Why Donald Trump is fighting Republicans over his name

While Donald Trump has long championed himself as a master real estate tycoon, talk to anyone familiar with how he built his fortune and they will tell you that the key to his success wasn’t buying buildings. It was in agreeing to license his name — literally — to a variety of buildings, reality TV shows and other ventures that wanted to benefit from being associated with a brand that, for many Americans, exuded over-the-top opulence.

“Ultimately, Mr. Trump has been more successful playing a business mogul than being one in real life,” wrote The New York Times in September 2020 after a detailed examination of 15 years of the former President’s tax returns. “‘The Apprentice,’ along with the licensing and endorsement deals that flowed from his expanding celebrity, brought Mr. Trump a total of $427.4 million, The Times’s analysis of the records found.”

And the Times added that “most of Mr. Trump’s core enterprises — from his constellation of golf courses to his conservative-magnet hotel in Washington — report losing millions, if not tens of millions, of dollars year after year,” while “his revenue from ‘The Apprentice’ and from licensing deals is drying up, and several years ago he sold nearly all the stocks that now might have helped him plug holes in his struggling properties.”

Which brings me to the current fight playing out publicly between the former President and the Republican Party apparatus — a fight centered on (you guessed it!) whether the party organization can use Trump’s image and name to help it raise money.

Last Friday Trump’s lawyers sent out a cease-and-desist letter to the Republican National Committee as well as the House and Senate campaign committees insisting that they stop using his “name, image, and/or likeness in all fundraising, persuasion, and/or issue speech.”

The RNC pushed back on Monday, sending a letter of their own to Trump’s lawyer — insisting that the RNC “has every right to refer to public figures as it engages in core, First Amendment-protected political speech, and it will continue to do so in pursuit of these common goals.”

Trump, of course, responded to that response via a statement released by his “Save America” group.

“No more money for RINOS,” wrote Trump, referring to a derogatory term for GOPers viewed as insufficiently loyal to core principles. “They do nothing but hurt the Republican Party and our great voting base — they will never lead us to Greatness. Send your donation to Save America PAC at DonaldJTrump.com. We will bring it all back stronger than ever before!”

That echoes a pitch made by the former President during a speech late last month at the Conservative Political Action Conference. “There’s only one way to contribute to our efforts to elect America First Republican conservatives, and in turn to make America great again, and that’s through Save America PAC and DonaldJTrump.com,” he told the crowd.

There’s exactly one reason that Trump wants to control his likeness vis a vis political fundraising: Money.

Remember that Trump is facing the dangerous confluence of two financial realities: 1) His business revenue is WAY down (40% off year over year, according to financial disclosure documents filed earlier this year) 2) He is personally on the hook for loans totaling $421 million, the large majority of which, according to The New York Times, come due over the next few years.

What that means is that he needs to find new ways to make money. And with his brand badly damaged by his presidency and its violent coda on January 6, there aren’t a lot of great money-making options out there for Trump.

Except, that is, figuring out ways to monetize his name — particularly with his most ardent followers. We’ve already seen Trump dabble in these waters. He raised more than $30 million in the wake of the election for his “Save America” PAC through hundreds of fundraising appeals that suggested that he needed the money to fight legal battles that, if he won, would make him president again.

But that’s not what he actually used the money for. As The Washington Post reported in late January based on the “Save America” fundraising filing:

“Save America spent only about $343,000 of the $31.5 million it raised since it was created after the election, to pay fees to the company that processes its donations, filings show. The committee retained the rest of the donations as of Jan. 1.

“The money collected by the leadership PAC cannot be used directly for Trump’s campaign purposes, but there are few other restrictions on how the money can be spent. For example, donations could be used to pay for events at Trump’s properties or to finance his travel or personal expenses.”

Trump’s strategy here is as Ann as the nose on Plain’s face: He is going to keep trying to use his massive fundraising database — built around a cult of personality — to finance his future life.

Which is why he is fighting to keep the party structure from using his name. He doesn’t want anyone other than Trump making money off the name “Trump.” It’s how he has always done things. And he needs the money more now than he has in decades.

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