Donald Trump’s Inauguration Day swag store is now open for business. In exchange for a contribution to the president’s 2020 reelection campaign, donors can buy Trump commemorative plates ($55), “golf tool-kits” bearing the president’s name and inaugural seal ($35), and “American Creed” T-shirts ($25). “Americanism, not globalism, will be our credo,” the shirts read.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about presidential candidates selling apparel or merchandise to raise money for their campaigns. What is unusual is starting that campaign before your first month in office is up. Trump’s team is fundraising earlier than any other president in modern American history. And Trump’s fans are opening their wallets: Since the election, donors have already given more than $7 million to Trump’s campaign committee, according to the most recent federal campaign disclosures on January 31.
“A newly elected president has never raised money right out of the box like this,” said Bob Biersack, who served on the nonpartisan staff of the Federal Elections Commission for nearly 30 years. “They’ve always taken a year, and usually two, before they start their reelection campaign activities.”
Indeed, President Obama didn’t begin his campaign fundraising until 18 months before the 2012 election. President George W. Bush was criticized for starting his reelection fundraising only 12 months before the 2004 election, according to Craig Holman, legal counsel at the campaign finance watchdog Public Citizen.
Conspiracy theorists suggest there’s something nefarious lurking behind Trump’s quick fundraising push — alleging that Trump is trying to make it illegal for nonprofits to criticize him (a myth Snopes debunked) or trying to enrich himself. But Biersack says Trump’s early burst of fundraising is almost certainly a reflection of something much more prosaic — the president’s alienation from the rest of his party.
When presidents set out to raise money right after they’re elected, they’re not usually trying to benefit their own campaigns. Instead, they’re working on behalf of their party. Usually Republicans running for Congress and for governor in 2018 would be counting on the newly inaugurated president to help them rake in big donations — or at least not compete with them for donors. But Trump isn’t operating that way.
“Normally the president is the big fish in the pond, and he doesn’t want to get in the way of everybody else,” Biersack said. “But Trump has never cared much about the Republican Party.”
A new era of online fundraising extends to the never-ending campaign
Biersack pointed to two long-running trends that he thinks are more likely to account for team Trump’s out-of-the-gate fundraising — one technological and one political.
The way campaigns are able to raise money has dramatically transformed over the past 20 years. The internet has exploded the possibilities for grassroots donation — a phenomenon already evident during Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic primary run, and one Trump exploited over the course of his presidential run. Bernie Sanders, too, benefited from the new era of online fundraising.
“His supporters are fired up and ready to go — and to raise this kind of money now via donations on the web is cheap and easy,” Biersack says. “It basically costs the campaign nothing to do, so they probably said, ‘Why not?’”
In other words, the most obvious explanation for why Trump is already fundraising is because he can. Presidents in the 1990s didn’t have the benefit of the online fundraising juggernauts that Trump does.
Still, online fundraising didn’t develop out of nowhere in the past year. Barack Obama also used online donors to raise tens of millions of dollars, though he didn’t begin fundraising for his reelection bid until much later in his term.
The other reason Trump is free to break with precedent, Biersack suggests, is that other presidents focused more on helping other candidates from their party.
“When you’re the president, the money just comes to you. But you don’t want to get in the way of the national party; you don’t want to inhibit the fundraising ability of congressional campaigns — there are lots of other needs for those funds,” Biersack says. “You want to raise money for them; you don’t want to raise money for yourself if you don’t need it yet.”
Trump, the consummate outsider who didn’t become a Republican until right before he ran for president, is different.
“His connection to the party is pretty casual — one of convenience but not necessarily commitment,” Biersack says. “Normally, the president’s goal is to help everybody around you because you can do that. But Trump doesn’t care about that.”
Jane Calderwood, who served for close to a decade as chief of staff for former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), said Republicans in Congress will be furious if Trump continues to fundraise for himself without redirecting his efforts to help them.
“They’re counting on him — it’s your party, you’re the leader, and fundraising for the rest of it is normally part of your gig,” Calderwood says. “Even Obama in his last term was raising money like a fiend for House and Senate Democrats. If [Trump] raises a bunch of money for himself and doesn’t give them any, they’re going to be beside themselves.”
There’s nothing necessarily “suspicious” about Trump’s early small-donor fundraising — at least not yet
Still, Trump’s decision to start soliciting donations — one fundraising email on February 17 came with a “media accountability survey” — stoked fears among his critics that he had a master plan. It’s highly unlikely that Trump’s fundraising is meant to undermine democracy. It’s slightly more likely that some of the money he raises will eventually trickle back to his own businesses.
In a widely shared Medium post titled “Trial Balloon for a Coup,” Yonatan Zunger interpreted news of Trump’s early fundraising to mean that he was creating a vehicle for bribery.
“Given that a sizable fraction of the campaign funds from the previous cycle were paid directly to the Trump organization in exchange for building leases, etc., at inflated rates, you can assume that those campaign coffers are a mechanism by which US nationals can easily give cash bribes directly to Trump,” Zunger wrote.
Trump’s business ties do create unprecedented opportunities for corruption. But Biersack argues that campaign fundraising doesn’t appear to be one of them.
Trump’s campaign did not pay back his businesses (for using Trump Tower office space, for instance) at “inflated rates” — that would have been a violation of the law. Trump still lost money on his campaign: He spent $60 million of his own money, far more than the $15 million the campaign paid to the Trump Organization.
And while part of Trump’s personal campaign expenditures came in the form of a $50 million loan to his own campaign, that money is gone; although he called it a loan, it was basically a gift. It would be illegal for Trump to use campaign contributions to pay this initial debt, according to Biersack.
Biersack does acknowledge that there’s one potential loophole Trump could exploit. The president’s campaign staffers could continue spending millions at Trump Organization businesses, as long as the transactions could be explained to the Federal Election Commission as necessary for some sort of campaign activity.
That’s somewhat tough to envision. “It’s hard for me to picture that this amount of money, even a few million dollars a year, would make such a significance in the scale of Trump’s opportunities to generate revenue as president,” Biersack said. “But if he raises a ton of money and spends it frivolously on his own companies, it would be a way for him to get around that loophole.”
We have no evidence that such a push is underway, according to Biersack. But it’s not as if Trump’s other decisions — including doubling the membership fee for Mar-a-Lago and his refusal to make his business holdings clear — provide much reassurance.