Source Check

Published — May 19, 2016

‘Dark money,’ billionaires behind anti-Donald Trump ad barrage

Pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC fires early shot in coming air war


Pro-Hillary Clinton super PAC Priorities USA Action is going after presumptive Republican nominee Donald Trump in a new ad — and using his own words to do it.

The ad features several women — and two men — who don T-shirts emblazoned with Trump’s face. The actors lip-sync several remarks in which Trump’s own voice is used, criticizing women’s appearances.

“Does she have a good body? No. Does she have a fat a–? Absolutely,” goes one comment.

“Does Donald Trump really speak for you?” a female narrator asks.

Trump is no stranger to such attacks. Our Principles PAC, a Republican super PAC that unsuccessfully tried to sink Trump’s campaign, also aired a slew of ads that charged Trump with misogyny. The ads also used Trump’s own words, to no avail.

The ad’s sponsor

Priorities USA Action first formed in 2011 to support President Barack Obama’s re-election campaign. In 2014, the group transitioned to supporting Clinton.

Clinton, in a bid to distance herself from the super PAC, made this point during a Democratic debate hosted in February by PBS when pressed about contributions from megadonors.

“You’re referring to a super PAC that we don’t coordinate with, that was set up to support President Obama, that has now decided they want to support me,” Clinton said. “They are the ones who should respond to any questions.”

Former President Bill Clinton campaigns in support of his wife, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in March 2016 in New York City at the headquarters of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees District Council 37. 
Dennis Van Tine/STAR MAX/IPx/AP

One catch: Support Clinton receives from Priorities USA Action is hardly unsolicited. Clinton has previously courted megadonors to the super PAC, and husband Bill Clinton was a “special guest” for a Priorities USA Action donor event on Dec. 1.

Priorities USA Action may raise and spend unlimited amounts of money, thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission decision in 2010.

Who’s behind it?

Leading Priorities USA Action’s efforts is Guy Cecil, the political director of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Although he’s a Clinton alumnus, Cecil, by law, may not coordinate Priorities USA Action’s efforts directly with Clinton’s presidential campaign.

Its board members include Jim Messina, a former Obama campaign manager; Emily’s List President Stephanie Schirock, and David Brock, mastermind behind several Clinton-friendly groups, including Priorities USA Action’s sister super PAC Correct the Record.

In December, Priorities USA Action gave $1 million to Correct the Record, which using a loophole in federal law, is coordinating its messaging efforts with the Clinton campaign.

Money in

More than $67 million.

That’s how much Priorities USA Action has raised so far this election cycle, making it one of the most cash-rich presidential super PACs of 2016.

It’s certainly more than what super PACs have raised for Clinton’s Democratic primary opponent, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, as well as Trump. Both Sanders and Trump have generally disavowed any super PACs supporting them.

Like Sanders and Trump, Clinton has lambasted big money’s role in politics. But Clinton’s reformist rhetoric hasn’t stopped a network of pro-Clinton super PACs and nonprofits from accepting so-called “dark money” — cash that’s difficult or impossible to trace to a root source.

For example, Priorities USA Action in June received $1 million from Fair Share Action, a super PAC which received contributions from only two entities: Fair Share Inc. and Environment America. As tax-exempt, “social welfare” nonprofit organizations, Fair Share Inc. and Environment America are not required to disclose their donors.

Neither organization voluntarily discloses their donors, either, despite Fair Share Inc. actively campaigning to push big money out of politics.

Priorities USA Action also received a six-figure contribution from Suffolk Construction Company Inc., a Boston-based construction firm that has been awarded by the federal government more than $168 million worth of contracts, according to a Center for Public Integrity investigation.

A mystery organization by the name of Raemar Crest LLC donated $10,000 to Priorities USA Action in February. Virtually nothing is known about the people behind Raemar Crest LLC, as the entity is registered in Delaware, a state that requires organizations to very little information about their operations, investors and leaders.

George Soros, Chairman of Soros Fund Management, talks during a television interview for CNN, Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, at the Clinton Global Initiative in New York City. Mark Lennihan/AP

Other top donors to Priorities USA Action include megadonor and billionaire George Soros ($7 million), financier Donald Sussman ($4 million) and Cheryl and Haim Saban ($8 million together).

(The Center for Public Integrity receives funding from the Open Society Foundations, which Soros funds. A complete list of Center for Public Integrity funders is found here.)

Money out

The new Trump ad is apparently part of Priorities USA Action’s massive ad buy, announced this week. The super PAC said it has reserved $96 million worth of advertising time. The TV ads are slated to air in swing states Ohio, Florida, Nevada and Virginia.

The $96 million figure doesn’t include the roughly $5 million the super PAC has already spent on radio and digital advertising, according to federal records.

Though most of Priorities USA Action’s previous advertising has been upbeat, displaying Clinton in a positive light, the super PAC has also attacked Trump, as well as former Republican presidential contenders Chris Christie, Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz.

Why it matters

The ad blitz by Priorities USA Action is just the first wave in what will almost assuredly be the most expensive general election ever.

That translates to more and more political ads dominating the airwaves, even in a year when political advertising is increasingly migrating to digital platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Pandora.

Meanwhile, opponent Trump is considering whether to extend his blessing to supportive super PACs, despite his stated disdain for them. Even if Trump continues to disavow super PACs, such political committees may decide to support Trump anyway, since they may legally operate without his authorization.

In a related matter, Trump has struck a deal with the Republican National Committee to create a joint fundraising committee in which donors can contribute as much as $449,400.

Read more in Money and Democracy

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