Elections

Published — February 18, 2019

Inside Donald Trump’s army of super PACs and MAGA nonprofits

David Bossie (Gage Skidmore/ Creative Commons), Corey Lewandowski (AP), Kellyanne Conway (Gage Skidmore) and Brad Parscale (Gage Skidmore)

‘Scams’ is how the president once described such groups

This article is published in partnership with Public Radio International.

Introduction

At the outset of Donald Trump’s bid for the White House, he blasted super PACs on Twitter as “scams” and “unfair” and disavowed such outside help.

Then he changed his tune. By the end of his 2016 campaign, more than a hundred super PACs and similar groups had spent more than $72 million on his behalf, helping him defeat Democrat Hillary Clinton.

Trump’s army of organized support has expanded since then, with a dozen or so major nonprofits and super PACs pushing his policy platform and priming the public for Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign. Many of the groups feature former Trump staffers or campaign aides. Trump and his surrogates frequently appear at events hosted by some of the ventures.

Other pro-Trump groups, however, spent four, five or even six figures paying their own leaders and employees, filling the coffers of their consulting firms instead of spending money to boost Trump’s political future.

The Center for Public Integrity has this month analyzed the activities of each of these organizations. Read on to make sense of what political committees, super PACs and nonprofit groups are actively in orbit around Trump’s own 2020 re-election committee:


America First Action Inc.

Type: super PAC

A group of former Trump aides designed the super PAC America First Action and a nonprofit arm, America First Policies, to push Trump’s policy platform. Even Vice President Mike Pence traveled across the country to attend America First events and help raise money. Dallas investor Doug Deason and Roy Bailey, a partner at Giuliani Partners LLC, handled the finances for the two groups. Former Fox News host Kimberly Guilfoyle, who is the girlfriend of Donald Trump Jr., is the groups’ vice chairwoman. The super PAC collected $39 million from 2017 through 2018. It spent $29.2 million on political messages during that time, mostly attacking Democrats such as former Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Sen. Jon Tester of Montana.

Donald Trump Jr., and Kimberly Guilfoyle hold hands during a rally for Republican U.S. Senate candidate John James in Pontiac, Mich., on Oct. 17, 2018. (AP/Paul Sancya)

America First Action attracted multimillion dollar contributions from real estate developer Geoffrey Palmer, philanthropist Cherna Moskowitz, casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and Adelson’s wife, philanthropist Miriam Adelson. Trump last year awarded Miriam Adelson the Presidential Medal of Freedom, one of the nation’s highest civilian honors.

The group has also hired and paid firms associated with former Trump employees or backers. They include: Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway’s former firm, the Polling Company ($476,000); former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski’s firm, Green Monster Consulting ($75,000); former Milwaukee sheriff and Trump booster David A. Clarke’s firm, DAC Enterprises ($92,000); current Trump campaign manager, Brad Parscale, and his firm Parscale Strategy LLC ($184,000); and Trump campaign aide Katrina Pierson’s Pierson Consulting Group ($60,000). The super PAC also paid former White House spokesman Sean Spicer’s firm RIGWIL LLC $46,000. Spicer is now the super PAC’s senior adviser and spokesman. Additionally, the group chose to frequent Trump properties, paying about $415,000 to the Trump International Hotel and restaurants inside.


America First Policies

Type: nonprofit

High turnover has plagued this nonprofit, which has chosen not to disclose its donors. Rebekah Mercer, daughter of conservative megadonor Robert Mercer, considered funding the group, but left for another nonprofit called Making America Great. At its outset in January 2017, this 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit hosted big names in Trump’s orbit. Among the co-founders and initial staffers:

Brad Parscale, campaign manager for President Donald Trump, waits for his arrival during a campaign rally for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, at Houston Toyota Center on Oct. 22, 2018, in Houston. (AP/Evan Vucci)

Trump’s former deputy campaign manager, Rick Gates, also co-founded the group. But he left in March 2017 and has since been indicted and has pleaded guilty, in a matter unrelated to America First Policies, to making a false statement to prosecutors and violating foreign lobbying laws.

The nonprofit and its sister super PAC were chaired by Thomas Hicks Jr., now co-chair of the Republican National Committee. Hicks was a national finance chairman for Trump’s 2016 campaign. The nonprofit’s 2017 board of directors includes Dallas financial executive Bailey, oil billionaire Harold Hamm and Douglas Ammerman, a retired partner at auditor KPMG LLP, according to the group’s latest tax filing. The nonprofit’s president is Brian Walsh,  former president of conservative outside groups American Action Network and the Congressional Leadership Fund.

Walsh declined to speak with the Center for Public Integrity. Communications director Erin Montgomery said the group is “not prepared to share our 2020 plans publicly at this time.”

Because it’s a nonprofit, the organization isn’t required by law to disclose its donors. But a review of Internal Revenue Service filings indicate Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America gave America First Policies $2.5 million, tobacco company Reynolds America donated $1.4 million, Southern Company donated $1 million, CVS Health gave $500,000 and Dow Chemical gave $100,000. In total, the nonprofit raised $22.2 million in 2017.

The group paid for advertising, telephone calls and “grassroots advocacy” to support repealing the Affordable Care Act and boost Trump’s’ Tax Cuts and Jobs Act, immigration reform and confirming Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court. The nonprofit’s 2017 tax filing shows it also paid $2.8 million to Parscale’s company for “media advocacy services” and $160,000 to Obst’s firm for “consulting.”


Committee to Defend the President

Type: hybrid super PAC

Formerly named “Stop Hillary PAC,” the Committee to Defend the President spent $3.4 million during the 2016 election on anti-Hillary Clinton ads, using messaging centered around the 2012 Benghazi attacks, in which the U.S. ambassador to Libya was killed. The group raised $6.9 million from 2015 to 2016, and $8.9 million during the 2018 election. It spent $4.4 million on Trump-positive messages. The super PAC also attacked Democrats such as failed Senate candidate Phil Bredesen in Tennessee and Sen. Tammy Baldwin in Wisconsin. The group has $720,000 in the bank as of Dec. 31.

“The Committee is focused on defending President Trump — and when necessary his allies in Congress and elsewhere, as it did to great effect in Tennessee last cycle where we spent over $1 million to elect Marsha Blackburn [to the U.S. Senate in Tennessee],” said Ted Harvey, the group’s chairman and a former Colorado state senator. “Our efforts will take whatever form makes the most sense at the time…”

In April 2018, the hybrid PAC sued the FEC, alleging the agency failed to act on a complaint the PAC filed against Hillary Clinton and the Democratic National Committee. The Committee to Defend the President charged that Clinton violated federal law by funneling $80 million in contributions through state parties. The case is pending.


Great America PAC

Type: hybrid super PAC

Great America PAC, which aims to re-elect Trump and pro-Trump candidates, probably won’t involve itself in the Democratic primary.

“We’re fine letting the Democrats publicly out-crazy one another for the next year before we tar whatever looney tune comes out of their ‘process,’” Great America PAC attorney Dan Backer said in an email.

Ed Rollins, President Ronald Reagan’s campaign manager, is chairman of this hybrid super PAC, formerly known as TrumPAC. The super PAC’s executive director, Brent Lowder, is also the president of Apex Strategy Group, which Great America PAC paid $492,429 in 2016 and $150,000 in 2018. Rollins received a total of $240,000 in 2017 and 2018 for “payroll and strategic consulting.”

Eric Beach, the finance chairman for Newt Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign, was a former co-chairman of Great America PAC. Beach is a managing partner at Frontline Strategies & Media, a public affairs firm that Great America PAC paid more than $5 million from 2015 to 2018, more than any other committee paid it during both cycles.

The committee raised close to $29 million during the 2016 election, spending almost $24 million of those funds on pro-Trump ads. From 2017 to 2018, the group spent $5.4 million to support Trump. It also spent a few hundred thousand dollars backing Republicans running in U.S. House and U.S. Senate races, including  Roy Moore in Alabama. Its top donors from 2016 include Marvel Entertainment CEO Isaac Perlmutter ($5 million), now-deceased Houston Texans owner Robert McNair ($2 million) and banker Andy Beal ($2 million). In 2018, megadonors such as Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies ($400,000) and Richard Uihlein of U-Line Corp ($100,000) topped its list of contributors.

Attorney Dan Backer (right) speaks with Shaun McCutcheon (left) at a Federal Election Commission meeting in February 2015. (Center for Public Integrity/Dave Levinthal)

“Our ability to be nimble and adapt is what made Great America PAC the largest pro-Trump group in 2016, and his biggest champion since,” Backer wrote.

The super PAC has been riddled with scandals.

In May 2016, Jesse Benton, a former leader of the group, was found guilty on campaign finance charges in connection with his 2012 work on Republican Ron Paul’s presidential campaign. A federal appeals court upheld the charges, which preceded Benton’s work with Great America PAC, in May 2018. Before that, The Telegraph published an investigation in which reporters posed as consultants for a Chinese national wanting to donate to pro-Trump groups, which is illegal. Benton allegedly said he was a consultant for Great America PAC and apparently offered the reporters a way to disguise the foreign donation to the group. Backer, the super PAC’s lawyer, denied the super PAC engaged in any activity of the sort. Benton left the group in May 2016.

Also in 2016, the super PAC mistakenly published donor information not normally made public, such as email addresses and cell phone numbers for hundreds of its backers. A month later, it erroneously published credit card numbers for 49 donors. The super PAC offered free security monitoring to the donors and said it changed its data collection and compliance processes.


Great America Alliance

Type: nonprofit

The nonprofit Great America Alliance shares staff and resources with its partner super PAC, Great America PAC. Tomi Lahren, the conservative political commentator, was a senior aide to the nonprofit before leaving it for a job at Fox News. Andy Surabian — a former Steve Bannon aide and war room director of Trump’s 2016 campaign — also was a senior adviser. The nonprofit reported it spent $1.5 million in 2017 to educate voters about health care, taxes, national security and trade. It spent $291,000 on political campaign activity, according to a filing with the IRS.

Tomi Lahren seen at Politicon 2016 at The Pasadena Convention Center on June 25, 2016, in Pasadena, Calif. (Invision via AP/Colin Young-Wolff)

News reports from 2017 stated Gingrich and former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani were in talks to become co-chairmen of Great American Alliance, but Backer, the group’s attorney, said that did not happen. The nonprofit’s 2017 tax filing lists Brent Lowder as president, Beach as executive director and Christina Needham, a senior associate attorney at political.law, founded by Backer, as director.

The 501(c)(4) “social welfare” nonprofit raised $3.5 million in 2017, according to the latest tax filing available. It also paid $955,000 that year to public affairs firm Frontline Strategies, which is owned by Eric Beach, a former director of the group now “retained to provide management services.” It also paid $369,000 to Campaign Solutions, the political consulting firm of the Committee to Defend the President’s Ted Harvey, and $123,000 to Apex Strategy Group, owned by the nonprofit’s president Brent Lowder.


Future45

Type: super PAC

Future45 is a super PAC heavily funded by the deep-pocketed Ricketts family, which owns the Chicago Cubs baseball team. Future45 brought in $6.3 million in 2018, including from other megadonors such as philanthropist Helen Schwab, Elliott Management Group’s Paul Singer and Citadel LLC’s Kenneth Griffin. The super PAC poured $5.8 million into 2018 midterm messaging attacks on Democrats, including Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Rep. Maxine Waters of California, Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

The group is led by Brian Baker, longtime political adviser to the Ricketts family.

“The Democrats tried to nationalize the midterms around Trump, and we tried to push back against that, and show the extreme elements in the Democratic Party,” Baker told the Center for Public Integrity. “Little did I imagine the conversation would stay the same but the characters would change. It used to be all about Nancy Pelosi and Maxine Waters but nowadays it’s all about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.”


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45Committee

Type: nonprofit

The super PAC Future45 also has a sister “social welfare” nonprofit, 45Committee, which raised about $48.6 million from 2015 to 2017, according to federal tax filings.

“In 2017 and 2018, we were one of the leading groups pushing the tax reform bill, and really fought the nomination fight for the high profile nominees like the Supreme Court or Secretary of State,” said Baker, the president. 45Committee has not publicly reported its donors and is under no legal obligation to do so. But other tax filings show it received grants from Wellspring Committee ($750,000), the Judicial Crisis Network ($250,000) and Ricketts-connected Ending Spending ($75,000). That’s only a fraction of what’s in its bank account: the nonprofit’s tax filings show it received four donations in 2017 that were each worth $7.5 million.

45Committee distributed its own grants in 2017 to the Mercer-funded Secure America Now ($2 million), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce ($350,000), Judicial Crisis Network ($200,000) and the NRA Institute for Legislative Action ($70,000), among others. The group reported spending $21.6 million on political campaigning and $18.9 million on issue ads.

45Committee’s latest tax filing shows Baker became chairman and president after conservative strategist Brian Walsh left the role in September 2016. CNBC contributor and former George W. Bush aide Sara Fagen is on the board of directors, as well as Randy Scheunemann, a lobbyist for foreign governments at Orion Strategies, and Rob Collins, a lobbyist and strategist who helped push Neil Gorsuch’s appointment to the Supreme Court.


Rebuilding America Now

Type: super PAC

This super PAC was started by California financier Tom Barrack, a Trump confidant and chairman of the president’s inaugural committee. It spent more than $21 million during the 2016 election attacking Democrat Hillary Clinton and boosting Trump, although it’s been mostly dormant since. Now-U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, R-Fla., led the committee.

Tom Barrack, CEO of Colony Capital, takes the stage to speak during the final day of the Republican National Convention in Cleveland on July 21, 2016. (AP/Mark J. Terrill)

The group’s past activity has caught Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s attention. Prosecutors note former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort was “instrumental” in setting up Rebuilding America Now at the same time he was Trump’s campaign chairman, an apparent violation of federal law. (The super PAC also began paying Ken McKay, a former Trump campaign adviser, days after he left Trump’s campaign, seemingly violating the 90-day cooling-off-period rule.) The group also hired Manafort’s longtime associate, Laurance Gay, as chairman. During the 2016 cycle, the super PAC paid Gay $330,000 and McKay $295,000 for “political strategy consulting.”

A spokesman for McKay and Gay told Reuters they were Trump volunteers who didn’t “possess strategic information,” so they said the cooling-off-period rule didn’t apply.

In court filings, prosecutors say Manafort lied to investigators about a $125,000 wire transfer in 2017 to the super PAC in order to cover a debt, The New York Times reported. A federal judge ruled in February 2019 that despite agreeing to cooperate, Manafort lied to Mueller’s team during its Russian interference investigation. He will be sentenced in March.

In 2016, the super PAC accepted six-figure donations from megadonors such as Home Depot co-founder Bernard Marcus, real estate developer Palmer and former WWE wrestling executive Linda McMahon, now Trump’s Small Business Administration administrator. It also took $100,000 from Anthony Scaramucci, later Trump’s communications director for one week; $200,000 from coal outfit Murray Energy and $225,000 from private prison operator GEO Corrections. (The nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center filed an FEC complaint accusing GEO of violating the federal contractor donation ban. The case is pending.)

 “Although GEO Corrections Holdings Inc., the company that made the donation, is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the GEO Group, it is a non-contracting legal entity and has no contracts with any governmental agency,” company spokesperson Pablo Paez told VICE News in a statement, saying the donations to Rebuilding America Now are “compliant with all applicable federal election laws.”

In 2018, Rebuilding America Now received $30,000 in donations, with $25,000 coming from Florida real estate developer E. Llwyd Ecclestone Jr.

From 2017 to 2018, Rebuilding America Now spent most of its $2 million on paying Gay ($775,000) and McCay ($210,000) for consulting fees. It also used its money to fund travel and high-priced dinners — at places such as The Trump International Hotel in Washington and BLT Prime in Washington. It reported no money during that time on overtly pro-Trump communications.  


Great America Committee

Type: leadership PAC

Great America Committee is the first leadership PAC that a vice president created while in office.

Pence formed Great America Committee — not to be confused with the two other pro-Trump groups starting with “Great America” — in May 2017 to help boost other Republicans. The move was so unusual that many believed Pence was setting himself up for his own presidential run. That didn’t happen — instead, Pence doled out $886,000 in 2018 to candidates such as Rep. Andy Barr, R-Ky. and Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn. The leadership PAC also gave $5,400 to Trump’s presidential campaign.

In this March 15, 2016 file photo, Donald Trump’s then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski (left) listens as Trump speaks in Palm Beach, Fla. (AP/Gerald Herbert, File)

The PAC raised $4.1 million in 2018. Since forming, it spent $70,000 for consulting services at Green Monster Consulting, the firm of Trump’s former campaign manager, Lewandowski. It also paid $332,000 to MO Strategies, the firm of Obst, Pence’s senior political adviser, who was also the senior adviser of pro-Trump nonprofit America First Policies and executive director at the Trump super PAC Great America Committee. The PAC paid the firm for “finance and political strategy consulting.”


America Fighting Back

Type: hybrid super PAC

“We must protect Donald Trump and his agenda from impeachment,” declares America Fighting Back, led by former 2012 Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain.

Cain appears in an America Fighting Back ad in which he says Democrats’ “mission is to remake America and implement their socialist agenda.” The group asks viewers to call a 1-800 number to pledge their support for President Trump. The phone number directs a dialer to a recording of Cain bashing the “phony Russian delusion witch hunt.”

Businessman Herman Cain, who ran for president as a Republican in 2012, appears in an advertisement for his America Fighting Back PAC committee. (Screenshot)

Cain then asks callers to make a contribution. America Fighting Back, formed in July 2018, raised $347,000 during 2018, accepting donations from Citizens United founder and America Fighting Back co-chair Floyd Brown ($45,000) and the family trust of Edward Robson, a retirement community developer ($10,000). It reported spending $171,500 on pro-Trump messaging, although some of that messaging — such as Cain’s advertisement — serves the dual purpose of soliciting money for America Fighting Back itself.

The PAC’s executive director is Lori Klein Corbin, former Arizona state senator and national committeewoman for the state. Its chief strategist is Todd Cefaratti, a former 2012 campaign aide to Newt Gingrich.


Make America Number 1

Type: super PAC

Ahead of the 2020 presidential election, Make America Number 1 has yet to make the splash it did in 2016. Previously a Ted Cruz-backing super PAC named Keep the Promise I, the group rebranded to Make America Number 1 and spent $4.4 million attacking Clinton. Before Citizens United Chairman David Bossie left in 2016 to work as Trump’s deputy campaign manager, he ran the super PAC. Megadonor Rebekah Mercer took over managing the group.

Robert Mercer with his wife Diana Mercer (right) and daughter Rebekah Mercer (left) at the 2014 World Science Festival Gala. (Sylvain Gaboury/PMC, ©Patrick McMullan)

It was primarily funded by Robert Mercer, Marcus and Clarium Capital’s Peter Thiel, as well as Erik Prince, brother of Department of Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, and the founder of the controversial security firm formerly known as Blackwater USA. The super PAC also paid $5.7 million to Cambridge Analytica, the now-defunct data firm that harvested Facebook users’ data without permission.

During the 2018 midterms, the super PAC raised only $807 in small donations, and spent $379,000 mostly on legal expenses and upkeep. The super PAC starts 2019 with $699,000 in the bank.

* * * * *

Other political groups and nonprofits that don’t primarily advocate for Trump have nevertheless been instrumental in advocating for his election. They include:

National Rifle Association

Type: nonprofits, PAC, super PAC

The National Rifle Association spent about $30.3 million to directly boost Trump during the 2016 presidential election, more than any other group that cycle.

The association may have gone a step further: An investigation by The Trace found that Trump’s campaign and the NRA used the same consultants to air TV ads, an apparent violation of the law that prohibits campaigns and outside groups from coordinating.

What’s more, federal investigators are exploring ties between NRA officials and the Russian government. Russian national Maria Butina pleaded guilty in December 2018 to conspiring to illegally act as a foreign agent. She admitted trying infiltrate the NRA and convince its members that Russia is a friend, not an enemy, to the U.S. The effort was apparently backed by at least one Russian official, Alexander Torshin, a former deputy governor of the Russian Central Bank. Russian President Vladimir Putin may have even approved the effort, according to a U.S. intelligence report reviewed by The Daily Beast. NRA officials did not respond to the Center for Public Integrity’s numerous requests for comment.


Citizens United

Type: nonprofit

The organization behind the pivotal campaign finance U.S. Supreme Court case, Citizens United v. FEC, Citizens United’s super PAC spent $182,000 on pro-Trump messages in 2016.

Donald Trump, left, reacts to the crowd as he shakes hands with co-host David Bossie at the Freedom Summit, Saturday, May 9, 2015, in Greenville, S.C. (AP/Rainier Ehrhardt)

People affiliated with the group have had a hand in other organizations backing Trump: Its president, Bossie, was Trump’s 2016 deputy campaign manager, while founder Brown is co-chairman of the super PAC America Fighting Back. Citizens United hasn’t reported any pro-Trump expenditures since he was elected.

“I am an outspoken supporter of this president and will help him in whatever way is most beneficial to his re-election,” Bossie told the Center for Public Integrity.


Committee to Restore America’s Greatness

Type: super PAC

Two months after Roger Stone exited the Trump presidential campaign, the notorious political operative formed a pro-Trump super PAC in October 2015.

The group stayed in business a little more than a year, raising $587,000 yet only spending $16,000 on pro-Trump billboards. The group’s largest donor was film and television producer John Powers Middleton.

Roger Stone leaves federal court on Feb. 1, 2019, in Washington. Stone appeared for a status conference just three days after he pleaded not guilty to felony charges of witness tampering, obstruction and false statements. (AP/Andrew Harnik)

Most of the PAC’s spending covered legal fees, consulting and travel. As the Center for Responsive Politics reported, Special Counsel Mueller subpoenaed a few vendors of the PAC, including John Kakanis, whose firm was paid $137,000 for “voter fraud research”; social media specialist Jason Sullivan; and Andrew Miller, who Stone paid $4,000 for consulting.

Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.

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