As former President Donald Trump's second impeachment trial kicks off, Americans will likely learn plenty about the events leading up to the deadly riot at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6. We're likely to learn, for instance, more about communications between Trump's team and mob organizers. We may even learn more about Trump's actions during the assault itself.
However, we're unlikely to learn much more about one key element that fanned the flames of insurrection: who funded the rally.
We’re unlikely to learn much more about one key element that fanned the flames of insurrection: who funded the rally.
Thanks in part to a raft of loopholes and legislation, we don't know exactly who bankrolled the rally that turned into the deadly attack. We do know that Trump's network worked closely behind the scenes to hype the rally, with plenty of Trump's current or former campaign staffers — such as Maggie Mulvaney, the campaign's director of finance operations, and Megan Powers, a campaign operations manager — directly involved.
And Anna Massoglia of OpenSecrets reports that the Trump campaign had previously directed nearly $3 million to people who helped organize the rally — though the money wasn't for the rally specifically. Beyond that, however, little is known about the financial links between Trump's network and those who descended on the Capitol. As Massoglia noted, "The full extent of the Trump campaign's ties to the protests may not be fully known due to its use of shell companies that hide details of its financial dealings and the central role 'dark money' played in the protests."
She's exactly right. Thanks to a lattice of financial secrecy vehicles — all of which are perfectly legal — we may never have a complete financial picture of those who provided the money to organize a rally that descended into chaos and that shook the underpinnings of American democracy.
This is just one example of a much bigger problem. The U.S. remains the biggest offshore and financial secrecy haven in the world. Thanks to a wide range of financial tools, from anonymous hedge funds to anonymous trusts to anonymous real estate purchases, there are few jurisdictions easier to hide money in than the U.S. Financial anonymity is as American as apple pie — and illicit finance has raced to the U.S. over the past few decades.
Much of that anonymous money has, unsurprisingly, found its way into the American political sector. As another estimate from OpenSecrets found, $750 million from untraceable "dark money" groups barreled into the 2020 election, adding to the staggering totals we've seen in just the past decade. These "dark money" conduits include organizations like the Republican Attorneys General Association, whose Rule of Law Defense Fund helped direct people to the Jan. 6 protest — all without having to disclose its donors. (The group later denied that it helped organize the protest, even though it made robocalls pointing audiences to the rally.)
Another nonprofit shielded from disclosing its donors, dubbed Women for America First, helped take the lead in organizing the rally-turned-insurrection — and often "feature[d] members of the president's campaign and family," ABC News reported.
Of course, it doesn't have to be that way. And there are signs that the days of financial opacity may be coming to an end.
First, there's the historic precedent. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, spurred a military debacle and years of civil liberties abuses, but they also led to long-overdue anti-money laundering reforms in the American banking sector. The USA Patriot Act is rightly disparaged for its surveillance overreach, but it also included the most progressive anti-money laundering reforms the U.S. — and potentially the world — had ever seen. It forced American banks to eliminate an entire range of tools used for money laundering and financial secrecy. Two decades later, the Patriot Act's financial transparency provisions still stand, and they are still some of the most sweeping anti-money laundering measures the country and the world have ever enacted.
But something more recent offers reason for optimism, as well. Completely buried by news of the insurrection, the U.S. finally moved this year to ban anonymous shell companies, a huge move toward financial transparency. For years, thanks to states like Delaware and Wyoming, the U.S. acted as the primary provider of these anonymous shells, open to any and all. Time and again, these shells provided the perfect tool to hide financial links, especially when it came to political financing.
The new legislation isn’t a panacea, and information about shell company ownership remains private for the time being, accessible only to American authorities.
The new legislation isn't a panacea, and information about shell company ownership remains private for the time being, accessible only to American authorities. But the fact that the legislation passed is a testament to the fact that the U.S. can still take significant steps to tackle this kind of financial anonymity — with bipartisan support.
While the new legislation will take some time to roll out, it is already having an impact. Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., one of the key figures behind the passage of anti-shell company legislation, recently submitted the Insurrection Financing Transparency Act, which would give American authorities immediate access to the identities of those behind the Jan. 6 riot. The bill hasn't yet passed, but with nearly 30 co-sponsors, it demonstrates that there's clearly a wide appetite in Congress to determine who financed the assault.
Nor should legislators stop there. For instance, passing a bill like H.R. 1 would force nonprofits involved in political financing to reveal their funders. The Biden administration alone could (and should) take a range of steps, from forcing anonymous real estate and hedge fund investors to reveal their true identities to pushing greater requirements for publicly traded companies to reveal details of their political spending. With these new disclosures in place, potential funders would think twice before bankrolling any of those pushing insurrectionist rhetoric.
Likewise, such reforms might well prevent the rise of a future Trumpian figure. Trump, after all, rose to prominence saturated in dirty and dark money; as one estimate found, Trump's buildings made billions from sales to anonymous figures, all of whom matched money laundering profiles. Preventing the rise of another figure drenched in financial anonymity — and who incited an insurrection propelled in part by opaque funding — is a clear necessity, not only to make sure there is no reprise of the Jan. 6 assault, but also for the future of American democracy writ large.