The House Jan. 6 committee made its clearest attempt yet at Monday’s hearing to establish potential criminal liability by people in former President Trump’s inner circle.
Driving the news: Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.) and Amanda Wick, the committee’s chief investigative counsel, zeroed in on what the Trump campaign’s fundraising emails described as its “Official Election Defense Fund.”
- Those emails were central to a Trump fundraising operation that brought in about $250 million after the 2020 election, in part by promising the money would fund legal challenges and other efforts to overturn the election.
- In reality, the committee alleged, millions of dollars were funneled to vehicles like Save America — a leadership PAC set up by Trump after the election — and other political and advocacy groups with ties to top Trump aides.
What they’re saying: “The select committee discovered no such fund existed,” Wick revealed in a pre-recorded video, citing taped depositions with two Trump campaign staffers.
- “Not only was there the ‘Big Lie,’ there was the Big Ripoff,'” Lofgren said.
- “It’s clear that [Trump] 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,” she added in comments after the hearing.
Why it matters: Legal experts say this line of inquiry is a clear effort to show that the Trump campaign and its allies may have used fraudulent tactics to raise money in the months after the 2020 election, when many top officials privately knew their claims of voter fraud were false.
- “This is an allegation of textbook wire fraud,” Randall Eliason, a former federal prosecutor and white-collar crime professor at George Washington University, said of Lofgren’s comments.
Between the lines: Lofgren did not outright allege criminal activity at Monday’s hearing, saying “it’s for someone else to decide whether that’s criminal or not.”
- But Attorney General Merrick Garland made clear shortly after that the Justice Department is keeping a close eye on revelations from the hearings.
- “I am watching and I will be watching all the hearings,” Garland told reporters, “And I can assure you that there are Jan. 6 prosecutors watching all of the hearings.”
- The Justice Department has in recent years stepped up criminal prosecutions of political operatives who raise money with knowingly false pledges about how that money will be spent.
Zoom in: The Jan. 6 has subpoenaed records from Salesforce, which owns an email marketing company used by the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee. The RNC has sued to block the disclosure of those records in a case that remains ongoing.
- The committee hopes that information will shed light on how much money those sorts of “election defense” appeals generated, and the internal processes for crafting them.
- In an emailed statement, an RNC spokesperson defended its post-election fundraising and spending, pointing to its involvement in court challenges to election results and the Senate runoff elections in Georgia in early January.
- “In addition to the several million dollars spent on our legal efforts, the RNC spent tens of millions in the Georgia Senate races for over 500 paid staffers in the state along with thousands of volunteers, all who made over 15 million voter contacts during the runoff,” the spokesperson said.
Whether the committee’s findings are enough to spur DOJ interest is an open question.
- “There might be enough here to start a mail/wire fraud investigation, but there would still have to be a lot of accounting done before you could indict, much less convict, anyone,” campaign finance attorney Brett Kappel told Axios.
- Kappel pointed to fine print in the fundraising solicitations at issue explaining much of the money would go to Trump’s leadership PAC. Such language could help insulate the campaign from allegations it made misrepresentations in its solicitations, he said.
Be smart: Even if the committee clearly establishes that Trump campaign fundraising emails were knowingly false — and even if DOJ sees enough to warrant prosecution — it’s highly unlikely Trump himself would be implicated.
- Trump likely had little to no input on the precise language of his campaign’s fundraising appeals.
- But such an investigation could ensnare former campaign staffers or vendors.