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Trump campaign pumps small-dollar donors for $55m in legal expenses, records show

Trump PACs spent more than $55m on legal bills last year

Alex Woodward
Friday 02 February 2024 05:41 GMT
E. Jean Carroll exits court after Trump ordered to pay $83.3m for defamation

Two political action committees supporting Donald Trump spent more than $55m on the former president’s legal bills in 2023, with more than half of that cash spent within the second half of the year.

Campaign finance reports filed by Trump-allied PACs on Wednesday show Mr Trump paid out millions of dollars to almost 50 firms over the last year.

Many of these firms represent the Republican Party’s likely nominee for president as he faces 91 criminal charges, a massive defamation verdict and a potentially business-crushing lawsuit.

His committees paid out nearly $30m in legal costs within the last six months, records show. By the end of the year, across all his supporting PACs, Mr Trump’s campaign had more than $70m on hand.

A massive chunk of that campaign cash came from small-dollar donors, whose contributions face a fine print that 90 cents of every dollar goes to campaign committees while 10 cents goes to his Save America PAC.

That committee, founded in the wake of his 2020 presidential election loss as the campaign waged failed legal battles to overturn the results, raised tens of millions of dollars on a spurious pledge to fight for his victory in court. It’s now effectively a bank account for his legal expenses, with many donors giving donations of less than $50 at a time.

Wednesday’s filings only scratch the surface of Mr Trump’s mounting legal expenses. Jury trials have not yet started, he is in the middle of several appeals involving at least two cases likely headed to the US Supreme Court, and he cannot legally touch PAC money to pay out civil suit judgments.

Staggering legal expenses

The campaign finance reports show Mr Trump’s campaigns paid legal bills to 46 firms last year, though eight of them earned the lion’s share of that $55m.

The firms of Chris Kise, who is defending Mr Trump in both his New York civil fraud trial and in the federal classified documents case involving his Mar-a-Lago resort, were paid nearly $5m last year. The firm of Clifford Robert, a Trump family attorney representing Donald Trump Jr and Eric Trump in the civil fraud case, was paid nearly $4m.

The firm of Alina Habba, who represented Mr Trump in the fraud case and in E Jean Carroll’s defamation suit, was also paid nearly $4m.

John Lauro and Todd Blanche, attorneys in the federal criminal case involving his efforts to overturn 2020 election results, were paid $2.5m and $1.9m, respectively.

Donald Trump’s attorney Alina Habba walks outside a federal courthouse in Manhattan on 26 January. (REUTERS)

Save America PAC, which started 2022 with $105m, was burning through cash for Mr Trump’s legal bills through the first half of last year. The organisation spent more than $40m on legal fees by July.

The group asked for a refund of a $60m donation to the Trump-connected MAGA Inc. That PAC refunded $30m to Save America in the second half of the year – an average of about $5m a month – in addition to $12.5m that it gave back to Save America in the first half of the year, records show.

In all, a PAC established to re-elect Mr Trump funneled $42.5m back into a fund that is now chiefly used for paying lawyers, a total that is nearly equivalent to super PAC spending on other campaign expenses like television advertising.

The FEC filings detail Mr Trump’s web of legal obstacles and fees to attorneys wrapped up in them. Filings show payments to the firm of John Sauer, his attorney leading an appeal of a federal judge’s decision that rejected Mr Trump’s claim of “presidential immunity” to evade prosecution in his election conspiracy case. The filings also show payments to the firm that represented former Trump-allied attorney Kenneth Chesebro in the Fulton County election interference case – before he pleaded guilty.

Pumping small-dollar donors to pay lawyers and legal fees

After Mr Trump’s mugshot was released last August in the Georgia RICO case, his campaign raised more than $4.2m in online donations – his largest single-day haul of 2023, records show.

Mr Trump’s campaign has largely been powered by an aggressive fundraising operation relying on a long list of potential contributors, with only 6 per cent of his campaign cash coming in from donors who hit the $6,600 limit.

Campaign messages routinely use his mugshot and frame his legal challenges as a political attack to cast him as a victim of a Democratic conspiracy against him. He continues to baselessly cast the consequences of his alleged actions as “election interference” under President Joe Biden, who is “weaponizing” the judicial system against him.

The House select committee investigating the events surrounding the attack on the US Capitol on 6 January 2021 reported that Mr Trump’s fundraising arms collected more than $100m in the first week after Election Day in 2020 alone.

His campaign and allies raised $250m from baseless claims that the 2020 presidential election was stolen from him, the committee found.

Donald Trump speaks to supporters in Nevada on 27 January. (REUTERS)

As his campaign pivoted to his criminal cases and lawsuits, fundraising messages remind supporters of his legal fights and courtroom appearances to tell his supporters that their contributions help “defend our movement” against “witch hunt” trials.

His mugshot appears on “signed” posters with the words “never surrender”, $47 T-shirts, $35 mugs, and Trump-branded Christmas wrapping paper.

Last week, a jury determined he owes more than $83m in damages to E Jean Carroll, whom he repeatedly smeared after a separate jury found him liable for sexual abuse and defamation.

The attorney general of New York also is seeking $370m from Mr Trump and his co-defendants in a separate civil case targeting his Trump Organization for fraud.

In a deposition last year, the former president described his cash stockpile as “substantially in excess” of $400m, while Bloomberg listed his liquid assets at roughly $600m, though the actual state of his financial affairs is unclear, and he won’t be able to tap PAC cash to pay civil damages.

Dave Aronberg, the state attorney in Florida’s Palm Beach County, home of Mr Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate, explained to MSNBC on Monday that Mr Trump has to post a bond just to appeal the jury verdict in Ms Carroll’s case within 30 days of the decision, “so E Jean Carroll will get her money at some point”.

“He can try to get money from his supporters, but he’s got to tell them what it’s for ... He can’t say, ‘Help me with my re-election fund’ and then divert the money to E Jean Carroll,” he said. “That would be a crime.”

Competing for megadonor cash with Haley

In the final months of 2023, Mr Trump’s campaigns took in roughly $19m – less than 60 per cent of Mr Biden’s $33m haul – while paying out more than $23m.

The president’s campaign ended 2032 with $46m cash on hand, records show. By the end of the year, Biden-supporting super PAC Future Forward had roughly the same amount in the bank as MAGA Inc – $24m to MAGA’s $23.3m.

Mr Biden also can tap funding from the Democratic National Committee, while Mr Trump will have to wait until he is the Republican party’s nominee before he can formally access the Republican National Committee’s reserves.

But the RNC had its worst fundraising year in a decade, and its worst year in 30 years in inflation-adjusted figures, according to FEC filings.

Last year, the RNC raised $87.2m, spent $93.5m, and had roughly $8m on hand by the end of the year.

Mr Trump, meanwhile, is competing with Nikki Haley for a pool of campaign cash from billionaire Republican megadonors that could keep Mr Trump’s PACs afloat.

Robert Bigelow, formerly Ron DeSantis’s largest donor, told Reuters on Tuesday that he gave Mr Trump $1m to support his legal fees and agreed to donate another $20m to a Trump-aligned super PAC for campaign purposes.

“I gave him $1m towards his legal fees a few weeks ago. I made a promise to give him $20m more, that will be to the super PAC,” he told the outlet.

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