big-money donors bewildered as to which super-PAC to trust and support.” The situation is reminiscent of Ted Cruz’s array of super PACs, which reportedly confused big donors and led to funds sitting unused. And given Trump’s overall fundraising disadvantage, raising $91 million to Clinton’s $274 million, he needs all the super PAC support he can get. But with several of these like-minded groups living in disharmony — even going so far as to label each other “scams” — it looks to be especially challenging.
So who is in this “motley crew” of Trump-supporting super PACs? We’ve broken down who they are, who’s in charge, what they’ve raised — and the intense discord between them.
Rebuilding America Now
- Total receipts (as of June 30): $2,160,450
- Total spending (as of June 30): $1,766,097
- Independent expenditures (as of publication date): $6,661,735
- Cash on hand (as of June 30): $571,209
Rebuilding America Now was formed in June by Tom Barrack, a real estate investor from Los Angeles. According to Forbes, Barrack’s “LA-based firm now manages $58 billion in assets and has 14 offices in 10 countries.” Barrack spoke at the RNC, and has hosted fundraisers for the joint fundraising committee Trump Victory. But Barrack has reportedly backed away from an “active” role in the super PAC following “warnings from his Chinese business partners that his high-profile support for Trump could disrupt his firm’s plans for major investments in China.” Barrack has stated he will not donate any of his personal funds to the super PAC.
In June, Barrack told CNN he’d secured commitments of $32 million; so far the group has raised just $2.1 million, according to the latest FEC data. The group is seemingly in competition with Great America PAC (more on it below), with the the latter’s finance chair Beach telling CNN: “The bottom line is we are way ahead of everyone else. Our approach is unique and will be highly effective.”
Rebuilding America Now is alone among the pro-Trump super PACs in being sanctioned by the Trump campaign, with reported support from vice presidential candidate Mike Pence and Paul Manafort, Trump’s campaign chairman.
Almost all of the super PAC’s funding came from a single $2 million donation from Geoffrey Palmer, a real estate developer from California. The PAC also received $100,000 from Murray Energy, a coal company based in Ohio that the FEC recently declined to investigate over allegations that it pressured employees to attend rallies for and donate to Mitt Romney’s presidential run.
Rebuilding America Now has made $5.8 million in independent expenditures, with $3.9 million of that going towards anti-Hillary material.
Great America PAC
- Total receipts (as of June 30): $5,073,026
- Total spending (as of June 30): $5,477,532
- Independent expenditures (as of publication date): $9,404,849
- Cash on hand (as of June 30): $1,200,403
Great America PAC was formed in February 2016, then named TrumPAC. Its leadership includes Eric Beach, who previously worked for Rand Paul, and lead strategist Ed Rollins, who managed Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign and Ross Perot’s 1992 campaign. The group’s treasurer is Dan Backer, whose consulting firm DB Capitol Strategies has been paid $36,513 by Great America PAC. Backer is also working for House Speaker Paul Ryan’s far-right primary opponent Paul Nehlen.
It’s a hybrid super PAC, meaning it can both make independent expenditures on Trump’s behalf and give money directly to the Trump campaign — as long as that money comes from two separate bank accounts. So far it’s donated $24,594 to the Trump campaign, almost entirely in $5 increments. Mother Jones reported in March that the group’s “website notes that the first $5 of each donation will be sent to the Trump campaign … What happens to the rest of the money, for any donations greater than $5, is not clear.”
Great America PAC has made over $9 million in independent expenditures — but, as the Center for Public Integrity reported, some of those ads have been fundraising pitches. An ad asked viewers to call a number to “let us know your opinion” on the presidential race; if you called the number and pressed 1 to support Trump, you received a fundraising pitch. The New York Times noted that this is “a technique that is often used to harvest names for future small-dollar fund-raising solicitations” — and also reported that media buyers and ad-tracking firm CMAG were “only been able to detect a few hundred thousand dollars worth of ads that have run,” despite the group’s filings revealing more than $1 million in ad spending at the time. Its TV ads are purchased by Rapid Response Television, LLC, which describes itself as an “industry leader in the development and execution of donor acquisition and advocacy programs.”
The PAC received a $100,000 donation from Revily, Inc., a firm that was also paid $109,000 for polling, the single biggest recipient of funds.
Despite the group raking in more than $5 million by the end of June, Rollins has complained about the super PAC not having the “ability to counter attack” Priorities USA’s ad — which criticized Trump over his impression of a disabled reporter — because it lacked resources. He also criticized Trump himself on Fox last week, saying, “He’s making the case against himself and very little against his opponent.” This is arguably a slightly odd thing for the head of one of the biggest pro-Trump super PACs to do.
Great America PAC does not play nicely with other pro-Trump PACs either. It has been very insistent that it’s the official Trump super PAC: A post on its Facebook page in July proclaimed that “Great America PAC is THE Donald J. Trump Super PAC.” Trump adviser Roger Stone has a long-running feud with Rollins, describing him as “an incompetent buffoon who can’t find his ass with both hands” and calling Great America PAC a “fraud.” It’s possible that Stone has his own motives for decrying Great America PAC as a scam — he’s involved with another pro-Trump super PAC, the Committee to Restore America’s Greatness.
Committee to Restore America’s Greatness
- Total receipts (as of June 30): $500,093
- Total spending (as of June 30): $375,303
- Independent expenditures (as of publication date): $0
- Cash on hand (as of June 30): $124,789
Roger Stone’s Committee to Restore America’s Greatness was formed in October as Americans for Trump PAC, changing its name three days later. At the time, Stone pledged that the group would “not accept any corporate contributions from those trying to buy influence.” The only significant donation from a corporation came from a company owned by John Powers Middleton, the group’s biggest donor. Middleton produced the TV program “Bates Motel” and “The Lego Movie.” He personally donated $227,000, and his business, John Powers Middleton Companies, donated an additional $150,000.
One of the biggest recipients of money from Committee to Restore America’s Greatness is Stop the Steal, Inc., a 527 organization also run by Stone, which received $50,000 in April. The group is located at the same address as Committee to Restore America’s Greatness. Stop the Steal was initially formed to “stop the Republican party insiders from stealing the Republican nomination from Donald J. Trump.” Its website said it needed to raise $262,000 to send Trump supporters to Cleveland for a “peaceful, non-violent rally” at the Republican National Convention:
We plan the biggest Rally in Cleveland history. We must own the streets. In numbers there is strength. We must bring thousands of Trump partisans to Cleveland. We must ask each Trump delegate to sign a ballot pledge to respect the will of the voters. We must lobby our elected Delegates at their hotels. We must fill the streets! We need thousands at our March and Rally.
After it became clear that Trump would not face any serious coup attempt at the convention, Stone told Politico that “every penny will be spent on what is now an AMERICA FIRST-UNITY RALLY.” Stop the Steal is yet to file any reports of spending or receipts with the IRS, so we don’t know what that $50,000 from Committee to Restore America’s Greatness went towards.
Committee to Restore America’s Greatness has made no independent expenditures supporting Trump. Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski described Committee to Restore America’s Greatness as a “big-league scam.”
- Total receipts (as of June 30): $349,958
- Total spending (as of June 30): $261,760
- Independent expenditures (as of publication date): $0
- Cash on hand (as of June 30): $88,197
American Horizons is not a big player in the Trump super PAC field, having raised just less than $350,000 and made no independent expenditures. But it’s worth mentioning because of a suspect bid they made for donations: a contest to win dinner with Donald Trump.
The Center for Responsive Politics reported that the contest “was originally the brainchild of a separate group, Recover America, that was publicly called out by the Trump campaign for promoting the prize without the knowledge or consent of the candidate.” Despite this, American Horizons has since offered the prize again, and said it will make dinner with Trump possible by buying seats at a fundraising dinner that Trump will also attend. If you were thinking that this sounds a little like a scam, you’re wrong, according to the group’s treasurer:
‘The dinner being a scam, I’m completely against that assertion,’ Hawes said. ‘This isn’t some sort of scam, this isn’t some sort of swindle, we make it very clear to all the folks who donate that we’re not affiliated with the Trump campaign.’
Hawes also told CRP that the group had raised $500,000; FEC filings later revealed that figure to be $349,958.
Make America Great Again (defunct)
- Total receipts: $1,742,684
- Total spending: $1,588,494
- Independent expenditures: $0
- Cash on hand: $-3,525
Make America Great Again is no longer active, but it had the potential to be a big player, and for a while it was the main super PAC backing Trump. It raised more than $1.7 million.
The Washington Post reported in October that the PAC was closely tied to the Trump campaign. Mike Ciletti, an operative for the super PAC, solicited funds from a donor using an email address provided by Trump’s personal assistant, and Ciletti’s firm was paid by the campaign at the same time he worked for the PAC. Two days later, the group shut down, reportedly to “to erase any questions as to whether [Trump] has a super PAC.”
During its brief existence it received $1 million from Phil Ruffin, a casino magnate and friend of Trump’s, though it refunded that check when it folded. It also received $100,000 from Seryl Kushner, Ivanka Trump’s mother-in-law.
USA Business Freedom PAC
- Total receipts (as of June 30): $550,010
- Total spending (as of June 30): $83,170
- Independent expenditures (as of publication date): $73,751
- Cash on hand (as of June 30): $466,839
USA Business Freedom PAC formed in November 2015, but has only recently begun making pro-Trump independent expenditures.
The group was founded by businessman Nachhattar Chandi, and all of the group’s funds have come from members of the Chandi family — including $500,000 of it from two donations through their LLC, Northgate Indio LLC. Chandi is “the closest thing the desert has to a tycoon,” according to The Desert Sun: He “owns dozens of gas stations and restaurants across California, and Chandi Group USA employs around 830 people at present.” Chandi’s based in the Coachella Valley, and has reportedly been approached about running for office.
For now, though, he’s content to spend on supporting other politicians. Right now, the group has only purchased $89,000 in radio airtime to support Trump, but CNN’s Teddy Schleifer reported that the PAC will eventually make $1 million radio ad buy. The PAC’s treasurer, Tom Freeman, told CNN that while the Chandis have donated to both Democrats and Republicans in the past, they’re now supporting Trump because they’re “primarily motivated by veterans’ issues.” The PAC has also made some smaller expenditures on behalf of other Republican candidates, including House Speaker Paul Ryan as well as Drew Ferguson, who recently won the Republican primary in Georgia’s 3rd House District.
These aren’t the only groups who will spend on Trump’s behalf. Other groups making pro-Trump independent expenditures so far include the Conservative Action Fund, Citizens United Super PAC, the National Rifle Association Victory Fund and a group called Restore American Freedom and Liberty.
Trump’s super PAC woes don’t necessarily spell doom for his candidacy. If there’s anything to be learned from the Republican primaries, it’s that a $100 million super PAC war chest doesn’t necessarily mean victory, and that Trump’s ability to command media attention can help him overcome fundraising deficits. But money matters in the end. To keep up with the fundraising prowess of Clinton and Priorities USA, Trump’s big-money allies will need to settle their feuds and start generating cash for the final stretch leading up to Election Day.