As he brags that he is turning down millions of dollars for his presidential campaign, Donald Trump has leveled a steady line of attack against his rivals: that they are too cozy with big-money super PACs and may be breaking the law by coordinating with them.
“You know the nice part about me?” he told reporters in Iowa in August. “I don’t need anybody’s money.”
What Trump doesn’t say is that he and his top campaign aide have connections to a super PAC collecting large checks to support his candidacy – a group viewed by people familiar with his campaign as the sanctioned outlet for wealthy donors.
This summer, Trump appeared at at least two events for the Make America Great Again PAC, which took his campaign slogan as its name and received financing from his daughter’s mother-in-law. A consultant for the super PAC is a Republican operative who has previously worked with Trump’s campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, according to several people with direct knowledge of their ties.
The Trump campaign’s links to the low-profile group could undercut the candidate’s posture as the only Republican in the race who has not sought to curry favor with wealthy donors, a central part of his anti-establishment message.
Lewandowski denied that Trump or the campaign had given the green light to Make America Great Again.
“Unlike other campaigns, we don’t have a quote-unquote designated super PAC that we tell people to give money to,” he said.
In a later interview, he threatened to file a lawsuit if The Washington Post reported that Trump had given the group his blessing.
“I want to be crystal clear,” Lewandowski said. “There is no sanctioned super PAC.”
Trump did not respond to requests for comments made through Lewandowski and communications director Hope Hicks.
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There are a number of links between the real estate tycoon’s political operation and the Make America Great Again PAC.
Mike Ciletti, a Colorado-based operative who told Politico in August that he is a consultant for the super PAC, was at the Trump campaign offices repeatedly in May and June, according to two people familiar with the visits. WizBang Solutions, the small Commerce City, Colo., printing company where Ciletti serves as a director, is a vendor to the campaign, collecting more than $56,000 in payments so far, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
The Trump campaign has paid Ciletti’s printing firm since April, with the most recently reported payment on Sept. 18. Since July, Ciletti has been serving as the super PAC’s consultant. Such an arrangement with a common vendor is permissible under federal rules only if the firm has a strict firewall in place to prevent coordination. Neither Ciletti nor the company’s president returned repeated requests for comment.
In one of several interviews with The Post, Lewandowski first denied knowing Ciletti or anyone connected to the super PAC. “I don’t know him,” Lewandowski said.
Two days later, when confronted with the campaign’s payments to Ciletti’s firm, Lewandowski acknowledged he was familiar with Ciletti.
“I know a lot of people,” he said. “I know of Mike Ciletti.”
After being pressed for more details, he hung up.
As Trump has soared to the top of the GOP field, he has vehemently criticized the influence of rich contributors, expressing disgust at the proliferation of super PACs and their close ties to other presidential contenders. While candidates are not supposed to collaborate directly with super PACs, they have found creative ways to work in concert.
In a recent interview with The Washington Post, the New York tycoon said he planned to go after his opponents for pushing the limits of federal coordination rules.
“They’re in total cahoots with their super PACs, which they’re not allowed to be,” Trump told The Post earlier this month. “They’re all in total cahoots. They put their friends in there. One good thing about me: I’m not.”
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Trump has been pressing that argument at his rallies, recently going after former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton.
“You know the candidate’s not allowed to talk to the PAC, right?” Trump asked a crowd in the Atlanta suburb of Norcross on Oct. 10. “They’re not allowed to talk to the PAC. You think that Bush is talking to his PAC?”
“Yeah!” the audience answered.
“You think that Hillary is talking to her PAC?”
“Yes!” those assembled responded.
“Not allowed to, by the way, not allowed to,” Trump continued. “I don’t.”
Bush spokeswoman Allie Brandenburger dismissed Trump’s comments as a “baseless attack,” saying the campaign “fully complies with all federal campaign compliance and finance laws and regulations.” A Clinton spokesman declined to comment.
Since Trump’s candidacy has taken off, a dozen super PACs with names such as Art of the Deal PAC and Let’s Trump Politics have sprung up to support him. But only one is viewed as operating with his blessing, according to four people familiar with the internal dynamics who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private conversations.
Sources say that the groundwork for the PAC was laid in the spring. As he drew close to announcing his candidacy, Trump talked privately with friends and advisers about the benefits of having an allied super PAC to help cover expenses, according to three people familiar with the conversations. He and his aides were also said to have been worried that unscrupulous individuals could create scam PACs that would take advantage of Trump supporters, and they are said to have talked about the need to have a reputable entity in place. The discussions are said to have occurred before Trump became an official candidate, after which he faced restrictions on how he could interact with an outside group.
Lewandowski denied that such conversations occurred. “Mr. Trump has $10 billion,” he said. “He doesn’t care about a super PAC.”
At the time, Ciletti was already helping the Trump team. He had previously worked with Lewandowski when the latter was a top official at the conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity, which used Ciletti’s company, WizBang Solutions, as a vendor, according to people familiar with their relationship. Americans for Prosperity reported in FEC filings paying WizBang $46,000 in the 2014 elections for mailers in Colorado, North Carolina and North Dakota.
The Trump campaign first paid WizBang in April to print T-shirts and business cards - two months before Trump declared his candidacy - and has paid the firm every month since, campaign finance filings show.
Lewandowski gave conflicting statements to The Post about whether he had made the decision to hire Ciletti, at first saying he had not and then in a subsequent conversation saying he did not remember. He declined to say how he knew the Colorado consultant.
“I know of a lot of people,” he said. “I have been in politics for 25 years.”
Ciletti, who was a consultant for now-Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.)’s 2010 congressional bid, is listed in corporate filings as the director of WizBang Solutions, which is headquartered in an industrial park off the interstate in Commerce City outside of Denver.
Although WizBang Solutions offers some marketing services, it’s best known locally for its printing shop, which produces glossy mailers, signs and other items. The firm’s president, Marty Soudani, did not respond to requests for comment.
Ciletti began working with Trump’s team in the run-up to his June 16 announcement and visited the Trump Tower offices multiple times, according to two people who saw him there. By July, he was fielding pitches from vendors who wished to do work for the PAC, according to a consultant who did a presentation for Ciletti.
The Make America Great Again PAC was registered with the FEC on July 1. A Denver lawyer named Jon Anderson sent in the paperwork. He did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
The super PAC’s website prominently features a photo of Trump and his quotes, as well as news articles about his campaign. “We believe in the conservative principles America was founded upon and know that with the right leadership the citizens of this country will come together to help Make America Great Again,” reads a statement on the site.
A nonprofit group called Make America Great Again that shares the same treasurer as the super PAC was also registered by Anderson, who submitted the incorporation papers in August with the Colorado secretary of state. Like super PACs, nonprofit groups can accept unlimited donations, but they are not required to disclose their contributors. Such organizations, set up under Section 501©(4) of the tax code, can do some political activity but that cannot be their primary purpose.
Over the summer, Trump attended at least two events for the Make America Great Again PAC: one in Manhattan in July at the home of a woman who is a longtime Trump business associate, as first reported by Politico, and another in August at the New Jersey beachfront mansion of Seryl and Charles Kushner, his daughter Ivanka’s in-laws, as CNN reported.
Guests did not have to donate to the super PAC to attend the Kushners’ event, but they were given information about how to make a contribution, and many wrote checks for various amounts, according to a person familiar with the situation.
Seryl Kushner also contributed $100,000 to the Make America Great Again PAC, according to a Kushner family spokesman, who said Trump did not solicit the donation.
Under FEC rules, candidates are allowed to appear at fundraisers for super PACs but they cannot request donations of more than $5,000.
Lewandowski said the two gatherings that Trump attended were not fundraisers, calling the party at the Kushner estate “a family event.”
When asked whether Trump knew the receptions were organized by the super PAC, Lewandowski did not respond directly. “They were both just a meet-and-greet,” he said. “He gave brief remarks and then left.”
Make America Great Again PAC has not yet reported making any expenditures. The group will not have to disclose any information about its donors until Jan. 31, the day before the Iowa caucuses.
On the trail, Trump has maintained that he has no idea who is setting up super PACs on his behalf.
When asked by a reporter in New Hampshire last week whether he would call on such groups to cease raising money, Trump responded: “I know nothing about them, because I have nothing to do with them. I don’t even know the people running them.”