A missive arrived Monday from the outer reaches of the Trump Expanded Universe heralding the formation of “Make America Great Again, Again!,” a new political action committee “approved” by former President Trump. In reality, MAGAA is simply a rebrand for MAGA Action, the super PAC helmed by former Trump adviser Corey Lewandowski until he was jettisoned from Trump’s orbit last week after a donor accused him of sexual harassment. This particular universe is used to such scandal-based reshuffling.
Another tidbit from reality: Trump very much seems like he is running for president in 2024, which according to campaign finance law should prohibit him from coordinating with super PACs like MAGAA, or his leadership PAC Save America, which together brought in north of $80 million in the first half of this year. Trump is able to coordinate with those PACs, though — and use their money to finance his travel, his campaign-style rallies, his God knows what else — because he hasn’t yet officially declared his candidacy. The former president is then, in essence, running what appears to be a shadow campaign designed to skirt campaign finance regulations while holding the still-distant race for the Republican nomination hostage.
In other words, Trump is back in the spotlight, and back to his old tricks.
“He’s in this unique situation where he is trying to exert influence in the political arena, trying to raise money in advance for a race, and trying to freeze out other candidates more than three years out,” says Noah Bookbinder, president of the Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “He’s trying to get all those benefits of being in the race while also getting the benefits of not being in the race, and you could certainly imagine that he will try for the next year-plus to have his cake and eat it, too.”
The Washington Post on Monday pulled back the curtain on this early “wink-and-nod” campaign strategy Trump’s advisers convinced him to adopt after he raised the prospect of declaring his candidacy following the withdrawal from Afghanistan. He was told it would be best to hold off announcing because, A) He doesn’t want his candidacy blamed for a poor Republican showing in the 2022 midterms, and B) All of the aforementioned financial activity that could help Trump both personally and presidentially in ways that might not be possible — or would at least be more difficult — were he to declare himself a candidate.
Trump agreed, and it appears he will continue to say he’s running for president without actually saying he’s running for president (and in some cases, actually saying it). The Post reported that of 13 current and former advisers surveyed, 10 said they believed he will run in 2024, and that Trump has been regularly telling people, “I’m running,” another, uhh, pretty solid indication that he’s planning to run. So is the fact that Rolling Stone reported in July that Trump had spent the spring telling his friends he was running. So is the fact that Save America PAC is hiring people with ties to Iowa. So is the fact that Trump is holding campaign-style rallies again, including one this Saturday in — you guessed it — Iowa. So is the fact that late last month he said only a “bad call from a doctor” would keep him from running. So is the fact that a few weeks earlier he explicitly told Fox News that he can’t announce anything because “campaign finance laws are extremely complicated and unbelievably stupid,” adding only that people “are going to be happy.”
As long as Trump doesn’t explicitly announce he’s running for president, he can essentially raise as much money as he wants from whomever he wants, and spend it unfettered by the restrictions or transparency requirements imposed upon actual candidates. “Right now he’s just a citizen, a pre-declared person,” says Nick Penniman, CEO of the political reform group Issue One. “He is a free agent. He can do whatever he wants in the same way that any CEO could, or a minister, or whoever. He can show up for whatever he wants without stumbling across any kind of campaign finance laws.”
It’s worth mentioning that what Trump is doing here is nothing new. Penniman notes how Jeb Bush raised tens of millions of dollars for an allied super PAC before officially declaring his candidacy in 2015. Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, cites how Marco Rubio went on a book tour through early primary states before declaring his candidacy the same year. “The problem is the lack of contribution limits and the lack of a ban on corporate and union money,” Holman says of the financial leeway potential candidates have before they declare. “They can accept unlimited funds for their super PACs or any electioneering nonprofit group that they’ve set up. They can accept corporate money to fly out on a book tour that’s really nothing more than a campaign rally.”
“The way to look at the super PAC is as a giant slush fund for Trump to do whatever he wants with,” adds Fred Wertheimer of the reform nonprofit Democracy 21, who points to Trump’s own efforts to collect donations from foreign individuals in 2016 as an example of how easy it is to violate campaign finance law with little to no consequences. “Unlimited secret money is the most dangerous money in American politics.”
The ability to skirt campaign finance law, which holds even that those “testing the waters” of a run for office subject themselves to restrictions, was enabled largely by the man to whom much of democracy’s degradation can be traced: Mitch McConnell. The Senate minority leader has fought campaign finance reform for years. His biggest blow came in 2008, when he was able to turn the Federal Election Commission against itself by installing Don McGahn as a commissioner. “McConnell realized that he couldn’t convince Congress to repeal campaign finance laws, and he certainly couldn’t get the public to support repealing the campaign finance laws, but what he could do was appoint people to the Federal Election Commission who don’t believe in the campaign finance laws,” Holman explains.
McGahn, who would later serve as the White House lawyer under Trump, sabotaged the commission from the inside by rallying his fellow Republican commissioners to oppose anything resembling real regulation. This paved the way for pre-campaign financial free-for-alls. Bush, Rubio, and others were happy to take advantage of an FEC that wasn’t able to enforce its own laws, but there are few entities in the history of humankind who are more keen to exploit lax financial oversight than Donald Trump.
It’s unclear exactly if and to what extent Trump will use this potential pre-campaign campaign to enrich himself personally. It might not differ too much from how he enriched himself when he was a declared candidate, or when he was a sitting president. He has at every step found ways to funnel money into his own pockets, toeing the line of what’s legal and bulldozing past any ethical considerations. The lack of contribution restrictions, disclosure requirements, and oversight that access to PACs affords him certainly figures to at least make it easier, though. “The opportunity for self-dealing with leadership PACs is really extraordinary,” Penniman says. “[They] are pretty much used for lifestyle. If, for instance, Trump were to hold some kind of an event at Mar-a-Lago, he could ‘reimburse’ that event out of his leadership PAC. This could very well end up just being a way for him to inject money into Trump, Inc.”
The landscape may also be ripe for Trump to cash in because of the nation’s collective inability to accept that despite losing in 2020, he is very much poised to reclaim his place at the forefront of American politics. “I think both politicians and people are sort of relying on a belief that Donald Trump is gone from the political scene and is not going to run again, and so accountability and dwelling on the abuses of the Trump era is not necessary,” Bookbinder says. “Republicans can support his election claims and say that it’s not that serious because he’s gone. So there are all these kinds of things happening based on this false idea that he’s gone off the landscape.”
His burgeoning shadow campaign, complete with media appearances and rallies and public displays of dominance over his competitors, is the loudest siren yet that Trump is very much not gone, and neither is his unfathomably brazen corruption. “All of that crossing of lines between politics, business, and public life is going to come roaring back like acne,” says Penniman. “All this stuff that we just cringed at is just going to be happening again.”