“Trump told you the election was stolen, ripped you off, to sucker you, to take your hard-earned money and shovel it into his pockets. He spent it on himself, not to take back the White House. It was the biggest scam in political history. Every dollar you sent him paid to keep his shady business empire and lavish lifestyle going.”
— Voice-over in Lincoln Project ad, first aired Sept. 8
The Lincoln Project, formed by a group of disaffected Republicans, loves to needle former president Donald Trump.
This ad, which the group says aired on cable in Bedminster, N.J., sparked a furious reaction from the former president, who has a home there. The ad asserts that Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen from him is just a mechanism to raise money — “the biggest scam in political history” — that is designed to rip off his supporters — “a sucker’s game” — because Trump is pocketing the money to prop up his businesses and maintain his standard of living.
In a post on his social media platform, Trump threatened to sue Fox News for allowing the ad to run, though local ad buys are made directly with cable companies.
“This is the ad that pissed off Trump this morning,” the group cheerfully tweeted, earning at least 41,000 retweets and more than 109,000 likes.
But is there evidence to support its core claim — that Trump has diverted contributors’ money for his own benefit?
We first checked the campaign finance records for two Trump leadership political action committees, Save America PAC and Make America Great Again PAC. Trump has certainly been hoarding the money at the Save America PAC, sitting on about $100 million in cash and giving out relatively little to fellow Republicans. (A Leadership PAC generally is used to raise money to support other politicians.)
But we could not find any evidence to support the statement that “every dollar you sent him paid to keep his shady business empire and lavish lifestyle going.”
Save America PAC, which Trump created after he lost the 2020 election, has spent about $36 million, according to OpenSecrets.org. It appears the money has been mostly spent on administrative expenses, attorney fees, salaries and on fundraising activities, such as web ads. The MAGA PAC was a joint-fundraising committee between the president’s campaign and the Republican National Committee, and its recent spending largely appears connected to the past presidential campaign, such as attorney’s fees.
Perhaps one could argue that Trump should be paying lawyers out of his own pocket, not using contributors’ money. But he’s been clear in some of his fundraising emails that he wants help defending himself against the Justice Department investigation into classified documents found at his Mar-a-Lago Club. “Rush in a donation IMMEDIATELY to publicly stand with me against this NEVERENDING WITCH HUNT,” one email said.
The Washington Post and other news organizations reported this week that the Justice Department is seeking details about the formation and operation of the Save America PAC. But that probe so far appears related to the ongoing criminal investigation of the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the U.S. Capitol and efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election — not whether funds have been misused.
We relied on the summaries created by OpenSecrets because the Save America PAC’s July filing with the Federal Election Commission ran to almost 50,000 pages. Presumably if there was something fishy buried deep in those filings, the Lincoln Project would have identified it.
So we contacted spokespeople for the Lincoln Project via email, repeatedly, asking for evidence to support the ad’s claim. We received no answer.
Then we called Lincoln Project co-founder Rick Wilson, who posted a video Thursday daring Trump to follow through on his threat to sue. “Come at me. I can’t wait,” he said. “We’re delighted by the thought that you would try to sue us, Donald. Do it!”
Wilson answered our call but when he heard we had questions about the accuracy of the ad, he responded he was about to get on a Zoom call and hung up. He then also did not respond to text messages or emails.
Hmmm. Experience has taught us that when ad-makers duck our requests for factual backup for their claims, they generally do not have anything to provide.
We sent emails to the treasurers of the two PACs, asking them to verify Trump has not diverted funds for his personal benefit, but did not hear back. In a statement, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said: “Save America PAC has been committed to supporting the candidates and causes that advance President Trump’s America First agenda.”
Regular readers know that the burden of proof falls on the person or entity making the claim. We tried to verify the ad’s accusation that “every dollar” Trump has raised from his supporters has been diverted for personal and business purposes. Actually, he has spent little of what he raised, and thus far there is no evidence he has steered the funds for his own benefit.
When challenged to back up the claims, the Lincoln Project officials avoided or ignored our inquiries. That gives us little confidence there is any evidence to support the ad’s claims.
As we have well documented, Trump has a habit of making incendiary claims with no proof. But that does not give his opponents license to use the same playbook. The Lincoln Project earns Four Pinocchios.
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