Liberal 'Dark Money' Operation Behind Ads Urging Republicans To Support Impeachment

Authored by Anna Massoglia and Karl Evers-Hillstrom via OpenSecrets.org,

A veterans group urging Republican lawmakers to “put country over politics” amid the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is the project of a well-funded liberal “dark money” network

Defend American Democracy has spent six figures on television advertisements pressuring Republican members of Congress to “hold the president accountable for abusing his office and risking national security for his own gain.” The group, which primarily targets swing-district Republicans, prominently features military veterans in its ads and presents itself as a veterans group to local media outlets.

Screencap from a video posted in Defend American Democracy’s Youtube feed.

Incorporation records on file with the District of Columbia reviewed by OpenSecrets reveal that the group is a project of the Sixteen Thirty Fund, a liberal dark money nonprofit that saw its revenue swell to a record $143.8 million last year

The 501(c)(4) group is managed by Eric Kessler, a former Clinton administration official who runs the philanthropic firm Arabella Advisors. The anonymously funded nonprofit was behind several groups that ran “issue ads” to benefit Democrats during the 2018 midterms, as well as Demand Justice, a group that spent millions of dollars on ads attacking Brett Kavanaugh during his nomination to the Supreme Court. The Sixteen Thirty Fund and its sister 501(c)(3) nonprofit, New Venture Fund, have fiscally sponsored at least 80 of their own groups, bankrolling those entities in a way that leaves almost no paper trail

Each of Defend American Democracy’s ads includes a disclaimer that it is paid for by a group called Protect the Investigation. But Protect the Investigation doesn’t legally exist — it’s one of dozens of fictitious names registered by the Sixteen Thirty Fund. Protect the Investigation conducted a six-figure digital ad campaign on Facebook over special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation before beginning to rebrand the page with Defend American Democracy’s logo as impeachment hearings kicked off in November 2019. 

The Sixteen Thirty Fund spent more than $141 million last year and raked in even more, continuing the organization’s exponential growth each year since Trump’s election. Thirteen multi-million dollar secret donors fueled the operations fundraising in 2018, with one anonymous donor accounting for more than $51.7 million — topping the group’s entire spending in 2017. 

“The Sixteen Thirty Fund provides support to advocates and social welfare organizations around the country, and we are pleased with the growth we had in 2018,” Amy Kurtz, the group’s executive director, said in an email.

The group gave several multi-million dollar grants to liberal groups last year, including $8 million to the League of Conservation Voters and more than $27 million to America Votes. It also reported paying $5.4 million to ad buying firm Targeted Platform Media for consulting services — the same firm that purchases ads for Democratic dark money groups in Arizona, Iowa and Colorado. 

Defend American Democracy lists several anti-Trump groups as its partners. Among them is Republicans for the Rule of Law, another dark money entity that has spent at least six figures pressuring Republican lawmakers to support impeachment. The group launched an ad campaign in mid-November showing Republicans’ support for impeachment of then-President Richard Nixon, a Republican, in 1974. 

It isn’t clear who is leading the group. Defend American Democracy spokesperson Zack DiGregorio said in an email that the group is a broad coalition of organizations focused on security and veterans issues. The veterans featured in the ads have different levels of involvement, with some traveling around the country to hold events about impeachment, DiGregorio said.

One of the largest ad buys from Defend American Democracy, totaling $107,820, came in the Philadelphia suburbs to target Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick (R-Pa.). The moderate Republican, a top Democratic target in 2020, voted against the impeachment inquiry. Members of the coalition held a press conference in Fitzpatrick’s district Tuesday calling on the Republican lawmaker to support impeachment.

Impeachment is becoming a multi-million dollar battleground for issue ads aimed at pressuring lawmakers without advocating for or against their upcoming election. Pro-Trump dark money group America First Policies ran a flurry of Facebook ads urging Democratic lawmakers to reject the impeachment inquiry. Need to Impeach, a group funded by megadonor turned presidential contender Tom Steyer, is targeting Republican lawmakers over impeachment. 

The ad campaigns come as the House Intelligence Committee questions witnesses about an alleged Trump-directed operation to trade withheld security assistance to Ukraine for the announcement of an investigation that could prove harmful to Trump’s potential 2020 opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden. Republicans on the committee have not shown an interest in impeaching Trump, with Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.), one of the panel’s more moderate members, emerging as a staunch Trump ally.

Gordon Sondland, U.S. ambassador to the European Union, testified before the House Intelligence Committee Wednesday that he pursued Ukrainian investigations “at the express direction” of President Trump. 

“Was there a quid pro quo? As I testified previously, with regard to the requested White House call and the White House meeting, the answer is yes,” Sondland said Wednesday. 

House Republicans, meanwhile, have not been moved by Sondland’s testimony. Some Republicans told the Washington Examiner that “it doesn’t matter” if Trump tied military aid to Ukraine to an investigation into the Bidens. 

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