President Donald Trump launched his re-election committee on Inauguration Day in January so he could begin to sock away cash immediately, but speculation that he won’t run again continues unabated.
And that raises an intriguing question: Where will the millions of dollars in the bank go if he decides to ditch the White House for a return to Trump Tower? (He can’t, for example, use the money on personal legal funds.)
What complicates the answer is that the president is not a product nor a supporter of the establishment, so a traditional transfer of all of those funds to the Republican National Committee or state and local parties — though a legitimate legal option — may not interest him.
As of the end of September, Donald J. Trump For President, Inc. boasted $18 million in its coffers. More than half came from transfers from aligned committees from his 2016 campaign, but most of the new money he’s brought in this year has come from small donors, and it continues to roll in.
And that’s an important point, because the FEC considers any dollar up to the first $2,700 given to a candidate available for use in a primary campaign. Any dollar over that amount and on up to $5,400 cannot be used by the campaign until after the candidate officially becomes a political party’s nominee at a nominating convention, which in this case will be in the summer of 2020.
While the president enjoys a healthy share of emphatic supporters, fewer than three dozen individual donors have so far given the maximum allowable contribution for both the primary and the general election.
That computes to less than $100,000 that has to be earmarked for the general election, which means the bulk of Trump’s millions can be used before the convention. That money does not have to be refunded or re-designated, according to FEC rules.
Should Trump ultimately forego a 2020 bid, Vice President Mike Pence almost certainly would run as his heir to the Oval Office. And because Trump likes to keep his audiences guessing, it’s a good bet he’d wait as long as possible to pull the plug. That’s where it starts to get murky.
Could Trump’s campaign committee transfer its cash to a Pence campaign committee if the two start out a 2020 bid on the same ticket when the primaries begin?
According to election lawyer Carol Laham of Wiley Rein, it’s a qualified no.
“I don’t believe that this issue has ever come up before in the context of the presidential election,” she said. But because the committee raising cash currently is listed as Trump’s, “I do not believe that committee could transfer funds to a Pence for President Committee should one ever be established,” she added.
The FEC tends to agree, but a spokesman and several election lawyers suggested Trump’s committee could seek an advisory opinion should the scenario arise.
Christian Hilland, the FEC’s deputy press secretary, also wrote IJR in an email:
If a candidate accepts contributions for the general election before the primary is held and loses the primary (or does not otherwise participate in the general election), the candidate’s principal campaign committee must refund, redesignate or reattribute the general election contributions within 60 days of the primary or the date that the candidate publicly withdraws from the primary race. A former candidate may no longer accept additional contributions after the date that he or she withdrew from the primary race unless his or her committee has net debts outstanding, which occurs when a committee has more debt than cash on hand for a given election.
While the law and agency regulations do not directly speak to the situation you outlined, a committee’s safest option would be to issue general election refunds to its original contributors and have the committee of the new presidential candidate solicit its own contributions. The full cost of that solicitation should be paid by the new committee to avoid any type of in-kind contribution from the committee of the former presidential candidate. The other option would be for a committee to seek an advisory opinion from the agency.
Democratic election lawyer Marc Elias doubted that such an advisory opinion would prevail. But it concerns a much smaller pool of money as it is.
And those donors come from Trump strongholds in swing states over the country — like Mount Vernon, Ohio and Greensboro, North Carolina — to West Palm Beach, Los Angeles, and Dallas. It’s not hard to imagine those donors would sign a letter to redirect their donations from a Trump-led campaign to a Pence one if the campaign made the request.
The more intriguing issue is the bigger pool of money raised so far for the primary.
Attorney Charlie Spies of Clark Hill wrote in an email, “Primary election money may be given to the RNC, or to a super PAC, but may not be given to a Pence (or Bannon, etc.) for President committee.”
And there’s the catch. Donald J. Trump For President, Inc. could ship its funds to a super PAC that aligns with Pence or Stephen Bannon, the president’s former chief strategist who is waging war on the GOP establishment with his support for firebrand far-right Republican candidates.
To be sure, sources close to the president say he is still fully committed to seeking a second term. Even an establishment-centric Republican lobbyist who has met with the president multiple times this year told IJR that he was in a meeting with the president a couple of weeks ago in which Trump spoke confidently about his re-election effort.
The committee has spent liberally on consulting, compliance, and digital advertising in 2017, as well as on the campaign rallies the president has headlined this year. Whatever the outcome, those Trump supporters and donors are staying engaged.