Biden, Trump Want Donations For Legal Funds. But Where Is The Money Going?
Although Joe Biden was declared president-elect on Saturday, the Biden and Trump campaigns are still fundraising, sending dueling requests to supporters for donations billed to boost support for their respective legal efforts. But the fine print of President Trump's solicitations paints a different picture.
Trump, who has not conceded the race, was quick to ring the legal alarm as he began to fall behind in critical swing states, with his campaign filing various lawsuits alleging election fraud.
His choice to attempt to litigate the election has resulted in each campaign mounting additional fundraising efforts.
"We can't allow Trump to win any of these lawsuits just because we can't afford to fight back," a recent email sent to Biden supporters reads. "We need to be able to show up in court to defend Joe and Kamala's victory ... and to do that we are counting on a surge of donations today into the Biden Fight Fund."
In turn, the Trump team has sent out its own emails entreating supporters to give just a little bit more.
"President Trump has activated the Official Election Defense Fund, and we need YOU to step up and make sure we have the resources to FIGHT BACK against potential voter fraud," a recent mass email reads.
Is fundraising post-election normal?
Given Trump's rhetoric throughout the campaign, when he repeatedly cast doubt on the integrity of U.S. election systems, a post-election season of fundraising for legal action was likely.
"Both President Trump and President-elect Biden have very enthusiastic donor bases, and these are people who have given money over and over again," says Michael Beckel, research director at Issue One, a bipartisan political reform organization. "And so, as both Trump and Biden anticipate additional expenses, they're trying to get their loyal supporters to open their wallets one more time, give just one last dollar to be able to cover some of these legal expenses."
But Beckel says donors would be wise to scroll to the bottom of the donation requests to find out where their money would actually go.
"The only text that really matters in the fundraising solicitation is the fine print at the end of it that says how the funds are going to be used," he said.
"Ultimately, the politician and political groups that are part of these joint fundraising committees use a lot of complex algorithms and formulas to decide how to divvy up the money that comes in and so there could be a lot of different things paid for by these eleventh-hour campaign contributions."
Potential donors will find in italics at the bottom of Biden's fundraising emails a disclaimer stating the donations primarily will go to the Democratic National Committee and secondarily to the Biden Fight Fund.
"There's nothing obviously misleading about the Biden fundraising appeals because ... all of that money can, and presumably would, be used for the post-election legal battles," says Brendan Fischer, director of the federal reform program at Campaign Legal Center.
But he says that's not the case for Trump.
"What's different is that even though the Trump campaign has created a separate recount account and is citing the cost of post-election litigation in its fundraising appeals, for the most part, the money has gone towards paying down the campaign's outstanding debt and now towards President Trump's newly created leadership PAC," Fischer explains.
Bolstering Trump's new PAC
Trump's new political action committee is called Save America, and it will receive 60% of every contribution to Trump's Official Election Defense Fund.
The remaining 40% of each contribution goes to the Republican National Committee.
"It's only if a contributor has reached the $5,000 legal limit in contributions to Save America that any part of their contribution would go to Trump's recount fund," Fischer said.
He says that means the average small donor reacting to Trump's plea to fuel his legal defense isn't actually helping to offset the costs of recounts or other legal expenses.
And a leadership PAC, unlike an official campaign committee, enjoys a lot more leeway when it comes to how its money can be spent.
"This can help further [Trump's] political agenda," Beckel says. "It is something that he could use to dole out money to like-minded candidates and includes spending money for expenditures that would be prohibited if it was campaign cash, because campaign cash cannot be used for personal use."
Fischer says the language of the Trump campaign's fundraising emails could severely mislead his supporters.
"This is getting close to scam PAC territory. Typically where you see such misleading fundraising appeals from non-candidate PACs run by shady political operator," he says.
"Usually, candidates feel like they have to maintain some level of trust with their supporters and with their donors because they rely on them for support. It's usually not in a candidate's interest to significantly mislead their supporters, but that appears to be what's happening with President Trump right now."