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Trump Overhauls His Massive Dark-Money Machine

·5-min read
Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty
Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast/Getty

While ex-President Donald Trump spent his first weeks in private life building a sprawling MAGA money machine, below the surface his loyalists were quietly overhauling a key component of that fundraising behemoth: its dark-money arm.

That political operation had been bolstered for years by a super PAC, America First Action. Between 2017 and 2020 the Trump-endorsed group hauled in nearly $200 million for the MAGA cause, largely from Republican megadonors. But tucked away in a federal court filing this March was a piece of unreported news: “America First is currently in the process of winding down its affairs.”

Around that time, a rift between Trump and top adviser Jared Kushner had reportedly pushed the former president toward his old allies. News reports began to tease a new pro-Trump super PAC headed up by former 2016 campaign manager Corey Lewandowski. Soon a federal filing revealed a new super PAC with a familiar name—Make America Great Again Action. Trump’s inner circle initially kept it under wraps but eventually pulled back the curtain in May, announcing a fundraising dinner at Trump’s Bedminster, New Jersey, golf club. The reported price tag: $250,000 a head.

Last week, MAGA Action filed its first Federal Election Commission report, showing about $5 million in contributions. The first donation was an April 4 $750,000 gift from America First Action.

America First Action president Brian O. Walsh provided a statement confirming the organization had undergone a wholesale shift, and that his group was giving its “full support” to the Lewandowski operation.

“America First Action began winding down earlier this year and are throwing our full support behind Make America Great Again Action. We are forever grateful for President Trump’s support and leadership, and urge all our supporters to join MAGA Action as they carry the America First banner into the future,” the statement said.

Walsh did not answer questions about whether the transfer included personnel and other resources. However, disclosures show the rise of Trump’s new super PAC has been fueled in large part by the old super PAC. Of the $5 million MAGA Action raised this year, more than a third of it—about $1.79 million—came from America First Action. Both groups can raise and spend money in unlimited amounts, but can’t give directly to candidates. Other notable donors include former Sen. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA), who gave $250,000 at the end of June, and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell, who contributed $100,000 in May.

According to a person with knowledge of Trump’s thinking, the pivot was connected to the Kushner rift. The shift, the person said, “is evidence of the distance Jared created between himself and Trump,” adding that Trump was “filling that gap” by “going back to the team he’s more familiar with.”

That move is marked by the ascendance of Lewandowski, a divisive presence who for a time had fallen out of favor with a number of people in Trump world, including the former president. After his dismissal from the 2016 campaign, Lewandowski—who was charged with battery for an altercation with a Breitbart reporter on the trail—snubbed Trump’s offer of an administration post, reportedly characterizing such a position as “beneath him.” And when he later floated a Senate run, the MAGA Action chief administrator had some trouble navigating the ins and outs of super PAC rules.

But while Kushner represents a part of the MAGA world at odds with Lewandowski—and was central to the campaign’s fundraising efforts—he did not play a public role in America First Action. The group was a brainchild of other Trump advisers, including former campaign manager Brad Parscale, and Paul Manafort associate and former campaign official Rick Gates.

A Kushner representative did not reply to The Daily Beast’s request for comment.

To date, MAGA Action—which as a super PAC can accept checks from companies and “dark money” nonprofits—has spent more than $500,000 in support of two Trump-backed candidates in closely contested GOP primaries.

The first of those primaries, in a House special election in Texas, delivered the Republican kingmaker an embarrassing defeat, despite a last-minute $100,000 ad buy from MAGA Action. But the second race redeemed the former president, with his candidate Mike Carey fending off a pack of GOP competitors in Ohio’s 15th District. It also redeemed the new super PAC, which put nearly $420,000 behind Carey. Trump himself never visited the district, and only gave Carey his blessing after Lewandowski appeared at a Carey event in June.

‘Swampiest Swamp Creature’ Mike Carey Wins Ohio Republican Primary

But America First Action is only one lever in the Trump dark-money machine. Its affiliated nonprofit, America First Policies, can raise and transfer funds without limits, and, unlike the super PAC, it isn’t required to disclose its donors. While the two groups couldn’t directly coordinate, they shared office space and even personnel, including leadership. All told, federal filings show the nonprofit contributed more than $22.4 million to America First Action through the end of 2020.

The same day America First Action made its $750,000 kickoff donation to MAGA Action, it reported a $750,000 transfer from America First Policies, filings show.

Those names are confusing, but that’s a common feature across the Trump operation. And this year a new one appeared—America First Policy Institute, a nonprofit whose leadership includes a slew of former administration officials. The group reportedly counts Kushner and Ivanka Trump as advisers, and launched in April with a first-year budget of $20 million.

Weeks later, AFPI officials joined Trump at the lectern to announce they would be backing his lawsuit against social media companies. They also made the same misleading fundraising pitch, directing supporters to a donation page which they falsely claimed would allow others to join the class-action suit.

Walsh did not reply when asked whether America First Policies had undergone a similar transition, to the new AFPI nonprofit. The group disabled its website when Trump left office.

Read more at The Daily Beast.

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