At Least 4 SuperPACs Are Jostling For Donald Trump's Seal Of Approval

Jun 4, 2016
Originally published on June 6, 2016 3:41 pm

Donald Trump's contempt for superPACs is well documented. All through the primary campaign, he said the political groups, which take unregulated contributions, give million-dollar donors the leverage to control politicians.

"We have to do something about superPACs. Because superPACs are now running the country," Trump told students last January at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va. "Gotta get rid of superPACs. Really, really, really bad."

Last year, Trump had his lawyer disavow pro-Trump superPACs. And as of the most recent disclosure filings, Trump has paid roughly 75 percent of his campaign's $59 million budget.

Now, at least four superPACs are competing to be Donald Trump's favored vehicle for a large portion of the estimated $1 billion that the general election campaign could cost. That's left major Republican donors confused at a time when Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign has set up a sophisticated fundraising machine.

Rebuilding America Now was launched last week by real estate investor Tom Barrack, a long-time friend of Trump. Barrack told CNN that it already has pledges for $32 million.

The friendship may give Barrack an edge in the battle for approval. On CNN Money last month, he said of Trump, "As big a personality as he is, his heart really sits in the shoes of the average guy."

At a second superPAC, Great America PAC, co-chair Eric Beach said, "We know who the Trump donors/supporters are, and our net is very wide, it's cast very wide."

Great America PAC was created last year as Trumpac, but changed its name to comply with a rule preventing outside groups from using candidates' names.

The superPAC says it has begun to enlist millionaire donors. It launches a series of fundraising events next week. And as evidence of its political talent, Beach name-checked their lead strategist, veteran Republican consultant Ed Rollins:

"I don't think that there's confusion in the marketplace," he told NPR. "I think people are aware of who we are. I think we have one of the top strategists in the country, in Ed Rollins. And we have a nice head start."

Doug Watts, a former Ben Carson adviser, is director of yet-another superPAC, the Committee for American Sovereignty. Watts emphasized that his group will be donor-friendly. "They'll be able to see what the advertisements are," he said in an interview. "They'll be able to have feedback. They'll feel good about our Hispanic outreach program."

Watts said Trump needs to let donors know his preferred superPAC. "Well, right now he hasn't indicated he likes any of them," he said. "And so, you know that's a little bit of a handicap."

A fourth superPAC is in its early stages, under the guiding hand of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson, one of the Republican Party's most generous givers.

The Trump campaign didn't answer NPR's requests for comment.

By law, superPACs are independent of the candidates they support. Legal firewalls limit coordination. At the same time, donors don't want to waste their contributions. They expect a signal of where to send money for the greatest impact, and the most influence.

So Trump needs to perform a little ritual of modern politics: the blessing of the superPAC.

"Normally the way it works, the candidate will go to a potential large donor, and ask for the amount of money they are legally allowed to give to the formal campaign," said Vin Weber, a lobbyist, Republican adviser and former congressman.

That amount is $5,400; for a big donor, more a gesture than a meaningful contribution. For the candidate, Weber said it's a set-up for the real ask: "Please direct any additional money you want to give toward this superPAC."

That's all it usually takes to start spreading the word to major donors. But for Trump – who even writes his own tweets – having an allied but independent superPAC might be tricky.

"He is very hands-on, runs his own campaign, makes his own decisions," Weber said. "He's going to end up seeing things done on his behalf, by people that are totally out of his control."

For now, some million-dollar donors are waiting for a sign from Trump Tower.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Trump for president effort is what might politely be called frugal, but the push from here to November's expected to cost at least a billion dollars. The easiest way to raise that kind of money is one that Mr. Trump has so far scorned - super PACs. Here's NPR's Peter Overby.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Super PACs have no contribution limits, so they're perfect for million-dollar donors. The problem is Donald Trump hates them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: We have to do something about super PACs because super PACs now are running the country.

OVERBY: This is Trump last January at Liberty University in Virginia.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TRUMP: Got to get rid of super PACs really, really, really bad.

OVERBY: He even had his lawyer tell pro-Trump super PACs to get lost. For his primary campaign, Trump himself paid roughly 75 percent of the tab. Now, though, super PAC-level money is needed. At Least four super PACs are competing to be the one favored by the Trump campaign. Just this week, real estate investor Tom Barrack launched Rebuilding America Now. Barrack has an edge in the battle for approval. He and Trump are longtime friends. On CNN Money last month, Barrack described Trump this way.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TOM BARRACK: As big a personality as he is, his heart really sits in the shoes of the average guy.

OVERBY: Barrack told CNN the super PAC already has pledges for $32 million. Then there's the Great America PAC. Eric Beach is one of its co-chairs.

ERIC BEACH: We know who the Trump donors/supporters are and our message is very wide. It's cast very wide.

OVERBY: As evidence of the PAC's political talent, Beach name-checked their lead strategist, veteran Republican consultant Ed Rollins.

BEACH: And I don't think that there is confusion in the marketplace. I think people are aware of who we are. I think we have one of the top strategists in the country in Ed Rollins. And, you know, we have a nice head start.

OVERBY: Great America PAC launches a series of fundraising events next week. At the Committee for American Sovereignty, director Doug Watts said the donors want clarity from Trump.

DOUG WATTS: Well, right now he hasn't indicated he likes any of them (laughter). And so, you know, that's a little bit of a handicap.

OVERBY: Watts said his super PAC is donor-friendly.

WATTS: They'll be able to see what the advertisements are. They'll be able to have feedback. They'll feel good about our Hispanic outreach program.

OVERBY: And a fourth super PAC is in its early stages under the guiding hand of casino magnate Sheldon Adelson. Legally speaking, these super PACs are independent of the Trump campaign. Donors need a signal of where to send money for the greatest impact and the most influence. So Trump needs to perform a little ritual of modern politics - the blessing of the super PAC. Our guide here is lobbyist Republican adviser and former Congressman Vin Weber.

VIN WEBER: Normally, the way it works, the candidate will go to a potential large donor and ask for the amount of money that they are legally allowed to give to the formal campaign.

OVERBY: That's $5,400, just a setup for the real ask.

WEBER: And please direct any additional money you want to give toward this super PAC.

OVERBY: That's all it takes to start spreading the word so the money can flow. But having an allied super PAC might be tricky for a candidate who even writes his own tweets.

WEBER: He is very hands-on, runs his own operation, makes his own decisions.

OVERBY: Weber said it may be a rough transition.

WEBER: He's going to end up seeing things done on his behalf by people that are totally out of his control.

OVERBY: The Trump campaign didn't respond to NPR's request for comment. For now, some million-dollar donors are waiting for a sign from Trump Tower. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.