The part about the Donald Trump era that I’ll never understand is the ease with which he separates his own supporters from their money. And is enabled by fellow Republicans who know better.
These are everyday supporters — like the Woodinville babysitter who responded to Trump’s appeals for an “Official Election Defense Fund” in the charged weeks after the 2020 vote by sending twelve separate donations totaling $522.
Or the cashier in Renton who gave $287. The school bus driver from Kitsap County who donated $300, the custodian in Port Orchard who gave $85 or the Costco clerk in Everett who plunked down a hefty $860.
These contributors are just a few on the 45,000-long list of Washington state residents who responded to Trump’s calls. They gave more than $2.7 million from our state, between Nov. 3, 2020 and Dec. 31, 2020, according to Federal Election Commission records.
It was a highly unusual post-election fundraising drive that the then-president fueled by sending out a dozen or more emails a day, declaring that he had been cheated.
“I am calling on YOU to step up and contribute to our Official Election Defense Fund so that we can DEFEND the Election and finish the fight,” one such email, on Nov. 14th, 2020, read.
Now, due to the investigation of the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol, we know that Trump’s own inner circle knew there was no evidence of fraud. His attorney general, under oath, called the idea the election was stolen “bullshit.”
What we also know about this Official Election Defense Fund: It officially didn’t exist.
“I don’t believe there is actually a fund called the Election Defense Fund,” a Trump campaign staffer admitted to the House’s Jan. 6 committee, in testimony played on Monday.
“It’s a scam folks,” U.S. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois, summed up after the hearing. “And MAGA Inc. is laughing at you.”
According to the committee, millions of supposed election defense dollars were instead spent on Trump-affiliated companies, events and stays at his own hotels and the foundations of his aides and friends.
“It’s clear that he intentionally misled his donors, asked them to donate to a fund that didn’t exist and used the money raised for something other than what he said,” said Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., who is on the committee.
The victims, to the tune of millions of dollars, are for the most part retirees and working people — people the GOP should be advocating for, not allowing a charlatan to exploit.
Now it’s possible that these donors don’t care that Trump was lying, either about the election or how the money would be used, so they’re not technically victims at all. As he has noted, he could shoot someone dead in broad daylight and his base wouldn’t doubt his innocence.
But, as the New York Times reported last year, his campaign also has ended up refunding about 10% of its donations, after it got complaints. That’s five times the normal campaign refund rate.
I spoke to one of these donors last year, a 76-year-old retiree in southwest Washington. She gave Trump more than $1,000 in increments starting right after the 2020 election, according to FEC records. She said she was upset about the election, but had only intended to give $50. (She apparently didn’t notice some checked boxes that doubled the contribution and made it recurring.)
When she saw her bank account being depleted, she felt mortified that she had been “had.” She didn’t want me to print her name — too embarrassing, she said. I can understand that, so I didn’t.
When I called back this week, she reported that her daughter had gotten her a refund. (FEC records show a partial refund.) But at the end of our conversation, even with the news that the Election Defense Fund she thought she was giving to had been a ploy, she said it didn’t matter. She was still a Trump fan.
“I don’t blame Trump,” she said. His team or some vendor was “probably disloyal to him. Everybody is disloyal to him. He’s doing the best he can, with everybody fighting against him.”
“I’d vote for him again, you bet,” she said.
I now think this whole episode may be so far beyond politics that it’s out of my skill set to analyze. Maybe it’s a criminal or civil issue, best left to the courts. Or maybe it requires some sort of social psychology analysis. Is there a co-dependency dynamic at work? The madness of crowds? I don’t know. As I admitted in the first sentence of this column: I simply don’t get it.
Why do people keep giving this man money?
Nobody knows yet how or when the Trump story will end. With a presidential comeback possible, his place in political history remains a question mark. But damned if he isn’t among the best con men who ever lived.