Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Washington ‘outsider,’ spent donations on insider expenses

U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks to the media on Capitol Hill, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)
U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, R-Ga., speaks to the media on Capitol Hill, on Friday, Feb. 5, 2021, in Washington, D.C. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Greene’s spending at odds with populist image, and other new members of Congress.

Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene rode into Congress on a message of “people over politicians” and fueled her bid with small-dollar donations from around the country.

Once in Washington, Greene quickly spent her donors’ money to gain access to the halls of power, an Atlanta Journal-Constitution analysis of her spending found.

In her year-end campaign filing, Greene reported spending campaign donations on a $717.60 dinner at BLT Prime, a pricey steakhouse inside the Trump International Hotel; another $653.15 to dine at the Beltway hangout Capital Grille; a $4,000 sponsorship payment to a conservative institute; and $825 to join the Capitol Hill Club, a Republican-only social club where lobbyists, staffers and elite donors come to rub elbows with members of Congress.

“That’s not where the revolution typically gets launched,” said Doug Heye, a Washington veteran and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee, said of the Capitol Hill Club.

It wasn’t her first trip to the club. In the fall of 2019, Greene spent $547 there for four meals over two days. The Washington trip came just prior to Greene’s decision to jump from the crowded Republican field in the 6th District, where she lived, and run instead in the 14th District.

Greene’s spending is all the more striking because her fundraising has used social media platforms favored by white nationalists, QAnon conspiracy believers and other far-right extremists to target small donors.

“White, Woman, Wife, Mother, Christian, Conservative, Business Owner,” Greene wrote in one recent Telegram post. “These are the reasons they don’t want me on Ed & Labor. It’s my identity & my values.”

Campaign records show 60% of the money she raised came from donors contributing less than $200 throughout the 2020 election cycle, while her year-end report showed small-dollar donors made up more than 90% of recent individual contributions.

Carl Cavalli, a professor of political science at the University of North Georgia, said the expenditures appear “tone deaf” and run counter to her outsider rhetoric, but they are allowed. There is “a lot of gray area” in what constitutes a legitimate expense of campaign donations under federal law. If the expense supports the political — rather than personal — needs of the candidate, it’s generally acceptable, he said.

The Capitol Hill Club, a short walk from the U.S. Capitol, is where Republican leaders plot political strategy and host dinners for big donors. Lobbyists and Hill staffers join for the proximity to power. It’s such a part of the Republican establishment it is literally connected to the RNC offices via a second-story skybridge. Heye said the constant hobnobbing and career climbing is exhausting.

“If I didn’t have to go there, I never went,” Heye said. “There are members (of Congress) who practically live there. It’s their thing. It’s what they do and where they go, but they are there with the lobbyists.”

Karen Owen, a political science professor at the University of West Georgia and scholar of women in American politics, said Greene’s inexperience with Washington politics may have led her to join the Capitol Hill Club, donate to Republican organizations or buy expensive dinners.

Owen said it likely won’t matter to her base right now.

“She could use this as an opportunity at this point to say, ‘Well, I can’t be part of committees because they were stripped, but I’m going here to talk to Republicans about policy,’” she said.

But outside of her core supporters, such spending might look inauthentic, especially to younger voters who prize authenticity in their candidate, she said.

Greene’s campaign office declined to answer questions for this report.

Contrast to colleagues

Not every congressional newcomer was as anxious to use donor money to purchase a club membership. Of the 45 House freshmen Republicans, Greene was one of just six to pay for a membership out of campaign money upon their arrival in Washington.

Like Greene, Rep. Andrew Clyde, R-Athens, rode an easy path to office in November after winning his Republican primary runoff. But unlike Greene, Clyde hasn’t dipped into campaign funds in the same way. Clyde’s expenses were limited to paying consultants and other campaign-related bills.

Another new member of Congress from Georgia, Democratic Rep. Nikema Williams, spent $767.19 on a group event catered by Atlanta restaurant Empire State South about a week after the election. Williams’ receipts do not include club memberships or expensive D.C. dinners on the donors’ dime in the months following the election.

Likewise, another congressional newcomer, Rep. Carolyn Bourdeaux, D-Suwanee, chose not to spend her campaign cash on Beltway meals or club dues. Bourdeaux fed her volunteers sandwiches from Jimmy Johns on election night, but her campaigning accounts have been relatively quiet since her narrow victory in Georgia’s 7th District.

Cavalli said he did not expect Greene would pay much of a price for her spending.

“I don’t think the idea that she is selling out to the old guard or being absorbed by the establishment is going to register with her (supporters),” he said.

Donation appeals on Telegram, Gab

Greene’s online fans cheered her even as she was losing what little clout she had when a Democratic-led effort in the House stripped her of her committee assignments earlier this month.

“Give ‘em hell Marjorie! Those corrupt democRats STOLE the presidency AND senate with Election FRAUD. Thank you for standing up for AMERICA!” one Gab user wrote.

“Please do not abandon us. We believe. We trust the plan,” another wrote on her page, using the “trust the plan” slogan common among QAnon believers.

Greene opened her accounts on Telegram and Gab in January following the collapse of Parler, and she quickly built a large following. Her Telegram channel has more than 133,000 subscribers and she had another 235,000 on Gab, dwarfing the 94,000 Facebook users who like her congressional page on that platform.

She immediately used her popularity on these platforms to make repeated calls for donations. In one post on Gab, Greene urged her followers to give more.

“$170K!!!Only $5,000 away from the new goal,” she wrote.

Many followers offered words of support or said they donated. How much Greene has realized from her fund-raising efforts is not known. Her next required campaign finance report is months away. While the comments were largely supportive, the pleas for money so far away from a reelection campaign raised some eyebrows from her anti-establishment following.

“Exactly what is the goal?” said one self-described member of the far-right Oath Keeper militia. “I’m tired of being played by politicians.”

Others referenced her emotional apology during a closed-door meeting with the House Republican Caucus that preceded the committee vote and her floor speech where she disavowed QAnon and other conspiracy theories that marked her life before running for office.

“You need to make a statement to clarify how you took the money from your supporters, and then turned your back to them by apologizing to Congress for all your statements, which in turn received a standing ovation,” one wrote. “Will you now be returning all those donations to those who bravely supported your stance, to just stab them all in the back?”

How we got the story

Following Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s battles with House leadership, Atlanta Journal-Constitution investigative reporter Chris Joyner analyzed spending and contribution records for her congressional campaign and her fundraising pitches on social media platforms Telegram and Gab to see if those records matched her political rhetoric. Joyner also sorted through hundreds of online comments to learn how Greene’s supporters and detractors were reacting to her behavior, and analyzed the spending of other freshmen members of Congress to see how it compared.

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