Another First for Trump: A Policy Arm Operating Totally in Secret
By Justin Miller | Feb 09, 2017
Donald Trump isn’t the first president to enjoy the support of nonprofit groups that promote his policy agenda, but he may be the first whose outside backers operate entirely in secret.
When Trump allies announced last week the formation of America First Policies, a 501(c)(4) issue group that will be the president’s main outside advocacy vehicle, observers immediately drew comparisons to Organizing for Action, the nonprofit that allies of Barack Obama launched after he won reelection in 2012. But unlike Organizing for Action, which agreed under pressure to publicly disclose its big-money benefactors every quarter, Trump’s America First has given no indication that it intends to disclose who its funders are.
Such political nonprofits are not required by law to disclose their donors, but watchdogs worry that without public reporting, advocacy operations like America First could become dark money slush funds that allow anonymous donors to influence critical policy debates—with the public none the wiser. The group is run by conservative operatives like the Trump campaign’s digital director Brad Parscale and Vice President Mike Pence’s former top advisor Nick Ayers, and will run digital and TV ads to promote such Trump priorities as winning Neil Gorsuch’s confirmation to the Supreme Court, repealing Obamacare, and cracking down on immigration.
“There’s nothing wrong with policy advocacy,” says Meredith McGehee, of the bipartisan campaign-finance reform group Issue One. “The problem here is that you have a group that is directly connected with the president, and it can well be anticipated that the donors who make contributions to this entity will ensure that the president or his aides know exactly what they’ve done. That will buy them both access and influence.”
Moreover, America First won’t be the only top-secret group advocating for Trump. Former House Speaker Newt Gingrich and former New York City Mayor Rudy Guiliani, both prominent supporters of Trump during his campaign, are also leading a nonprofit called the Greater America Alliance that will reportedly advocate for various parts of Trump’s agenda. At the top of the list will be the Gorsuch nomination and Trump’s economic and infrastructure plans. The group plans to spend $80 million on policy fights in 2017 alone, Politico reports. Two GOP operatives who ran the Great America super PAC, which spent about $22 million on behalf of Trump’s presidential campaign, will run the Alliance. And like America First, the Greater America Alliance has announced no plans to disclose its donors.
Yet another group, a 501(c)(4) dubbed the 45 Committee, is investing at least $4 million in ads to ensure that Trump’s cabinet picks are confirmed, according to a Washington Examiner report. The 45 group is also expected to finance attack ads on Democratic senators it deems vulnerable in the 2018 midterm elections. That group is affiliated with a super PAC dubbed Future45, which is financed by conservative mega-donors Sheldon Adelson and the Chicago-based Ricketts family. Together, the two groups spent tens of millions backing Trump in the presidential campaign.
The secrecy surrounding pro-Trump advocacy groups is in line with the president’s own hostility to transparency, says Adam Smith, communications director for the money-in-politics watchdog Every Voice. Smith pointed to Trump’s refusal to disclose all his business ties, release his tax returns, or even publish a list of his campaign bundlers. This culture of secrecy could have real ramifications for pending policy battles on the Hill, says Smith, including the administration’s push for Wall Street deregulation.
“When it comes to the Dodd-Frank fight, when Congress starts introducing bills and these groups start running ads, we deserve to know whether its his Wall Street friends funding them,” Smith says. “If you’re the president of the United States and you have all these ties to Wall Street and rich people, people deserve to know who they are.”