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Trump tests ‘crime doesn’t pay’ adage with post-indictment appeals

If there’s one thing Donald Trump and his team know how to do, it’s separate people who trust him from their money — even after an indictment.


The Wall Street Journal reported a couple of weeks ago that special counsel Jack Smith’s investigation into Donald Trump’s classified documents scandal was “all but finished,” and the former president’s team was “bracing for his indictment.” But in the same sentence, the article added that the Republican’s close associates “anticipate being able to fundraise off a prosecution.”

It was a disjointed observation. On the one hand, the former president and his political operation expected that he’d soon be accused of several felonies. On the other hand, they saw a silver lining: Trump’s followers would grab their wallets and shower the Republican with cash.

It was against this backdrop that NBC News reported last night:

The former president sent out a fundraising email just after 7:30 p.m. ET announcing that he’s been indicted. “We are watching our Republic DIE before our very eyes,” the email said. “The Biden-appointed Special Counsel has INDICTED me in yet another witch hunt regarding documents that I had the RIGHT to declassify as President of the United States.” ... He asked his supporters to “make a contribution to peacefully stand” with him.

The timing was of interest: Trump announced his indictment via his social media platform, and according to the online timestamp, he published the news at 7:21 p.m. ET. His followers then received a fundraising appeal — the subject line read, “BREAKING: INDICTED” — and according to my email inbox, it arrived at 7:38 p.m. ET.

Or put another way, he and his operation saw an opportunity and wasted no time.

Revisiting our coverage from Trump’s first indictment, the very idea that a scandal-plagued politician would try to turn a criminal indictment into a grift is bewildering. Under normal political conditions, no one would even try to effectively say, “Prosecutors and grand jurors saw evidence that I committed a variety of felonies, so you should definitely reward me with cash.”

But we’re routinely reminded that the relationship between Trump and his followers is anything but normal.

Indeed, these new appeals will almost certainly work. The former president is, after all, the first modern American politician to turn an election defeat into a lucrative opportunity.

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 cause wallets to close.

But Trump’s hold on his followers is strong — so strong, in fact, that he raised over $4 million in the first 24 hours after his initial indictment and over $1 million in the second 24 hours.

The grift works, so it continues.

This post revises our related earlier coverage.