Facing multiple and escalating investigations, former President Donald J. Trump has quietly begun diverting more of the money he is raising from his 2024 presidential campaign to a political action committee that he has used to pay his personal legal fees. .
The change, which was not 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 prepares for at least two criminal trials. and if his PAC, Save America, faces a financial crisis.
When Mr. Trump launched his 2024 campaign in November, for every dollar raised online, 99 cents went to his campaign and one cent went to Save America.
But archival internet records show that sometime in February or March, he adjusted that division. Now her campaign share is down to 90 percent of donations, with 10 percent going to Save America.
The effect of that change is potentially substantial: Based on 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 make his small donors pay his legal fees, rather than pay them himself.
Steven Cheung, a Trump spokesman, did not respond to detailed questions about why Trump’s operation has changed how the funds he is raising are divided up. Save America technically owns his supporters’ list of email addresses and phone numbers, one of the former president’s most valuable assets, and the campaign is effectively paying the PAC for access to that list, he explained.
“Because the campaign wants to ensure that every dollar donated to President Trump is spent in the most cost-effective manner, a fair market analysis was conducted to determine that email list rentals would be more efficient by modifying the fundraising division. funds between the two entities. ”, Mr. 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, in general, a PAC can’t spend money directly on a candidate’s campaign, and a campaign committee can’t directly pay for things that personally benefit the candidate.
For more than a year, before Trump was a 2024 candidate, Save America has been footing 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.
In early 2023, the PAC’s available cash was reduced to $18 million, the documents show. The rest had been spent on staff salaries, the costs of Trump’s political activities last year — including some spending on other candidates and groups — and in other ways. That included the $60 million that was transferred to MAGA Inc., a super PAC that supports Trump. And more than $16 million went to pay legal bills.
Trump’s rivals are not similarly dividing their online profits 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 Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, former Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey and Vivek Ramaswamy.
“I think in this particular situation, specifically because of the leadership PAC’s use to pay for legal expenses and potentially other expenses that would be an illegal personal use of campaign money, there is an unusual incentive for the leadership PAC to take more than than you normally would,” said Adav Noti, senior vice president and chief legal officer at the Campaign Legal Center.
In the run up to Trump’s latest campaign, his legal bills skyrocketed in size. Save America spent $1.9 million on what it identified as legal expenses in the first half of 2022. That number shot up to nearly $14.6 million in the second half of last year, federal records show.
As of late 2022, a Trump adviser said Save America PAC had set aside about $20 million to cover legal expenses.
Since then, Mr. Trump has been indicted twice, once by a Manhattan grand jury on charges stemming from a hush money payment to a porn star, and once by a federal grand jury in Florida on charges including rape. of the Espionage Act stemming from Mr. Trump’s possession of classified material and government records long after he left office.
A prominent lawyer, Todd Blanche, left his white-collar law firm in April to join the former president’s legal team and is now representing him in both cases, and Trump recently met with half a dozen lawyers in Florida.
Trump’s legal troubles are deeply intertwined with his political campaign and fundraising efforts. His campaign store is selling an “I’m with Trump” T-shirt showing the date of his impeachment in Manhattan (“30.03.2023”) for $36; he recently added a second T-shirt with his Florida arraignment date (“06.08.2023”) for $38. Half of the featured items on the store’s home page feature a fake mugshot and the words “not guilty.”
And Trump’s usual legal strategy — delay, delay, delay — could prove costly as overlapping teams of administrative lawyers defend him in the federal case and the Manhattan criminal case, as well as in the Georgia investigation, where Trump could face another. indictment this summer for his role in the attempt to overturn the 2020 election. He also faces an escalating investigation by special counsel Jack Smith into his efforts to cling to power after losing the election.
It’s unclear whether Trump will try to use campaign funds to pay for lawyers, should he run into difficulties with the political action committee, and whether such a move would conflict with spending rules.
“He can use the campaign to pay legal bills that arise from the activity of the candidate or the official, and of course some of the current legal issues fall into that category, and some don’t, and some are in a gray area.” said Mr. Noti said. “It really depends on what issue we’re talking about.”
Jason Torchinsky, a Republican election lawyer, said he believed Trump was barred from using Save America donations to pay for his personal legal expenses now that he is a candidate, arguing that doing so would be “an excessive contribution” under Federal Commission precedent. of Elections. And he said that Trump couldn’t use the campaign money at all, because he would qualify as personal use.
There have been signs that the Trump campaign has been carefully monitoring its spending.
He has mostly attended events organized by other groups, rather than hosting his own large-scale political rallies, which were the lifeblood of his last two runs for president and are one of his favorite parts of the campaign. Those rallies are expensive, costing at least $150,000 and usually more than $400,000.
Trump has held only one large-scale rally in the seven months he has been participating, with a second scheduled for July 1 in South Carolina, the first in an early-nomination state. (A rally in Iowa on May 13 was canceled after a tornado warning, though the weather improved and DeSantis held an impromptu event nearby.)
People familiar with Trump’s campaign plans have said the shortage of rallies was as much about managing resources as it was about getting Trump to engage with voters in a more traditional way. People also suggested more large-scale events could happen in the fall, as the main race heats up.
But the fundraising surges Trump experienced after his first impeachment in late March and again in June are expected to obscure a broader slowdown in fundraising. His campaign announced that he had raised $12 million in the first week after his first indictment and $7 million in the week after the second. Next, he will reveal the status of his PAC and his campaign finances in federal filings in July.
Trump is unusually reliant on online fundraising. He’s only done one major fundraiser that his team advertised as such: the event in Bedminster the night of his indictment. He raised $2 million.