Trump’s dark money gets darker: How campaign finance loopholes help his criminal cases

The Supreme Court’s reactionary rulings have allowed for Trump’s unprecedented assault on U.S. democracy

By Gregg Barak

Contributing Writer

Published June 22, 2024 5:52AM (EDT)

Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Donald Trump (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Presidential races spent $2.4 billion in 2000. By 2020 that number had risen to $6.5 billion.

Not counting the fundraising from candidate-affiliated PACs or joint-fundraising committees, Ballotpedia informs us that through May 2024 Joe Biden raised nearly $190,000,000 and Donald Trump a little over $120,000,000. According to Open Secrets, including the other sources of Biden fundraising, that total comes to $306,014,008. As for Trump, Open Secrets reports that his total comes to $243,952,385. By the time of the fall presidential election these numbers will in all likelihood exceed several billion dollars each.

More generally, political spending on federal elections has ballooned since 2000, whencongressional races spent a combined $2.9 billion. By 2020 that number had risen to $9.9 billion. Federal and state spending on the 2022 midterms were the most expensive in history, topping $16.7 billion to break the previous record of $13.7 billion. ASince the Supreme Court decided Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission in 2010 total super PAC spending has precipitously risen Barred from formally coordinating with candidates, and fueled by dark money donations from deep-pocketed contributors, these PACs informally act as surrogates.

Before Citizens, super PACs spent $63 million to influence federal elections in 2010. Afterwards, the number rose as follows: $345 million in 2014, $822 million in 2018, and $1.3 billion in 2022. 

As Paul Waldman, columnist for The American Prospect, has written globally about campaign finance systems:

Everyone must weigh two competing considerations. The first

         is the desire for elections that retain a reasonable amount of

         integrity, and are conducted in a manner that is, for lack of a

         better term, civilized. And the second is the principle of free

         speech, that a candidate for office should be able to say what he

         wants, as often as he wants, and spend as much as he wants doing

         it, even at the risk of corruption. In most other countries, they’ve 

         decided that the first consideration is more important. In the U.S.,

         [a Supreme Court conservative majority] decided that the second 

            consideration is the one that matters.

Nearly two-thirds of the donations to U.S. Senate candidates in the 2022 midterms came from out of state contributors, reflecting an intense political tribalism in which the control of Congress has usurped the priority of local issues. A Bloomberg News analysis of the Federal Election Committee showed that “Senate candidates got 64.8% of their donations from givers outside their home states from January 2021 through Sept. 30, 2022, up from 53.6% over the same period in the run-up to the 2018 midterms.” During the same period the House campaigns “saw outside money increase to 43.5% of their hauls, up from 36.8%.”

According to Waldman, the “100 largest donors” in the United States “collectively spent 60 percent more than every small donor” defined by those who gave $200 or less combined. Before Citizens, “small donors collectively outspent the 100 largest donors by a margin of more than three to one during the 2010 midterms.” By the 2022 federal midterms, billionaires had provided 15 percent of the funding.

Big money not only talks on television, where it facilitates falsehoods and misrepresentations, but it has also involved billion-dollar advertisement campaign efforts embracing highly targeted audiences and a nearly rule-free digital world employing “grainy black and white” portrayals of candidates with “edgy horror movie soundtracks.” When it came to telling truths, falsehoods, and disinformation during the 2022 midterm elections with respect to the issues of defunding the police and abortion, for example, both parties often omitted opposing candidates’ stated positions.

Republicans have used “a variety of dishonest tactics to create the inaccurate impression that the Democratic candidates they are targeting support defunding police.” This type of deception was made easier by the different meanings given to “defund the police.” Democrats are more about half-truths and distortions that have been misleading. “Many of the Democratic ads accurately describe their Republican targets’ strict anti-abortion positions. But some others employ slippery phrasing and the power of insinuation to promote the impression that certain Republican candidates have taken more aggressive anti-abortion stands than these candidates have.”

Possible Political Reforms Should Trump Lose

If we are to ever have unfettered free and fair elections not dependent primarily on money, money, and more money, then there are several constitutional and legislative reforms that are called for. These reforms include but are not limited to abolishing the Electoral College, amending the constitutional amendment process, expanding the number and establishing term limits for Supreme Court justices, and rejecting the decision of the 2010 Citizens United..

At the same time, we will need to pass federal and state laws to prohibit all private and corporate-funded elections and adopt some type of mandatory system of publicly-funded elections. 

By law these elections should last no longer than 90 days; Thirty to secure a party’s nomination and 60 for the general election. Around the democratic world, elections typically last between two weeks and five months. Unlike in the U.S. where they typically last between 12 and 18 months or longer as when Trump announced his 2024 candidacy in November of 2022.

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Back then, the now-convicted criminal, announced earlier than any other candidate in history to stave off his forthcoming criminal indictments for election interference in 2016 and again in 2020. 

While that ploy failed, Trump has still been able to flip the narrative or invert reality. By falsely claiming that his indictments were all about the “deep state” or Joe Biden’s weaponization of justice to interfere with his running for president in 2024. These lies about our democratic institutions and the rule of law combined with campaign disinformation are at the heart of Trump’s third bid for the presidency. 

However, the day after Trump was criminally convicted on 34 felony counts by a jury of his peers for election interference in 2016, an ABC/IPSOS poll found that among voters who stated that they disliked both of the candidates, 67% said that Trump should withdraw his candidacy. 

Offsetting this good news is the bad news that post-conviction plutocrats are rallying behind Trump. This even smaller demographic cohort has an outsize role to play in the election outcomes. 

Most people refer to plutocrats as the super-rich or in this case as ultra-wealthy Republican donors like Shaun Maguire from Silicon Valley’s Sequoia Capital, Las Vegas casino owner Miriam Adelson, Pershing Square Capital Management hedge fund manager Bill Ackman, fracking pioneer and founder of Continental Resources Harold Hamm, and Blackstone Group CEO Steve Schwarzman.

Fortunately, Trump’s meeting with CEOs from the Business Roundtable last Thursday was a big bust. His disjointed and non-linear conversation promising tax cuts for the wealthy and corporations, more tariffs, and de-regulation was not well received. Nor was his disregard for bringing back more inflation based on these reckless policies in the context of a humming U.S. economy with a massive gross federal debt of $34 trillion.

Not forgetting that Trump’s previous tax cuts for the wealthy added an additional two trillion dollars to that deficit. The largest debt increase of any U.S. president in history.

These are among the reasons that  MSNBC opinion writer and editor Zeeshan Aleem has argued that the best way to keep the convicted felon from the Oval Office this coming January is for the Democrats to craft a better message, out-fundraise, out-organize, and out-mobilize the Republicans. Importantly, the Democrats' message needs to speak to the American people about “kitchen table” issues and to remind them how Biden has delivered and how he has a plan to continue with this agenda if re-elected. They also need to remind the American people not only about how the wannabe dictator under-delivered on his promises as president, but also how he has no plans whatsoever to do anything about improving the lives of ordinary people should he regain control of the White House. 

Last but not least of all, the reactionary nature of the Supreme Court majority buttressed by Trump’s three appointments who have been busy reverting backward and stripping individual rights from the American people should be underscored. As in both the 2023 striking down of the 2003 affirmative race-conscious college admissions programs and the overturning of women’s right to an abortion and reproductive freedom after nearly 50 years.

Should the insurrectionist be returned to the Oval Office in 2025, while the plutocrats are – and the CEOs from the Business Roundtable are probably not  – all in with Trump’s desire to establish an “imperial presidency” as well as his commitment to do many things that would be costly to our economy and destructive to our democratic society. 

These were summarized from Trump’s spring interviews with Time magazine, If He Wins, published April 30th in a Raw Story commentary by the editor of The Editorial Board, John Stoehr:

·  “build migrant detention camps and deploy the US military, both at the border and inland.”

·  “let red states monitor women’s pregnancies and prosecute those who violate abortion bans.”

·  “withhold funds appropriated by Congress.”

·  “fire a US Attorney who doesn’t carry out his order to prosecute someone.”

·  “[give] pardons for every one of his supporters accused of attacking the U.S. Capitol on Jan.    6, 2021, more than 800 of whom have pleaded guilty or been convicted by a jury."

·  “might not come to the aid of an attacked ally in Europe or Asia if he felt that country wasn’t paying enough for its own defense."

·  “gut the US civil service.”

·  “deploy the National Guard to American cities as he sees fit.”

·  “close the White House pandemic-preparedness office.”

·  “Staff his administration with acolytes who back his false assertion that the 2020 election was stolen.”

Unfortunately, overcoming the identity crises of Trump’s supporters rooted in their economic anxiety as well as in the racial and gender resentment of his voters who are primarily white, not college educated, evangelical and middle-class is exceedingly difficult. Also, because they ascribe to the false belief that the 2020 election was stolen and that Trump is a persecuted victim rather than a convicted felon. 

In a twisted way, it is like Trump represents the “red badge of courage” to his followers. Or as Salon’s Amanda Marcotte writes, “This is not really about convincing anyone” that Trump or his villainous allies “are innocent.” Rather, “it’s about celebrating their criminality” for being righteous outlaws or patriotic revolutionaries. 

Basically, we’re talking about justifying criminal means for obtaining political ends by using and abusing governmental power and by exploiting those allegedly forsaken “real” Americans. As a consequence, the Trumpian mindset makes it even harder to persuade Trumpists with factual realities as contrasted with fictional irrealities or distorted varieties of truth-telling. Nothing exemplifies this more than the mythical battle between the fictional Biden “crime family” versus Trump’s nonfictional criminal organization. To be more explicit, we are actually talking about a criminal enterprise and gangster politicians using as little violence and as much intimidation as necessary to accomplish their objectives.

For example, one month after the premiere of “The Apprentice,” a film about Trump in the 1980s, was well-received at the Cannes Film Festival, it is still seeking a distributor in the United States even though globally it is being viewed by audiences in Canada, Japan, Germany, France, and so on. This is because the Trump troops have been calling the film “pure fiction” and have been threatening to “file a lawsuit against any major studio or streaming service “to address the blatantly false assertions from these pretend filmmakers.”

As Michelle Goldberg has written in The New York Times, “the possibility that American audiences won’t be able to see” the film “isn’t just frustrating,” it also “suggests that Trump and his supporters have already intimidated some media companies, which seem to be pre-emptively capitulating to him.” This is just a preview of the kind of censorship that might come under a Trump regime.

Similarly, the National Review, without referring to any criminal behavior, has discussed those realities about how totally “unfit Trump is for office.” For example, Trump has been suffering from dementia according to numerous psychiatrists including Dr. Lance Dodes, a supervising analyst emeritus of the Boston Psychoanalytic Society and Institute and retired Harvard Medical School professor.  

 Sadly, for the most part, the mainstream media as well as Fox and Sinclair led by the Wall Street Journal have also been giving the former president a free pass on these issues as they prefer to dwell instead on the old age of a highly competent – whether you agree or not with his policies – President Biden.   

Boss Trump and his Criminal Enterprise Campaigning Against the Rule of Law

Trump’s pre-sentencing interview on June 10th with the New York probation department occurred “virtually from Mar-a-Lago, instead of in-person at the courthouse,” where he was accompanied by his defense attorney. It only lasted 30 minutes when it could have lasted a few hours. These highly irregular practices once again reflect the privileged treatment that Trump has received throughout his lifetime of lawlessness and unaccountability. And even now after becoming a convicted felon facing three other criminal indictments, he’s still being treated like a person who is above the law. Last Thursday, Trump came to the Capitol for the first time since January 6 to meet with Republican congresspeople who all bent the knee and kissed the ring or cheek of the Insurrectionist-in-chief.

All of this has been made worse because of our inadequate and flawed campaign laws. These have allowed Boss Trump’s fundraising to spend an estimated $100 million on his legal defenses. Otherwise, Trump may have had to drop out of the presidential race, admit to his ubiquitous lawlessness, cut several sentencing deals and plead guilty to many, if not, all of his criminal charges.

Instead, running for the 2024 presidency while delaying his criminal trials from coming to fruition before the fall election – with the duplicity of the Supreme Court and others like federal judge Aileen Cannon – has already trumped any kind of bargain-justice he would have received as a way of keeping his derriere out of prison. 

And if elected in 2024, not only would the first Criminal-in-Chief be able to skate on his remaining 44 federal felony counts, but there is also a good chance that the 47th president would find a way to escape accountability for his remaining 10 felony RICO counts, including that of criminal conspiracy to interfere with the Georgia presidential election in 2020. 

The current campaign laws and their lack of enforcement have also enabled the former president to expand the operation of the Trump Organization and its various criminal enterprises that now include the former Republican Party and the corrupt majority of the Supreme Court who are both eagerly obstructing and weaponizing justice on behalf of Trump’s organized criminality.

If this were not enough, the Trump team has also found a way to circumvent federal campaign laws. According to Marc Caputo writing for The Bulwark, Trump is outsourcing his ground game. The campaign will spend at least $100 million on it and will pay at least 3,000 canvassers to get out the vote. This will all “be financed with unlimited corporate dollars and untraceable dark money from political nonprofits that are otherwise off-limits to a federal campaign.”

Presently, the wannabe dictator and presumptive GOP nominee is running his third campaign for the nation’s most powerful office on a combination of imaginary stolen elections and “rigged” criminal indictments, judicial prosecutions, and jury convictions. Not to mention his tangible promises of vengeance and retribution against anyone or any entity that opposes him.

In a nutshell, the 2024 Trump campaign can be reduced to little more than the politics of revenge where “Republican elected officials, reactionary intellectuals, and rightwing activists demand retaliation – against the system, the Libs, the Left” and “the array of ‘Un-American’ forces they define as the enemy within.” All of which reflects the extent to which Trump has already normalized autocracy and subjugated the Republican Party to ritualistic control and humiliation.

What We Could Have for the Better, Keeping What We Already Have, or What We Could Have for the Worst 

Most, if not all, of the proposed legal changes mentioned so far in this essay seem like “pipe dreams” not because they are unreasonable or impractical but simply because they threaten the interests of powerful politicians on both sides of the political aisle. 

As Matt Lewis has explained in Filthy Rich Politicians, Americans could achieve political accountability from their elected leaders by way of common sense reforms. Unfortunately, many of the “ruling-class elites'' from both parties “have a vested interest in rejecting” these reforms because as the richer candidates get re-elected the richer they become and the longer they stay in office. 

And the longer they stay in the office the more powerful they become. One way to prevent this vicious cycle from recurring would be to establish congressional term limits in both the House and the Senate.

As I’ve argued in much greater depth in my second Trump book published two months ago,in combination these proposed legal changes and reforms would enable a new and improved multiculturally inclusive constitutional democracy directly representative of the majority of the American people.

Should Biden be re-elected this fall and without these necessary changes, then we will remain a hyperpartisan and polarized liberal democracy characterized by the old tyranny of a minority that most recently has been lawfully captured by a corrupt oligarchy courteous of Citizens United. On the other hand, should the former president and convicted felon armed with his puffed up criminal enterprise be returned to the White House, then we can expect efforts to establish a tyranny of an illiberal democracy at best or a tyranny of an authoritarian autocracy at worst. Either way, we are talking about the possibility of the United States becoming a criminal state not unlike Russia or Hungary notwithstanding America’s very large and robust political economy of capitalism.

By Gregg Barak

Gregg Barak is an emeritus professor of criminology and criminal justice at Eastern Michigan University and the author of several books on the crimes of the powerful, including Criminology on Trump (2022) and its 2024 sequel, Indicting the 45th President: Boss Trump, the GOP, and What We Can Do About the Threat to American Democracy.



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