In theory, it might seem impossible for a scandal-plagued politician to turn a criminal indictment into a grift. In practice, the relationship between Donald Trump and his followers is not normal.
Nearly two weeks ago, after the former president predicted that he’d soon be indicted by Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, the Republican raised $1.5 million in just three days. About one hour after the indictment news was confirmed, Team Trump returned to the well. My MSNBC colleague Hayes Brown noted yesterday afternoon:
The Trump campaign is never one to miss an opportunity to make a buck or two. Already a fundraising email pegged to the indictment has hit supporters’ inboxes.
There wasn’t anything especially remarkable about the brief appeal, which used the phrase “witch hunt” four times before begging for cash, but its existence stood out: When scandal-plagued politicians typically face criminal charges, they tend to respond with some combination of fear and embarrassment. Trump keeps seeing fundraising opportunities.
Indeed, a few hours after the first appeal went out, NBC News highlighted the second:
In response to the first indictment of a former president, Trump’s 2024 re-election campaign is selling T-shirts. “What better way to show your support for President Trump and our incredible movement during this dark chapter in our nation’s history than to proudly wear the brand-new ‘I Stand with President Trump’ T-shirt,” the campaign said in an email to supporters Thursday night. The email asks donors to contribute $47 before midnight to get a shirt “for FREE.”
It wasn’t just Trump. Around the same time as the T-shirt pitch went out, Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, appearing rather emotional, pleaded with GOP viewers to send money to the former president.
“They’re trying to bleed him dry,” the South Carolina Republican said without explaining who “they” might be. Graham added, “Donald J. Trump dot com. Go tonight. Give the president some money to fight this bulls---.”
Will all of this work in separating donors from their money? Recent history suggests it’ll be quite effective, indeed. After all, Trump is the first modern American politician to turn an election defeat into a lucrative opportunity.
Revisiting our earlier coverage, it was in December 2020 when the Republican’s operation pushed an avalanche of lies about the election held a month earlier, telling gullible donors that their money would go toward challenging the election results that the then-president falsely claimed were illegitimate.
The pitches were incredibly successful, at least insofar as they raised an enormous amount of money. But it was the latest in a series of Trump grifts: Contributors’ money wasn’t going toward pointless recounts, silly audits, and hapless lawsuits. Rather, most of the funds went to the Save America PAC — derided by campaign-finance experts as “essentially a type of slush fund, with few restrictions on how the money they raise can be spent.”
After Trump left the White House, things got worse: The former president kept lying about the election, causing his followers to keep donating. One appeal in 2021 told prospective donors, “We need you to join the fight to SECURE OUR ELECTIONS!” but none of the millions of dollars raised by Save America went toward any such efforts.
This took on new significance last year when the House select committee investigating the Jan. 6 attack held one of its public hearings and highlighted Team Trump’s “Official Election Defense Fund.”
As one former Trump campaign staffer told the bipartisan congressional committee, “I don’t believe there is actually a fund called the ‘Election Defense Fund.’”
As we discussed soon after, the bulk of the money simply went to the former president’s super PAC.
Common sense might suggest that the public would see these developments, learn about the former president’s underhanded tactics, and his fundraising would dry up — especially in the wake of a criminal indictment. His schemes have been exposed. His willingness to exploit his supporters has been well documented. All of this should start closing wallets.
But Trump’s hold on his followers is strong — so the grift continues.
This post revises our related earlier coverage.