As legal fees rise, Trump directs donations to PAC that covered them

Former President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the GOP State Convention in Columbus, Georgia on June 10, 2023. (Jon Cherry/The New York Times)

Former President Donald Trump delivers a speech at the GOP State Convention in Columbus, Georgia on June 10, 2023. (Jon Cherry/The New York Times)

Facing multiple increasingly intense investigations, former President Donald Trump has quietly begun diverting more of the money he is raising from his 2024 presidential campaign to a political action committee he used to pay his personal legal fees.

The change, which hasn’t been announced except in the fine print of his online disclosures, raises new questions about how Trump is paying his mounting legal bills — which could run into millions of dollars — as he stands preparing for at least two criminal trials, and whether his PAC, Save America, faces a financial crisis.

When Trump launched his 2024 campaign in November, for every dollar raised online, 99 cents went to his campaign and a penny went to Save America.

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But internet records show that in February or March he adjusted that split. Now his campaign share has been reduced to 90% of donations and 10% goes to Save America.

The effect of this change is potentially substantial: based on the fundraising figures announced by his campaign, the fine print maneuver may have already diverted at least $1.5 million to Save America.

And the existence of the group has allowed Trump to have his legal fees paid by his small donors, rather than paying them himself.

Steven Cheung, a spokesman for Trump, did not respond to detailed questions about why Operation Trump changed the way the funds he raises are distributed. Save America technically owns the list of email addresses and phone numbers of its supporters — one of the former president’s most valuable assets — and the campaign effectively pays the PAC to access that list, a he explained.

“Because the campaign wants to ensure that every dollar donated to President Trump is spent in the most cost effective way, a fair market analysis was conducted to determine that mailing list rentals would be more effective by altering the distribution of fundraising between the two entities,” Cheung said in a written statement.

The different rules governing what political action committees and candidate campaign committees can pay are both dizzying and somewhat contested. But generally, a PAC cannot spend money directly on the candidate’s campaign, and a campaign committee cannot pay directly for things that personally benefit the candidate.

For more than a year, before Trump ran in 2024, Save America was paying the bills related to various investigations into the former president and his allies. In February 2022, the PAC announced that it had $122 million in its coffers.

By early 2023, PAC cash was down to $18 million, according to filings. The rest had been spent on staff salaries, on the costs of Trump’s political activities last year — including some expenses for other candidates and groups — and in other ways. This included the $60 million that was transferred to MAGA Inc., a Trump-supporting super PAC. And more than $16 million went to pay legal fees.

Trump’s rivals don’t share their online revenue equally with an affiliated PAC. The websites of former Vice President Mike Pence, former Ambassador Nikki Haley and Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina direct all proceeds to their campaign committees. The same goes for Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey and Vivek Ramaswamy.

“I think in this particular situation, particularly with the use of the leadership PAC to pay for legal fees and potentially other expenses that would be unlawful personal use of campaign money, there is a unusual incentive for the leadership PAC to cash in more than normally would,” said Adav Noti, senior vice president and chief legal officer of Campaign Legal Center.

As Trump’s latest campaign approaches, his legal bills have skyrocketed. Save America spent $1.9 million on what it identified as legal fees in the first half of 2022. That figure jumped to nearly $14.6 million in the second half of last year, according to federal archives.

In late 2022, a Trump adviser said about $20 million had been set aside by Save America PAC to cover legal costs.

Since then, Trump has been indicted twice, once by a Manhattan grand jury on charges stemming from a silent payment to a porn star, and once by a Florida federal grand jury on charges including violations of the Espionage Act resulting from Trump’s possession. classified documents and government documents long after leaving office.

A prominent lawyer, Todd Blanche, left his white-collar law firm in April to join the former president’s legal team and now represents him in both cases, and Trump recently met with half a dozen lawyers in Florida.

Trump’s legal troubles are closely tied to his political campaign and fundraising efforts. His campaign store sells an “I Stand With Trump” t-shirt showing his Manhattan arraignment date (“2023-03-30”) for $36; he recently added a second shirt with his Florida arraignment date (“2023-08-06”) for $38. Half of the items featured on the store’s homepage display a fake photo ID and the words “not guilty”.

And Trump’s usual legal strategy — delay, delay, delay — could prove costly as overlapping teams of white-collar lawyers defend him in the federal case and the Manhattan criminal case, as well as in the investigation in Georgia, where Trump could face another indictment this summer for his role in trying to nullify the 2020 election. He also faces an increasingly intense investigation by special counsel Jack Smith on his efforts to cling to power after losing the election.

It remains unclear whether Trump will try to use his campaign funds to pay for lawyers, whether he’s having trouble with the political action committee — and whether such a move would violate spending rules.

“He can use the campaign to pay the legal bills that arise from the activity of candidates or office holders – and of course some of the current legal cases fall into that category, and some don’t, and some are in a gray area,” Noti said. “It really depends on what material we’re talking about.”

Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election lawyer, said he believed Trump had no right to use Save America donations to pay his personal legal fees now that he is a candidate, arguing that it would be “a contribution excessive” under Federal Election Commission precedent. And he said Trump couldn’t use campaign money at all because it would be considered personal use.

There have been signs that Trump’s campaign is carefully watching its spending.

He has mainly attended events organized by other groups, instead of organizing his own large-scale political rallies, which have been the cornerstone of his last two presidential bids and are one of his favorite parties. in the countryside. These gatherings are expensive, costing at least $150,000 and usually over $400,000.

Trump has held just one large-scale rally in the seven months he has led, with a second scheduled for July 1 in South Carolina, his first in an early-nomination state. (A rally in Iowa on May 13 was called off after a tornado warning, though the weather cleared and DeSantis held an impromptu event nearby.)

People familiar with the Trump campaign’s plans said the dearth of rallies was as much about managing resources as getting Trump to engage with voters in more traditional ways. People have also suggested that other large-scale events could take place in the fall as the main race heats up.

The fundraising spurts Trump experienced after his first indictment in late March and again in June should mask a broader slowdown in fundraising. His campaign announced that he raised $12 million the first week after his first arraignment and $7 million the week after his second. He will then disclose the status of his PAC and campaign finances in federal filings in July.

Trump is exceptionally dependent on online fundraising. He has only organized one major fundraising campaign that has been touted as such by his team: the event in Bedminster, New Jersey, the night of his arraignment. He raised $2 million.

circa 2023 The New York Times Society

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