Last August, while many Republican presidential hopefuls scrambled to raise money, Donald Trump focused on a different financial consideration.
In an item the former president published to his social media platform, the Republican wrote, “The Lunatic Left, working closely with Crooked Joe Biden and his corrupt DOJ, is not only focusing on Election Interference, but on getting the Trump Campaign to spend vast amounts of money on legal fees, thereby having less to spend on ads....”
Much of the missive was nonsense, though the former president’s reference to spending “vast amounts” on his legal defense raised an obvious question: Just how brutal are Trump’s legal bills?
Five months later, an answer has come into focus. The New York Times reported:
Donald J. Trump piled up legal expenses in 2023 as he was indicted four times, spending approximately $50 million in donor money on legal bills and investigation-related expenses last year, according to two people briefed on the figure.
The Times’ report, which has not been independently verified by MSNBC or NBC News, described the total as “a staggering sum,” which was more than fair. If the figures are accurate, we’re talking about a presidential candidate who spent nearly $1 million per week, every week for a year, on his legal expenses.
Ordinarily, when campaign contributors make donations, they assume that their money will go toward advertising, campaign staff, campaign offices, etc. When Trump’s followers send him money, however, a dramatic amount of donors’ money is redirected to the former president’s defense counsel.
The details of his political operation’s finances will come into focus in the latest Federal Election Commission filings — the deadline is roughly 11 hours away — but as the Times’ report explained, the emerging picture will only tell part of a larger story.
After Trump’s defeat in 2020, his followers sent millions to his Save America political action committee, hoping the money would go toward overturning the election results, as the Republican bombarded his base with brazen lies. (It didn’t.)
When the former president’s legal fees took a severe toll on Save America’s finances, the PAC did something weird: It asked an allied super PAC, Make America Great Again Inc., to give $60 million back, in order to ease the once-flush Save America operation’s financial strains. (The money was supposed to go toward primary-season advertising. Much of the money went to Trump’s lawyers instead.)
What’s more, as we discussed several months ago, when the former president kicked off his comeback bid, 99 cents of every dollar raised online went to his 2024 campaign, while one penny went to the Save America PAC. Early last year, however, Team Trump tweaked the ratio: Instead of one penny from every dollar going to the PAC that finances his legal defense, it was 10 cents.
With this in mind, the Times’ latest report added:
Mr. Trump has paid legal expenses through both Save America and a second account, called the Make America Great Again PAC, which is an outgrowth of his 2020 re-election committee. In the first half of 2023, Save America transferred $5.85 million to the Make America Great Again PAC, which spent almost all of that sum on legal and investigation-related costs. The roughly $50 million figure is a combination of such costs through both groups.
It’s worth noting for context that during Trump’s White House tenure, as the then-president faced growing legal bills, the Republican National Committee agreed to help pay his legal bills. After Trump left office, the RNC continued to help pay Trump’s legal bills.
But because the RNC tried, at least initially, to be neutral in the party’s presidential nominating contest, Trump was forced to find someone else to pay his legal bills — so he appears to have put the onus on his donors.
Of course, the likely Republican nominee could pay his own legal bills — he claims to be an exceedingly wealthy man — but as the Times’ article added, Trump “has long been loath to pay lawyers himself and has a history of stiffing those who represent him.”
In theory, these revelations might discourage contributors from opening their wallets to the former president, though (a) they’re unlikely to hear about any of this; and (b) given the fealty Trump enjoys from his core followers, it might not sway them even if they did know the truth.