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From Cabinet to campaign, McMahon becomes Trump’s big money boss

Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington on Oct. 3, 2018. (Susan Walsh / AP)
Small Business Administrator Linda McMahon speaks during a briefing at the White House in Washington on Oct. 3, 2018. (Susan Walsh / AP)
By Josh Wingrove and Jordan Fabian Bloomberg News

WASHINGTON – Linda McMahon is President Donald Trump’s anointed fundraising chief. And she wants all deep-pocketed Republicans to know it.

The former wrestling executive left her position as Trump’s head of the Small Business Administration to become the chair of America First Action, a super PAC working to get Trump reelected in 2020.

While America First has the blessing of the president, rival pro-Trump super PACs have sprouted up and are trying to raise money from the same deep-pocketed donors McMahon is targeting – a common headache in campaign finance.

As a prominent Republican donor – McMahon gave $7 million to pro-Trump super PACs during the 2016 election – she has experienced firsthand the confusion among donors when various groups claim to have special status for backing the candidate. In May, however, the campaign singled out America First as the “one approved outside non-campaign group” for fundraising.

“They wanted to make sure that everyone knew that this was sort of the official designated PAC,” McMahon told Bloomberg News in an interview Thursday in Washington, alongside colleague Brian Walsh, the president of America First Action. “From the donor community, there is – I won’t say a relief, but there clearly is an understanding that we are the place to go for that, so they don’t have to worry.”

But that hasn’t deterred competitor groups. McMahon said she even received a call from someone claiming to be from the official Trump PAC. Asked what message she had for other groups trying to get a piece of the biggest Republican donations, she deadpanned: “Pound sand? No.”

Super PACs have transformed the role of money in politics since the 2010 Supreme Court decision that opened the door for them to raise massive piles of cash. These groups, unlike candidates’ official campaign committees, can raise funds in unlimited amounts as long as they disclose their donors, and they can spend directly on campaign advocacy as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate.

America First aims to raise $300 million for Trump’s reelection bid. In the first half of 2019, the super PAC and its affiliated nonprofit, America First Policies, pulled in $17.8 million.

“We’re setting a high bar for ourselves, and so I feel – we feel – pretty good where we are,” Walsh said.

Walsh said he plans to use the money to buy television ads, finance opposition research, as well as data collection and analysis. He said the group would focus primarily on six states: Florida, Ohio, Georgia, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Michigan.

He said he thinks Trump will win most of those states, but Michigan and Pennsylvania are “the real tough ones.”

Those six states – assuming Trump carries Texas – would deliver the Electoral College. But losing any one wouldn’t be fatal, he added.

Asked which Democrat she’d most like to see Trump matched up against, McMahon said she’d prefer Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren.

“I think it’s such a clear, you know, division of, ‘Are you going way left, are you going to stay with the president?’ who is not extreme-right. He’s moderate to right,” McMahon said. She added that voters see Joe Biden as a sort of “comfort zone.”

McMahon conceded that Trump occasionally says things she wishes he wouldn’t.

“There are times where you just go, ‘he could have done without that.’ But where he is and who he is has not changed. And he is consistent, and I think his base clearly knows that, understands that and moves on,” she said.

McMahon said she hasn’t heard complaints from big-money donors about Trump’s ongoing trade conflict with Beijing, even though it has roiled markets. And she sees the strength of the U.S. economy as key for his reelection.

“The president campaigned very strongly that he was going to take this trade war to China, it was not a surprise,” McMahon added in an interview with Bloomberg Television’s David Westin. “If you’re going to take on a trade dispute with an economic giant like China that’s been, as the president said, picking our pockets for the last decades, you can do it only with such a strong economy.”

CNN has reported that America First paid $910,000 to Red State Digital, which Trump campaign manager Brad Parscale said he owns. The payment sparked some criticism that funds were being steered to benefit Parscale personally. Walsh defended the move, saying there is a firewall between the campaign and the super PAC and that “there’s nothing untoward” about it.

Walsh said the America First’s work will ramp up this fall as big-ticket donors begin to plan how they’ll allocate their money heading into the election. “Once you get to the new year, suddenly everybody wakes up and it’s an election year,” he said.

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