Shell companies and ‘dark money’ may hide details of Trump ties to DC protests

DC Protests
(Samuel Corum/Getty Images)

Former President Donald Trump[1]’s presidential campaign aides played key roles orchestrating a rally protesting certification of President-elect Joe Biden[2]‘s victory in the 2020 presidential election before hundreds[3] of rioters breached the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.  

But the full extent of the Trump campaign’s ties to the protests may not be not fully known due to its use of shell companies that hide details of its financial dealings and the central role “dark money” played in the protests.

Multiple individuals listed on the permit granted by the National Park Service[4] worked for Trump’s presidential campaign, as first reported by the Associated Press[5] over the weekend. That raises new questions about the Trump campaign’s lack of spending transparency and the unknown extent of the event’s ties to Trump aides.

Trump’s campaign disclosed paying more than $2.7 million to the individuals and firms behind the Jan. 6 rally. But FEC disclosures do not necessarily provide a complete picture of the campaign’s financial dealings since so much of its spending was routed through shell companies, making it difficult to know who the campaign paid and when.

The permit[6] lists the rally’s “VIP Lead” as Maggie Mulvaney, a niece of former top Trump aide Mick Mulvaney, who quit his position as Trump’s special envoy to Northern Ireland after the Jan. 6 events. Maggie Mulvaney’s LinkedIn profile[7] shows her current position as the Trump campaign’s director of finance operations and manager of external affairs. Trump’s 2020 campaign paid her at least $138,000 through November 2020.

One of two operations managers on the rally permit[8] is Megan Powers, whose LinkedIn profile[9] says she was the Trump campaign’s director of operations as recently as this month. Powers was paid around $290,000 by Trump’s campaign while on its payroll from February 2019 through at least November 2020, FEC records show. 

Caroline Wren, a veteran GOP fundraiser, is listed as a “VIP Advisor[10].” Wren received at least $20,000 from the campaign each month as its national finance consultant for its joint fundraising committee with the Republican National Committee[11], totaling $170,000 from March through November. 

James Oaks, the rally’s operations associate[12], received $126,000 in salary from the Trump campaign through at least November. 

Trump’s campaign paid Ronald Holden, the rally’s backstage manager, around $72,000 for payroll and consulting in early 2020. The campaign started paying William Wilson, also listed in the permit, in October 2020 with around $6,000 in payments for advanced consulting through November 2020 alone. The rally’s production manager is listed as Justin Caporale, the Trump campaign’s advance director who received more than $144,000 in direct payroll payments from the campaign in the one-year period leading up to November 2020. 

Caporale’s business partner, Tim Unes, was the rally stage manager[13] and was paid more than $117,000 by the Trump campaign through at least November 2020. Event Strategies Inc., their firm[14], was paid more than $1.7 million from Trump’s campaign and joint fundraising committee. 

Trump-affiliated dark money group America First Policies[15] paid the firm another $2.1 million from 2018[16] to 2019[17], the most recent years for which data is available. America First Policies’ tax returns obtained by OpenSecrets[18] show it also provided funding to Women for America First, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit that submitted the rally’s permit records[19] to the National Park Service.

Trump’s top 2020 campaign vendor was American Made Media Consultants LLC[20], a firm created by Trump campaign aides to act as a clearinghouse for its spending. The firm routed more than $759 million of the campaign and its joint fundraising committee’s spending, hiding information about the identities of some individuals being paid by the campaign, how much money changed hands and when those payments took place.  

“The Trump campaign’s FEC reports really only provide a snapshot of who was paid by the campaign,” Brendan Fischer, the director of federal reform at the Campaign Legal Center, told OpenSecrets. “Using FEC reports to identify Trump campaign aides involved in the January 6 riot has its limits, because we don’t fully know who the campaign was paying.”

Federal campaign finance law requires political groups to disclose spending to the FEC but imposes few restrictions on merely disclosing payments to opaque firms or shell companies that channel money to ultimate vendors whose identities remain hidden. 

Following OpenSecrets investigations[21] into the Trump campaign’s use of shell companies, the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center filed a July 2020 FEC complaint[22] asserting that the Trump campaign and its joint fundraising committee may have violated federal election reporting rules by “laundering the funds through firms” concealing details [23]of the campaign’s financial dealings. 

Trump’s implicit endorsement of this opaque practice[24] could have repercussions beyond his 2020 campaign as other groups across the political spectrum begin to deploy similar tactics with increased frequency. 

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