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January 6 Was Donald Trump’s Most Successful Business Venture in 40 Years

Trump lost the election, but he raised $250 million to fight it. And the $100,000 of it that went to Melania’s fashion designer is only the beginning.

Trump at a New Year's Eve event at Mar-a-Lago
Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Trump at a New Year's Eve event at his Mar-a-Lago home in Palm Beach, Florida

Departing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi bequeathed two year-end gifts to the republic: Donald Trump’s taxes from 2015 through 2020, and a report on the events surrounding the Capitol insurrection on January 6, 2021. The stories they tell about Donald Trump’s business acumen are quite different.

Trump’s taxes “undermine his image as a successful entrepreneur,” to quote a December 30 New York Times headline, recording nearly $16 million in business losses in 2020. But an underreported appendix to the January 6 report shows that Trump’s attempts to overturn the November 2020 election, which began before any votes were cast, may not have succeeded politically—but yielded his biggest financial score since Trump Tower opened its doors in 1983.

According to the Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the Capitol, Trump raised $250 million to contest the election results. That’s an extraordinary amount of money. For comparison’s sake, Trump raised, via his presidential campaign committee, an estimated $596 million through October 2020. That is to say: Trump raised nearly half as much trying to contest the presidential election as he raised trying to win it. And $250 million looks to me like a lowball calculation when you consider that Trump raised more than $200 million just in the single month that followed the election (some of it to pay campaign debts). According to the select committee, more than $100 million of that $200 million was raised during the first three days after the election.

As a political maneuver, trying to overturn the 2020 election was a miserable failure. It failed on its own terms—Joe Biden became and remains president—and it created all sorts of legal problems for Trump. A year ago I wrote that the GOP’s Brownshirt affinities were a sign of weakness, not strength, and subsequent events (see especially the GOP’s unexpectedly weak showing in the midterms) proved me right. According to an excellent recent Donald Trump profile by New York magazine’s Olivia Nuzzi, not even Don Jr. is especially keen to see the old man return to the White House. Some Duce he turns out to be, crashing bar mitvahs at Mar-a-Lago.

But as a business enterprise, January 6 was and remains an unqualified success. Two hundred and fifty million dollars go a hell of a lot further when there’s no presidential campaign to spend it on. (Well, yes, there’s 2024, but Nuzzi reports that Trump hasn’t even shelled out yet for a campaign office.) Contesting the 2020 election turned out to be a bargain because, of the 64 lawsuits brought by Trump and his allies, 20 were dismissed without a hearing and 14 were withdrawn by plaintiffs before a hearing took place. In the 30 cases granted a hearing, judges came down pretty quickly against election fraud claims. Nearly half these judges were appointed by Republicans, and eight were appointed by Trump himself. The single judge who ruled in Trump’s favor, in Pennsylvania, was later overturned by the state Supreme Court. And anyway, Trump’s personal lawyer in these postelection efforts, Rudolph Giuliani, said Trump “ordered me” to work without pay.

Where did the money go?

Well, there’s Kimberly Guilfoyle, who got paid $60,000 by Charlie Kirk’s nonprofit Turning Point USA to appear at the January 6 rally on the Ellipse. The committee interview transcripts reveal that Guilfoyle threw a small fit (“Bullshit, done for life”) when an event facilitator named Caroline Wren, who’d previously told Guilfoyle that she and her fiancé, Don Jr., would be paid $30,000 each, said Guilfoyle wouldn’t be paid anything because her speaking slot was canceled.* “You will send the funds as promised,” Guilfoyle texted Wren. In the end the dispute was resolved by letting Guilfoyle supply a brief introduction for Don Jr. That worked out to an estimated pay rate of $176.47 per word. Guilfoyle told House investigators that getting paid to appear on behalf of her future father-in-law was not unusual. “I’m always paid by Turning Point,” she said.

(Before I proceed, some digital housekeeping. While I was writing this piece on Tuesday, the incoming House Republican majority, unsurprisingly, scrubbed information on Trump’s taxes from the Ways and Means Committee website. It also wiped out, in its entirety, the website for the January 6 select committee. The Ways and Means material can still be found, among other places, here (committee report) and here (tax documents). The select committee’s report can be found here, where it will stay because that’s a Government Printing Office site uncontrolled by Congress. Select committee Chairman Bennie Thompson archived the committee web page here, and witness transcript links here, but at the moment the links to individual witness transcripts don’t seem to work. I presume Thompson will get this fixed soon, or, if he doesn’t, that someone else will have archived the witness testimony. The Guilfoyle remarks quoted above are taken from a PDF I made before the select committee site was shut down.)

Guilfoyle’s $60,000 did not come out of the $250 million pile that Trump amassed after the election. It came, as noted, from Kirk’s Turning Point USA and, ultimately, from Julie Jenkins Fancelli, an heiress to the Florida-based Publix supermarket chain who took the Fifth when called before the select committee.

The $250 million was a different pile, much of it raised from smaller donors, according to the select committee report’s Appendix Three (“The Big Rip-Off: Follow the Money,” which begins on page 770). This was achieved by “bombarding supporters with hundreds of emails, as many as 25 emails per day.” Most of the money “was not used to stop any purported steal” at all. Rather, it was used “to fund the former president’s other endeavors and to enrich his associates.”

The bulk of it went into a leadership PAC created six days after the election called Save America. By law, Save America is barred from spending more than $5,000 on recount and election-contest activities—the very purpose for which the money was raised. And according to Appendix Three, it didn’t spend even that much in 2020 on such activities. When reporters inquired about this apparent fraud, Justin Clark, deputy campaign manager, instructed the communications director to stonewall.

Where did the $250 million go? This is where Appendix Three really delivers the goods.

Most of the funds “remain unspent” and presumably are being kept in reserve for 2024.

Some $10.6 million went to Event Strategies, which stages Trump rallies, including the Ellipse rally on January 6.

Another $327,000 went to the various Trump hotels and Mar-a-Lago.

A million went to create the America First Policy Institute, whose chair is Linda McMahon, who ran the Small Business Administration under Trump, and whose vice chair is Larry Kudlow, who directed Trump’s National Economic Council.

Another million went to the Conservative Partnership Institute, which was founded in 2017 by former Representative Jim DeMint after he got pushed out as Heritage Foundation president, but appears to be run largely by “senior partner” Mark Meadows, who was Trump’s chief of staff. CPI is the parent organization to America First Legal, run by Stephen Miller, Trump’s senior adviser for policy (who is not a lawyer). I profiled America First Legal in September.

Not quite $100,000 went to a fashion designer named Hervé Pierre Braillard, “who has been dressing Melania Trump for years,” according to Appendix Three. Because when you’re contesting an election, the wrong outfit can toss everything into a cocked hat.

A little more than $140,000 went to National Public Affairs LLC, a consulting company that the stonewall-advising Clark created with Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. Stepien, you may recall, made a great show of disgust before the select committee about Trump’s obviously false claims of voter fraud (“I didn’t think what was happening was necessarily honest or professional”). Stepien’s disgust did not extend, apparently, to the millions Trump raised by making those obviously false claims.

About $9,700 per month has since July 2021 been going to Don Scavino, who was Trump’s deputy chief of staff. An additional $20,000 per month has gone to Hudson Digital LLC, a company created in January 2021 that has no website. Hudson Digital LLC’s address is listed in a Federal Election Commission filing as the same one where Scavino resides.

For nine months in 2021, about $12,000 per month went to Nick Luna, Trump’s “body man” in the White House. During the same period, the Make America Great Again PAC, successor organization to Trump’s reelection campaign, paid $20,000 per month to a limited liability corporation called Red State Partners whose address is listed in an FEC filing as the same one where Luna resides. Save America paid Red State Partners an additional $20,000 in February 2022.

Ross Worthington, a former White House speechwriter who penned the speech Trump gave on the Ellipse on January 6, is a corporate officer of something called Pericles LLC, along with Vince Haley, a former Trump White House policy adviser, and Taylor Swindle, chief financial officer for Gingrich 360, a “multimedia production company.” Save America has spent more than $350,000 on consulting fees to Pericles LLC.

Robert Gabriel Jr., another former White House speechwriter who also contributed to the Ellipse speech, has a company called Gabriel Strategies LLC. Save America has spent more than $167,000 in consulting fees to Gabriel Strategies.

By now you’re starting to wonder whether the $250 million Trump raised to contest the 2020 election in court went to any lawyers at all. It did! From January 2021 to June 2022, Save America reported spending $2.1 million on legal consulting. But according to Appendix Three, fully 67 percent of that went to law firms representing people who were subpoenaed or otherwise invited to testify before the select committee. That $2.1 million doesn’t include nearly $166,000 that went to the American Conservative Union, whose chairman, Trump ally Matt Schlapp, offered to pay legal fees to witnesses called before the select committee.

Also, after the election the Trump campaign set up something called the Recount Account, a segregated account to fund, well, recounts. Starting in March 2021, MAGA PAC, the successor organization to the Trump campaign, disclosed that it was paying millions for services related to recounts to a vendor called 2M Document Management. But in fact, according to Appendix Three, 2M was “primarily processing and reviewing documents” in response to subpoenas from the select committee and from a separate Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis. MAGA PAC disbursed nearly $1 million from the Recount Account to 2M to deal with the Covid subcommittee. What Covid has to do with Stopping the Steal is anybody’s guess.

“Not only did President Trump lie to his supporters about the election,” concludes Appendix Three, “but he also ripped them off.” Trump may be losing his real estate acumen, but he’s found a new market in grifting would-be political insurrectionists. Another late-December revelation from the select committee (this from the testimony of Jared Kushner) was that the Donald wanted to trademark the phrase “rigged election.” Now you know why. From the start, Trump’s insane election claims were a highly profitable business venture for a man whose other businesses have lately, for the most part, been anything but.

* This article originally misstated the amount of the Trump/Guilfoyle payout.