Stephen Cory set up his first pro-President Donald Trump billboards a few days ago. Printed in bold blue-and-red font, the billboards called for America-first healthcare and foreign war prevention.
The ads are part of a “billboard campaign” Cory helped launch for America First Victory Fund, a new super PAC. The group hopes to convey conservative messages through billboards, Cory said, because he thinks conservative voices are being unfairly banned on social media platforms. The group also promised donors a chance to win “exclusive rewards,” details of which are still in the works, Cory said.
The name of the group resembles America First Action Inc., the only Trump campaign-approved super PAC raising money to support the president’s re-election. The name is also similar to Trump Victory Fund, a mysterious group which the Trump team disavowed earlier this month for falsely associating itself with the president.
Trump’s victory in 2016 was boosted by a group of super PACs and tax-exempt organizations fundraising in his name, even though the then-presidential candidate appeared to loathe them. The billionaire distanced his campaign from such groups as they pushed for his agenda, spending more than $72 million to help secure his win against Hillary Clinton by the end of 2016.
As the 2020 election nears, similar groups are again on the rise, adopting names with key terms that align with Trump’s policies or slogans that appeal to his voters. Instead of aiding Trump and his political allies’ campaigns, some of these groups use the money they raise in Trump’s name to fill their own coffers.
Although America First Action is closely tied to the Trump campaign, super PACs are generally supposed to be independent of campaigns, meaning Trump cannot stop the spread of “unofficial” pro-Trump groups.
Cory said he picked the name simply because the idea of “America First” appeals to him. Identifying as a group of “nationalists,” the organization labeled itself a “PAC for the American people.” It also refers to itself as “the America First Team” in short.
“If there’s other PACs that have similar names … I hope they agree with us politically,” he said.
The Florida-based super PAC isn’t the only political group branded “America First” while aligning with Trump’s agenda.
Another Sunshine State group pushing Trump’s message, America First Agenda, has been around a bit longer. Formed during last year’s midterm election cycle to boost a Florida Republican’s congressional campaign, the super PAC is still raising plenty of money — and spending it generously.
Through the first half of the 2020 cycle, America First Agenda raised nearly $478,000, 91 percent of which came from small donors giving $200 or less. The group hasn’t spent a dime on independent expenditures to back Trump or any other Republican candidate, instead shelling out hundreds of thousands of dollars to direct mail companies to attract a constant stream of small-donor cash.
The super PAC spent money on hotels, car rentals and dinners at expensive Florida restaurants. To pay for them, America First Agenda reimbursed $5,868 to Reaganista LLC, an obscure company owned by the group’s chairman, Christian Camara.
Camara is an alumnus of the free market think-tank R Street Institute and now runs a company called Chamber Consultants LLC, according to his LinkedIn page.
The super PAC followed a similar game plan in 2018 when it claimed it was supporting Florida congressional candidate Javier Manjarres. During last year’s midterms, it raised nearly $1.6 million and spent nearly all of that money on direct mail and political consulting, also sending nearly $35,000 to Camara.
Following Manjarres’ loss in the Florida 22nd District Republican primary, the group stopped posting on its Twitter and Facebook pages. But it continued to send out fundraising appeals throughout the country. The super PAC continues to collect most of its cash from donors who list their occupation as retired, benefitting from direct mail fundraising companies like Image Direct and HSP Direct. Camara did not respond to a request for comment.
Many more political groups adopted similar methods to attract mostly small-dollar and elderly donors. The Trump campaign released a statement in May condemning groups that confuse voters and profit from the Trump brand and its likeness.
The statement came shortly after a report found that Trump’s former deputy campaign manager David Bossie raised millions for his political organization — The Presidential Coalition — in the name of supporting Trump’s “conservative agenda.”
Touting Bossie’s close ties with Trump and using the president’s name to draw support from conservatives, the group raked in millions of dollars after Trump won the election in 2016, raising $5 million the following year and $13 million last year, according to the report by the Campaign Legal Center and Axios.
Instead of helping Republican candidates, most of the money the group raised — mainly from small-dollar donors and seniors who thought they were supporting Trump — ended up covering fundraising and administrative costs, including Bossie’s six-figure salary. Of the $15.4 million it spent between 2017 and 2018, only 3 percent went to support political activities, the report found.
Pro-Trump group Keeping America Great PAC, run by former Trump campaign staffer Corey Stewart, also drew ire from the president. Almost exclusively funded by Florida donor William Cooley, the group spent nearly $120,000 supporting former Rep. Dave Brat (R-Va.) in his unsuccessful congressional race last year.
With a name echoing Trump’s “Make America Great Again” appeal, the group reported spending $5,000 supporting the president during the 2020 election cycle thus far. The Trump team, however, worried that Stewart’s group would use the appeal to mislead donors to believe they were giving directly to the campaign, ABC News reported. The team filed a notice of disavowal of the PAC in March.
After sparking criticism from the Trump campaign, Stewart changed course and took down Trump images from the PAC’s website, CNN reported.
The president’s campaign also disavowed several other groups over the past months, including Latinos for Trump, Latinos for the President and Support American Leaders PAC.
Great America PAC reported shelling out $23.6 million to fuel Trump’s presidential bid in 2016, and has reported spending $2.1 million so far this cycle. “We have been and continue to be President Donald Trump’s strongest and most active independent ally,” the group’s website noted.
The group recently launched a six-figure ad blitz urging Congress to investigate in Biden and his son, The Hill reported. The ad campaign comes at a time when the president is facing an impeachment inquiry from the House and receiving backlash for potential abuse of power over his phone call with Ukrainian leader Volodymyr Zelensky.
FEC chairwoman Ellen Weintraub and then-commissioner Ann Ravel released a memo in September 2016 warning the public of so-called “scam PAC” operations. Managers of these groups line their own pockets by raising money from small-dollar donors in the name of certain candidates or charitable causes.
High operating expenses and large payments made to groups associated with their managers are telling signs of scam PACs, the memo noted.
“Scam PACs” have run rampant in recent years. The number of such PACs spiked over the past four years, some of which contracted with telemarketing companies that raised them more than $31.8 million, The Center for Public Integrity recently reported. Meanwhile, their operations face little scrutiny.
In March, a federal judge struck down an FEC rule prohibiting PACs and super PACs from using a candidate’s name — potentially enabling more groups to inject confusion into the political process and extract money from unknowing donors. The Trump campaign did not respond to a request for comment.