Dark-money GOP fund funneled millions of dollars to groups that pushed voter fraud claims

Key Points
  • A dark-money group used by Republican donors funneled millions of dollars to high-profile conservative organizations that pushed or investigated claims of election fraud before and after Joe Biden defeated President Trump.
  • That group, the Donors Trust, is officially labeled as a nonprofit. The designation allows financiers to give to the organization anonymously. That money is then channeled to other dark-money groups.
  • Among the pro-Trump groups that have received money from the Donors Fund are pro-Trump students organization Turning Point USA and an anti-immigration organization that has been called a hate group.
Members of the National Guard and the Washington D.C. police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC.
Spencer Platt | Getty Images

A dark-money group used by Republican donors funneled millions of dollars toward high-profile conservative organizations that pushed and in some cases investigated claims of election fraud either before or after Joe Biden defeated President Donald Trump in November.

Many of these stances matched points that Trump and his team made as they attempted to undermine the election.

Almost all of the groups mentioned in this story denied to CNBC they were attempting to undermine the election with their own claims of fraud and voting irregularities. State and federal officials, including the former attorney general, have said there was no widespread election fraud during the 2020 presidential election.

That funding group, the Donors Trust, is officially labeled as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit. The designation allows financiers to give to the organization anonymously. That money is then channeled to other dark-money groups.

Among the recent pro-Trump groups that have received money from the Donors Trust are:

  • pro-Trump students organization Turning Point USA
  • an anti-immigration organization that has been labeled a hate group
  • Project Veritas, a conservative outfit that specializes in "sting" videos
  • a group founded by a man who pushed false conspiracy theories about former President Barack Obama

"A donor-advised fund account allows you to have charitable dollars ready to put into action on your own schedule. It works like a charitable savings account," the Donors Trust website says. Such associations are labeled as "dark money" because they do not publicly disclose their donors.

In 2019, the Donors Trust gave over $20 million to at least a dozen organizations that would go on to question the integrity of the election process, according to the group's 990 tax return. They have supported many of these organizations in prior years, as well. The 2020 filings won't be made available until later this year, so it is not yet clear whether Donors Trust gave money to these groups last year.

Donors Trust finished 2019 raising over $300 million, just under double the amount they raised the prior year. It gave a total of over $160 million in grants in 2019. The group's top anonymous donor gave over $150 million. Nonprofits often release their financial information a full year after their coverage dates.

In a lengthy statement to CNBC, Donors Trust CEO Lawson Bader said these organizations represent only a fraction of those seeing their donor funds and he condemns last week's violence in Washington.

"The grants described were made in 2019 for general operations. These listed organizations are but a few of the many hundreds of different public charities that Donors Trust account holders supported that same year," Bader said Tuesday. "Contributions made through a DonorsTrust DAF (Donor-Advised Funds) are made only to IRS recognized charitable and educational organizations. Donors Trust, like all donor-advised fund providers, does not make grants to 501(c)(4) organizations. Further, Donors Trust condemns violence of any kind. Espousing violence violates the ideas of personal responsibility and free exchange which we support wholly," he added.

"I was appalled by the actions taken by protestors last week to violate the Capitol building and physically threaten lawmakers. Whether against public or private property, such actions are not only offensive, dangerous and illegal, but damage an already fragile civic discourse and embarrass the reputation of the United States as a place where political transitions happen within the context of the Constitution."

Aligned with Trump

At least five people, including a Capitol police officer, died in connection to the riot, which happened after Trump and some of his closest allies led a rally urging supporters to fight to prevent Congress' declaration of Biden's victory.

Several pro-Trump groups were involved with planning the rally, which was held near the White House. Trump encouraged people who attended the rally to march on the U.S. Capitol. Critics, including several Republicans, accused him of inciting the violence. On Tuesday, Trump said the comments were "totally appropriate."

Groups with the same 501(c)(3) status as Donors Trust are prohibited under tax regulations from supporting specific candidates. However, they can skirt those rules by supporting and promoting policies that align with a particular politician. In the case of Trump-fueled unrest, several groups historically backed by Donors Trust money aligned themselves with Trump's false claims about widespread election fraud.

Turning Point USA, a nonprofit founded by staunch Trump ally Charlie Kirk, received over $850,000 from the Donors Trust. Kirk has continued to parrot the president's attacks on the election, falsely claiming Biden's victory was fraudulent.

"I will say it very bluntly. This election was stolen from President Trump. And the changes to the election, to the ballot questions, to the voter registration, to the access problems in these states" Kirk said in December.

Kirk's affiliated 501(c)(4) Turning Point Action was listed as a participant in last week's "March to Save America" rally, which preceded the attack on Capitol Hill. Prior to the rally, in a tweet he later deleted, Kirk said the group would be involved with sending over 80 buses to the rally. CNBC captured a screenshot of tweet before it was deleted.

Kirk recently said on his podcast that those from Turning Point got back on their buses and left following the conclusion of the rally.

A Turning Point Action spokesperson said the group did not include a march to the Capitol on its itinerary.

"Turning Point Action (TPA) did bus some students to the January 6th rally, which included a speech from the President of the United States. Following the president's remarks, TPA then bused those students immediately out of the area," the spokesperson said. "The march to the Capitol Building was never part of TPA's itinerary, nor did TPA encourage participation in the march. TPA's leadership condemns political violence and immediately did so as soon as news broke of the incident at the Capitol Building. " 

The New York Times reported that the group ended up sending only seven buses to the rally from New Jersey, North Carolina and other locations.

Source: Twitter

Other connections

The 85 Fund, a group with ties to longtime Trump judicial advisor Leonard Leo, received over $10 million from the Donors Trust in 2019. According to a report by The Guardian and the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, it was once known as The Judicial Education Project. It was run by Carrie Severino, who also is in charge of the Leo-affiliated Judicial Crisis Network. Severino's Judicial Crisis Network actively campaigned in support of Trump's nominees to the Supreme Court.

The Donors Trust lists an address for the 85 Fund in Washington that matches the address on The Judicial Education Project's 2018 990 form. Leo also told Axios that the 85 Fund would be one of the groups used to funnel millions of dollars into conservative battles around the country.

The Judicial Education Project, though, has another alias, according to the report: the Honest Elections Project. The organization claims to be nonpartisan and says that "through public engagement, advocacy, and public-interest litigation, the Honest Elections Project will defend the fair, reasonable, common sense measures that voters want in place to protect the integrity of the voting process."

A review of advertisements and litigation reveals that, in some cases, the group is aligned with claims about election fraud that are similar to Trump's. The group lists two Michigan-related lawsuits linked to Republicans that took place before the November election.

In September, The Detroit News reported on one of those lawsuits, which featured two former Republican secretaries of state. The former officials challenged Michigan's plan to count absentee ballots that are postmarked before Election Day but arrive up to 14 days afterward. Biden went on to win Michigan, even though an appeals court did rescind the 14-day extension of mail in ballots.

Fox News reported in June on another suit featuring the Honest Elections Project. In that case, a Republican named Tony Daunt claimed that Michigan voter registration rates in some counties are too high because their voting records have not been updated to remove ineligible voters, such as those who have died or convicted of crimes.

A leader of the Honest Elections Project told CNBC that the group concluded after the election that no widespread voter fraud occurred and they did not get involved with any post-election legal challenges. It also condemned the violence on Capitol Hill.

"HEP was created to make it easy to vote and hard to cheat. Before the election, HEP fought to preserve the rule of law as left-wing groups, including the Democratic Party, filed over 200 lawsuits to challenge existing election laws," Honest Elections Project executive director Jason Snead said in a statement. "After the election, HEP concluded that there was no widespread fraud and did not challenge or support any challenge to the results of the 2020 election. The violent insurrection at the Capitol was a heinous attack against democracy, the rule of law, and the election system HEP was created to defend."

Former U.S. Attorney General William Barr said in December that the Department of Justice has found no evidence of voter fraud.

The anti-immigration VDARE Foundation, which the Southern Poverty Law Center labeled a hate group, received just under $2 million from the Donors Trust in 2019. The foundation is run by Peter Brimelow, somebody the Southern Poverty Law Center says is a "leading anti-immigration activist."

Brimelow did not return a request for comment.

Since the riot last week, VDARE has become a platform for several writers standing with Trump and people who attended the rally.

"I believe Trump won the election and I believe that this matters," says an article on the foundation's site. The writer also says he believes the anti-fascist protesters and frequent Trump targets known as antifa were "amongst the crowd." Ken Kohl, a senior official in the D.C. U.S. Attorney's Office, recently said that investigators saw no indication of antifa being part of the riot.

Another writer on VDARE's site admitted to cheering on the Capitol invasion. "I'm going to open with a confession here: watching those protestors rampaging through the halls of Congress on Wednesday afternoon, there was a part of me that was cheering them on," the article says.

Project Veritas, an activist group founded by investigator James O'Keefe, received over $4 million in 2019 from the Donors Trust. In August, The New Republic reported that Project Veritas was secretly moving ahead with sting operations that would "undermine the integrity of absentee and mail-in ballot counts."

Jered Ede, chief legal officer for Project Veritas, told CNBC that the group condemns the violence at the Capitol and pushed back on the idea their investigations are attempts to undermine the election. He also said Project Veritas has proved at least two instances of fraud and irregularities, including in New Hampshire and Texas.

"Project Veritas has been exposing voter fraud and election integrity stories for nearly a decade. We did so prior to 2020, we did so prior to 2019, we did so prior to Mr. Trump announcing his candidacy, and we will continue to do so for as long as we are around," Ede said in part of his lengthy responses to CNBC. "Neither our donors nor any politician control or direct what stories we cover. We have and will continue to cover these stories because voters deserve to know the truth and have faith in their electoral system."

Project Veritas pushed a Pennsylvania postal worker's claim about mail-in ballots that the Trump campaign would cite in a lawsuit that eventually went nowhere, according to The Washington Post.

The Center for Security Policy received over $800,000 from Donors Trust in 2019. It was founded by Frank Gaffney, who pushed conspiracy theories about President Barack Obama's administration and the Muslim Brotherhood. In the buildup to the riot, Gaffney questioned the results of the election.

Fred Fleitz, president of the Center for Security Policy, told CNBC late Tuesday that the group acknowledges that Biden is going to be the new president. He said Gaffney was no longer running the organization. The website lists Gaffney as executive chairman.

"Center for Security Policy accepts Joe Biden as the legal President of the United States," Fleitz said. "It's time to move on. We are an organization that is going to focus on holding Biden accountable when it comes to national security. Gaffney does not run the organization. He's not the president of the organization, I am," Fleitz added.

In a post on the group's website, Gaffney himself claimed in December the media is pushing a "false narrative" that "there's no evidence of electoral larceny in the 2020 presidential race — or at least none that would have made a difference," he said. Gaffney also wrote that "the online resource EveryLegalVote.com makes clear that election integrity was systematically compromised."

In January, a Center for Security Policy article claimed there are 10 truths about election fraud, including that election fraud has become "more sinister and sophisticated."

An article on Jan. 5, a day before the riot, is headlined "Exercising your First Amendment rights? How to avoid Antifa violence at the upcoming January 6th protests." Then article then goes on to give protesters tips on how to avoid fights with antifa.

Gaffney's own condemnation of the violence after the protest included him calling for a hearing that would show "evidence of electoral grand larceny."

The Gaffney posts disappeared off the group's website shortly after CNBC reached out for comment. CNBC has screenshots of the posts.

Watch a timeline of the U.S. Capitol siege that rocked America
Watch a timeline of the U.S. Capitol siege that rocked America