Trump diverts political donations to pay tens of millions in legal fees

According to documents filed with election authorities, the former president has been using money received from suppporters of his campaign to cover court expenses

Former president Donald Trump tosses autographed caps to supporters in Bedminster, New Jersey.Seth Wenig (LaPresse / ap)
Miguel Jiménez

Donald Trump has been bombarding his supporters with emails. In one sent Friday, he accused prosecutor Fani Willis, who issued the fourth indictment against the former president last Monday, of persecuting him to gain popularity and raise money for her own re-election campaign as district attorney. Interestingly, after those criticisms, at the end of the same message, Trump himself passed the hat. His email included multiple links to make donations, suggesting amounts ranging from $1 to $250. The billionaire former president is using the money he has been receiving from citizens as political donations to pay tens of millions of dollars in legal fees, according to documents filed with election authorities.

Trump’s practice was the subject of attention from members of the House committee investigating the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol. Their thesis was that the former president asked for money from small contributors to combat an alleged electoral rigging that he knew was a hoax and could therefore constitute fraud — even more so considering that the money was not used for the promised purposes. Trump’s appeal to alleged election rigging was a “marketing tactic,” his campaign’s head of digital advertising admitted before the commission. “It wasn’t just the Big Lie, it was the Big Scam,” said Zoe Lofgren, a Republican member of the committee.

Special Counsel Jack Smith, who has charged Trump with four federal crimes for his attempt to subvert the outcome of the 2020 election, also investigated the source and destination of the money and messaging used to raise funds, but ultimately did not include any such charges in his indictment. It can be inferred that even if Trump’s conduct was ethically questionable and on the fringes of legality, Smith has not been able to make a strong case about donation fraud to bring before a jury, at least for the time being.

Trump’s refusal to admit defeat to Joe Biden in the 2020 presidential election very quickly became a big deal. With the claim that he needed money to prove alleged voter fraud, Republican voters eager for his re-election handed him tens of millions of dollars in the weeks following the ballot. Trump kept up the hoax and continued to cash in.

The defeated candidate founded a political action committee (PAC) to receive the money, called Save America, which has raised more than $150 million. It is a “leadership PAC,” a mechanism that provides greater leeway for the use of its funds, which do not necessarily have to be earmarked for election expenses. That loophole is what makes it difficult to prosecute Trump for diverting the funds for his personal purposes.

Trump used part of that money to support some of his preferred candidates in last November’s midterm elections, but also to address his legal troubles. An analysis of reports filed with the election authority cited by AP notes that Trump’s political committees have paid at least $59 million to more than 100 lawyers and legal firms since 2021. Other media place the figure in the region of $40 million.

In any case, the bill will continue to rise. The former president faces four complex criminal investigations and several civil cases, many of them still in their early stages. Trump’s committees have paid for the defense and legal counsel of several co-defendants and witnesses in the open cases, which also raises questions about potential conflicts of interest.

The former president has used his successive indictments to accelerate his fundraising campaign. On his first court appearance in New York, donations skyrocketed. Some 120,000 supporters pledged $4 million in 24 hours. There was also a spike after the former president’s indictment over the classified Mar-a-Lago papers. There is no data available yet on what effect the two indictments issued in the past month had on his campaign coffers.

All in all, Trump’s electoral finances are beginning to suffer from so much legal expenditure. The former president has a joint fundraising committee, the Save America PAC, an official campaign committee, Donald J. Trump for president 2024, Inc., and the Super PAC MAGA Inc., which also has fewer fundraising limitations. According to an EL PAÍS analysis of data provided to the Federal Election Commission by those entities, the combined balance has been reduced from $79.1 million at the close of 2022 to $62.6 million at the end of June. The Trump campaign spends more than it receives.

In fact, for now, the former president needs the money more for the courts than for his campaign. He has a comfortable lead in the primary polls of more than 35 points over his immediate pursuer, Ron DeSantis, whose cash box is overflowing but who is floundering on the campaign trail.

Trump is so sure of victory that he plans to stand up the rest of the Republican candidates in the first debate of the primaries, scheduled for August 23. According to U.S. media, the former president plans to counter-program the debate by giving an interview to controversial television host Tucker Carlson. It is an affront not only to the Republican National Committee, which has insisted Trump attend, but also to FOX, which fired Carlson in April following a defamation lawsuit that cost the network nearly $800 million.

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