On Tuesday, a Veteran's group called Veterans for a Strong America (VSA) endorsed billionaire Donald Trump's Presidential candidacy during a rally on board the decommissioned U.S.S. Iowa in San Pedro, California.
In a press release, Trump said, "I am honored to receive the endorsement of this fantastic group... If I win I am going to get our vets the care they need, treatment they deserve, and make America and our military great again!"
Except details about this veterans group are not entirely clear. Founded in 2010, VSA is run by South Dakota lawyer Joel Arends, who says the organization doesn't usually endorse a candidate until the general election but recognizes Trump as an "inherent leader capable of achieving mission success."
What Trump can or can't do is for American voters to decide, but the back story behind Veterans for a Strong America is a bit hazy.
The fundraiser on the battleship Iowa this week was ostensibly meant to be a fundraiser for the 501(c)4 VSA, which will "go towards helping Veterans for a Strong America supporting our warriors on and off the battlefield and not to any candidate or candidate's committee."
Except the nonprofit status of VSA has since been revoked for failure to file the IRS form 990 for three consecutive years. So, the money from the event will likely go to the VSA Super PAC, and thus, to Joel Arends, who as of last night, may have been the sole member of VSA.Arends deployed to Iraq in 2004 and later served with the rank of Major in the Army Reserve. While in Iraq, he was awarded the Bronze Star for operations in and around Baghdad. So his veteran status is beyond reproach.
Though he did paint a rather rosy picture of the war in Iraq in 2006, telling a reporter from Sioux City, Iowa at the time that "Iraq is a place of great progress" and that "American troops in Baghdad won the locals' hearts and minds," with 14 of the 18 provinces "considered relatively peaceful."
VSA is not a non-partisan group
The group dates back to at least 2012, when the left-leaning Mother Jones website ran an article about their attempt to "swift boat" Obama during the 2012 election.
"Swift Boating" is now a political term meant to surprise a candidate's military record, either truthfully or not, by "Veterans" who may or may not be associated with the candidate. The term refers to the "Swift Boat Veterans for Truth" ad ran against John Kerry during the 2004 Presidential election. In the 2012 Mother Jones article, Arends made no bones about his group's activities.
"Yes, it's the swift boating of the president, in the sense of using what's perceived to be his greatest strength and making it his greatest weakness," which Arends meant as the Bin Laden raid.
Arends contends his group is nonpartisan, though he has a history of working for Republican candidates and causes, including as a field director for the Bush-Cheney campaign in 1999, as the Veteran's Director in Iowa in 2007 for John McCain for President, and working to promote events for Rick Santorum and Newt Gingrich, according to his Facebook page. The group's registration also lists it as a conservative action group, which means...
VSA is a Super PAC
Super PACs are the anonymous dark money receptacles that are a result of the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, allowing anyone to to donate unlimited sums to be distributed by these groups, as long as the candidate does not help coordinate how that money is spent.
In the 2012 election cycle, VSA spent all of the more than $170,000 it raised on Republican candidates during that time and some of it was spent against another Republican candidate. It also appears most of that money was donated to itself (VSA has a 501(c)4 "social welfare" nonprofit with the same name).
The VSA Super PAC spent more than it brought in, ending the election $14,000 in the red. Where that money came from is not known, but what is known is before last night's endorsement/Trump fundraiser, VSA had $30 in cash and $318 in debts.
When looking up the domain owner for VSA's website, www.veteransforastrongamerica.org, we found it was registered to DomainsByProxy.com, a GoDaddy site which gained notoriety in the 2012 elections for allowing political entities to pay to hide the owners of certain websites.
Interestingly enough, VSA claims membership numbers that include its over 57,000 Facebook fans and "500k grassroots." It's a bit of a stretch to claim a Facebook fan as a "member," since it could be practically anyone who just wants to learn more about VSA and clicks "like." The grassroots membership claim comes from a Sep. 1 press release that claims "500,000 supporters nationwide."
We have reached out to VSA and will update if we hear back.