(Bloomberg) -- U.S. President Donald Trump’s fundraising strategy around the fight over impeachment proceedings shows that for now it is more of a political battle than a legal one.
Since House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced an inquiry on Sept. 24, Trump’s campaign has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on ads on Facebook Inc.’s and Twitter Inc.’s social networks mentioning impeachment. Even though the ads call for supporters to contribute to an impeachment defense fund, or sign up to be a member of his Official Impeachment Defense Task Force, clicking on the link directs supporters to the website for his re-election campaign fund.
“Please contribute in the NEXT HOUR to give us the resources we need to DEFEND President Trump from impeachment,” says the box asking for donations. In the fine print below, the campaign clarifies that the money goes into the same pool as the re-election funds.
That’s a different approach than the one taken by President Bill Clinton, who raised money for a legal defense fund to hire lawyers and pay for other legal expenses during his impeachment fight in 1998.
Clinton “fought it like a court case,” said Douglas Weber, a senior researcher at the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit that tracks campaign finance. “Trump is raising money for a conventional campaign.”
In a separate ad, which started running Sept. 25 and has more than 1 million views, Trump promises that by signing up for the task force, “you will be a leader in defending me, the President, against these baseless and disgusting attacks. You will be responsible for defending American Greatness,” according to Facebook’s political ad archive.
That, too, is linked to a campaign effort. People who put their names on the list are consenting to get calls and emails about the election.
It’s a strategy Trump used successfully during his 2016 campaign, when he leveraged his political base’s passion and urgency to gather as many email addresses as possible in the run-up to the election. Those emails can later be used to send more targeted social-media ads, and also help the campaign invite people to rallies and sell them Trump merchandise -- and eventually, prompt them to vote.
Still, it’s a marked contrast to the Clinton effort on impeachment, in part due to their differing circumstances.
Facing millions in legal bills from a special counsel’s investigation into a failed real estate deal and an affair with a White House intern, Clinton supporters started a legal defense fund, the Clinton Legal Expense Trust, in February 1998 -- 10 months before he was impeached by the House of Representatives. The trust tapped major donors including singer Tony Bennett and investment banker Steven Rattner and solicited contributions from small donors using direct mail to raise millions to pay off the Clintons’ legal debt.
Because Clinton’s legal problems didn’t stem from investigations into his campaign, federal law barred him from using campaign funds to pay for his defense.
By contrast, Trump supporters set up a legal defense fund in February of 2018, the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust, but it raised a much smaller amount from a handful of donors, including casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and real estate developer Geoffrey Palmer. The fund is meant to cover legal expenses for employees, volunteers, consultants or associates of Trump or his administration, but not the president himself or his family, documents filed when it was founded show. According to forms filed with the IRS, the Patriot Legal Expense Fund Trust raised a little over $850,000 by mid-year, mostly from eight major donors. Former FEC chairman Michael Toner, who helped set up the fund, had no comment about the current status of the fund.
Other Trump legal expenses related to investigations into the 2016 election have been covered by his campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Erin Chlopak, a former Federal Election Commission attorney now working at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center, said that a legal defense fund offers several advantages over a traditional campaign fund, including looser rules that allow donations from corporations and foreign nationals, with no limits.
But she noted that there’s an exception: A legal defense fund would face stricter rules about running advertising online.
Beyond Facebook, Trump is running a similar ad campaign on Twitter, though on a much smaller scale. A handful of video ads promoted this week from the @TeamTrump account, the president’s official campaign account, played into the threat of impeachment.
In one of the videos, Trump says, “What’s going on now is the single greatest scam in the history of American politics.” The audio on a similar video claims, “The Democrats want to impeach him, and their media lapdogs fall in line. They lost the election, now they want to steal this one.”
In both instances, clicking on the ad leads to a form page where you can “Join the fight” and hand over your email, name and phone number. Once you enlist, you are prompted to donate to Trump’s campaign.
The online ad push helped generate $5 million in small-dollar donations in the 24 hours after Pelosi’s announcement, contributing to the $125 million brought in by Trump and the Republican National Committee for his re-election campaign in the third quarter.
During the 2016 presidential campaign, 84% of Trump’s Facebook ads asked people to take an action, such as donating or signing up for a list, compared with 56% of Hillary Clinton’s, according to an internal Facebook analysis obtained by Bloomberg, which analyzed the period between June and November of that year.
The email addresses are especially useful on Facebook. The world’s largest social network has advertising software that can take those lists of people, and find other Facebook users with similar interests to show the same message, making it easier for Trump to find supporters whom he may not have reached yet. In 2016, more than a quarter of Trump’s ad spending took advantage of that software, compared to 4% of Clinton’s, according to the paper.
Brad Parscale, Trump’s online advertising guru in 2016, has said that Trump was a “perfect candidate for Facebook,” claiming that the campaign paid dramatically less to reach supporters because they were much more likely to engage with his ads. Parscale is now Trump’s 2020 campaign manager.
But amid concern about Russian efforts to influence the election with ads and pages on Facebook, the social media giant tightened its rules around political advertising and created a more transparent archive.
(Updates first paragraph to reflect political battle.)
--With assistance from Bill Allison.
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