How dark money fueled the Jan. 6 insurrection — and why we can't find it

Shadowy "war games" for what happened on Jan. 6 began months earlier — but we still don't know who paid for them

Published June 6, 2022 6:30AM (EDT)

Donald Trump and Jeffrey Clark (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump and Jeffrey Clark (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

In September 2020, a dark-money group called the Rule of Law Defense Fund convened a meeting in Atlanta of staffers from the fund's corporate sibling, the Republican Attorneys General Association (RAGA). Their purpose was to run "war games," to be ready in the event Donald Trump lost reelection in November. A little over three months later, the same group would help to assemble the mob before the White House on Jan. 6, 2021.

This wasn't an isolated incident. Shadowy preparations like these began long before the violence of Jan. 6. As the House Select Committee investigating those events begins hearings this week, we may learn much more about those preparations and the people behind them. 

RELATED: The Jan. 6 committee hearings are finally here — and Republicans are running scared

But it will be difficult to see the full picture, because much of the preparation is shrouded in dark-money secrecy, with funds channeled through front groups that don't have to disclose who controls them. 

For now, we're left with mysteries, like Georgia. It was Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger whom Trump personally pressured to "find" the 11,779 votes necessary to flip the state in Trump's favor. Georgia was ground zero for some of Trump's lawyers' most desperate and ridiculous legal claims about the election results — like the "Kraken" suit alleging a role by the deceased Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chávez in rigging Dominion voting machines. Georgia is where the Rule of Law Defense Fund hatched its scheme. Georgia also saw efforts to create an alternative slate of Trump electors.

Then came the attempt to wield the power of the Justice Department to attack Georgia's election results. For this mission, someone cranked up Jeffrey Clark, a relative unknown who was acting chief of the Department's Civil Division as a result of pre-election DOJ vacancies. Clark prepared a draft letter alleging, falsely, that the department was investigating accusations of voter fraud in Georgia. Of course, we don't know if Clark actually wrote that letter himself; he had no expertise in this area, and evidence suggests the White House communications office was involved. Either way, on New Year's Eve 2020, Trump tried to install Clark as acting attorney general, until then-acting Attorney General Jeffrey Rosen and his deputies threatened mass resignation.

As the Georgia maneuvers foundered, the effort shifted to Washington. The Rule of Law Defense Fund — the same group convened in Atlanta months earlier — made robocalls hours before Jan. 6 urging followers to "march to the Capitol building and call on Congress to stop the steal." President Trump whipped up insurrectionists at the rally and sent them down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Capitol. Violence ensued. 

In the aftermath, many of these actors were quick to close ranks. RAGA's leader, Alabama Attorney General Steve Marshall, claims to have had no knowledge of the robocall, but he also refuses — to this day — to admit that Joe Biden is the "duly elected and lawfully serving" president of the United States. At the end of the Trump administration, Clark landed a job at a right-wing dark money group.

Want a daily wrap-up of all the news and commentary Salon has to offer? Subscribe to our morning newsletter, Crash Course.

Given the anonymity dark money affords, we likely cannot connect all the dots between these dark-money groups, Trump's Georgia obsession and the Jan. 6 riots. We don't know who paid for the planning of the Rule of Law Defense Fund's "war games"; we don't know how Jeffrey Clark nearly vaulted into the attorney general's office to attack Georgia's election results, where his letter came from or who paid his salary when he was gone; we don't know who was behind groups like Women for America First, which footed much of the bill for the Jan. 6 rally. 

We don't know who was behind secret pro-Trump "war games" or how Jeffrey Clark nearly vaulted into the attorney general's office or who was behind the groups that paid for the Jan. 6 rally.

Successful investigations often "follow the money." But when the money flows through anonymizing channels, investigators hit impenetrable dead ends. The select committee must rely instead on texts, emails, testimony and other documents to make its case. It doesn't have to be this way. Our political system doesn't need to aid and abet the destruction of our democracy.

For starters, we could enforce the rules on the books. Groups like the Rule of Law Defense Fund and Women for America First are 501(c)(4) nonprofit organizations. As such, they do not have to disclose their donors, but they are also not allowed to spend more than half their funds on political activity. Is anyone checking compliance with those rules? 

Spending reports from 501(c)(4) groups to the IRS can differ markedly from what they report to the Federal Elections Commission. Filing conflicting reports to two federal agencies meets the prima facie definition of a criminal false statement. There is adequate predication for the Treasury Department, the FEC and the Department of Justice to take a look. Have they?

Although dark-money groups can hide their influence apparatus from the IRS and the public, nothing says that grand juries can't get access to that information. In the Watergate investigation, courts decided that even executive privilege had to yield to grand jury investigative subpoenas. But investigators won't get what they don't ask for — or don't subpoena. 

The strongest solution is to require disclosure of who spends to influence our politics. My DISCLOSE Act would require groups that spend money in elections — including super PACs and 501(c)(4) dark-money groups — to disclose donors who gave $10,000 or more during an election cycle. Pass this law and the American people might find out who funded the Jan. 6 insurrection.

The dark channels of influence that have corrupted our politics for years were used to plan and execute the Jan. 6 coup attempt. The American people ought to know who the planners are and what they wanted — and we ought to help them find out.

Read more on the Jan. 6 House committee and its upcoming hearings:

By Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

Sheldon Whitehouse is a Democratic U.S. senator from Rhode Island.

MORE FROM Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Commentary Dark Money Department Of Justice Donald Trump Insurrection Jan. 6 Committee Jeffrey Clark