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Trump rakes in millions off FBI search at Mar-a-Lago

Aug. 17, 2022 Updated Wed., Aug. 17, 2022 at 8:59 p.m.

Former President Donald Trump claps during the final remarks during Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022.  (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
Former President Donald Trump claps during the final remarks during Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) at the Hilton Anatole in Dallas on Saturday, Aug. 6, 2022. (TRIBUNE NEWS SERVICE)
By Josh Dawsey and Isaac Arnsdorf Washington Post

Former president Donald Trump bombarded his supporters with more than 100 emails asking for money based on the FBI’s search of his Florida Mar-a-Lago Club for classified materials last week. They paid off.

Contributions to Trump’s political action committee topped $1 million on at least two days after the Aug. 8 search, according to two people familiar with the figures. The daily hauls jumped from a level of $200,000 to $300,000 that had been typical in recent months, according to the people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss nonpublic information.

The donations stayed unusually high for several more days and are still above average, both of these people said, though they have leveled off in recent days. There are more contributors than usual, these people said, and the average donation has climbed.

The influx comes at a crucial time for Trump as he considers an early announcement for a 2024 presidential campaign and saw dwindling returns on his online fundraising solicitations earlier this year. The former president’s PAC brought in $36 million in the first half of the year, dropping below $50 million in a six-month period for the first time since he left office, according to Federal Election Commission data.

The cash bonanza also provides a concrete sign that Trump is reaping some political benefits from the revelation that he is under investigation by the Justice Department for potential violations of laws including the Espionage Act. Trump and his supporters have repeatedly boasted in emails, social media posts and right-wing media articles that the search warrant would backfire on President Joe Biden and rally Republicans around Trump.

The search prompted sympathetic statements from politicians such as Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell and former vice president Mike Pence who are not reflexively full-throated in defending Trump. And on Tuesday, Wyoming primary voters delivered a resounding defeat to Rep. Liz Cheney, whose leadership on the House committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol made her a top priority for Trump to unseat.

A Trump spokesman did not respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s fundraising pitches are led by Gary Coby, and former campaign manager Brad Parscale remains involved. The emails perform better when they’re connected to high-profile news events, one of the people familiar with the figures said, especially episodes that make Trump supporters feel under attack, such as impeachment proceedings.

“Trump as a candidate and fundraiser has always had an impressively dedicated set of constituents who are particularly mobilized by anger,” said Jessica Baldwin-Philippi, a professor at Fordham University who researches how political campaigns use digital communications. “A threat, a negative, a time when you lose, can actually be lucrative.”

The fire hose of Trump fundraising emails referencing the Mar-a-Lago search exceeded the PAC’s average pace of about nine per day.

The messages used alarming phrases in bold and all-caps such as “THEY BROKE INTO MY HOME,” “They’re coming after YOU,” and “THIS IS INSANE.” One message included a poll asking, “Do you agree that President Trump is being politically persecuted?” Another promised “an exclusive 1300% MATCH today only!,” a common tactic used to encourage people to respond immediately.

Such menacing rhetoric from Trump and other Republicans has drawn criticism and concern that they could spark further violence against federal officials. An armed Trump supporter in Ohio was killed last week after trying to attack the FBI’s field office in Cincinnati. Cheney, in her concession speech Tuesday in Wyoming, said Trump was inciting violence now like he did in the run-up to last year’s attack on the Capitol. “It is entirely foreseeable the violence will escalate further,” she said. Pence, at a speech in New Hampshire on Wednesday, urged his party to reject calls to “defund the FBI” and said, “These attacks on the FBI must stop.”

The House Jan. 6 committee has been investigating fundraising emails from Trump and other Republican groups that promoted false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. At a June hearing, a committee investigator said the Trump campaign sent as many as 25 emails a day asking for donations to an “Official Election Defense Fund” which did not actually exist. But the solicitations raised hundreds of millions.

Since leaving office, Trump has raised more than $100 million for his PAC – often with misleading pitches – but has kept most of the money, only spending big on a handful of races and paying for some staff, legal fees and travel, according to a review of disclosure filings. He has told advisers he wants to keep the money and that it shows political strength.

The PAC shelled out less than $5 million as of June to support Trump-endorsed candidates such as David Perdue in Georgia – who lost the gubernatorial primary – Pennsylvania Senate candidate Mehmet Oz and Cheney’s primary opponent, Harriet Hageman. The PAC has spent millions more on staging Trump’s rallies, paying his staff, travel and legal expenses, according to FEC disclosures. The Republican National Committee has also continued footing some of Trump’s legal bills in recent months.

Some of the GOP’s fundraising, including Trump’s, has slowed in recent months in what many view as a troubling sign, according to party operatives and officials in Trump’s orbit.

It’s not clear whether the anti-FBI fundraising windfall extends to other Republican groups, whose online fundraising had sagged worse than Trump’s in the first half of the year. The RNC sent at least seven emails citing the Mar-a-Lago search, with more coming from the National Republican Senatorial Committee (“Stand with President Trump and get your NEW shirt!”) and the House GOP (“They broke into Trump’s personal safe … They ransacked Melania’s wardrobe.”). Spokespeople for the RNC, NRSC and the National Republican Congressional Committee did not respond to requests for comment Wednesday.

“If you’re not talking about Mar-a-Lago in your fundraising you’re swimming against the current,” said Eric Wilson, a Republican digital strategist. “For Trump, it’s been difficult for the last several months because he has not been in the spotlight so much. With Trump being thrust back into the spotlight, of course it’s going to be good for them from a fundraising perspective.”

Trump’s name and likeness are featured on fundraising emails from other candidates, a phenomenon that he has occasionally lashed out at and that would pose problems if he declares his candidacy. As an official candidate, Trump would face restrictions on how he could use his PAC war chest, according to campaign finance experts, though the FEC often deadlocks along partisan lines on enforcement questions.

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