Donald Trump's campaign finances strained as legal trouble mounts

Former President Donald Trump speaks to supporters during a political rally while campaigning for the GOP nomination in the 2024 election at Erie Insurance Arena on July 29, 2023 in Erie, Pennsylvania. (Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images)

Donald Trump’s political operation entered the second half of the year in a strained financial position with its bank account drained by tens of millions of dollars that were directed toward defending the former president from mounting legal challenges as he seeks the White House again.

Trump took in over $53 million since the start of 2023, records show, a period in which his two criminal indictments in Florida and New York were turned into a rallying cry that made his fundraising soar. Yet the Republican presidential front-runner burned through at least $42.8 million this year, much of it used to cover costs related to the mounting legal peril faced by Trump, his aides and other allies, leaving him with $31.8 million cash on hand. And that was after receiving a lifeline from a pro-Trump super PAC that agreed to refund millions of dollars in contributions that Trump's operation had previously donated to it.

New campaign finance disclosures made public ahead of Monday night's filing deadline showed Trump's network of political committees spent roughly $25 million on legal fees. But according to a person familiar with the situation who insisted on anonymity to discuss the matter, the number is considerably higher: $40 million this year alone.

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It's a familiar position for Trump, carrying an echo of the 2020 presidential contest when his massive cash advantage over Joe Biden evaporated amid profligate spending by his campaign. Though Trump currently dominates the Republican primary field, a lack of cash could force his campaign to make difficult spending decisions as he braces for the possibility of two additional indictments, which could come as soon as this week in Georgia and Washington and are related to his efforts to overturn the outcome of the 2020 election.

"I’ve never seen anything like it," said Paul S. Ryan, a longtime campaign finance attorney in Washington, referring to the sum Trump's operation spent on legal fees this year. "There’s no legal issue. It’s really just a question for his donors: Do they want to be funding lawyers?"

Trump is not alone in his money struggles. His top rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis raised over $20 million after launching his much-hyped candidacy in May. But DeSantis, who trails Trump in a distant second place, hemorrhaged cash in his first six weeks as a candidate, burning through $8 million in a spending spree that included more than 100 paid staffers, a large security detail and luxury travel.

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Never Back Down, a super PAC supporting him that can raise and spend unlimited amounts, reported raising $130 million in a filings submitted before Monday's midnight deadline. But it also spent roughly one-quarter of that money, much of it going to cover operations, like voter turnout, that are typically paid for by a candidate's campaign, filings show.

The group was financed with $80 million left over from DeSantis' successful 2022 gubernatorial reelection campaign. Most of the other cash was raised from several dozen corporations and donors, who gave over $100,000, including Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas-based businessman, who gave Never Back Down $20 million, records show.

DeSantis has pledged to reset and trim expenses, laying off more than a third of his staff. Trump does not have the same luxury.

To help offset his growing legal bills, Trump's allies are launching a new fundraising effort. The Patriot Legal Defense Fund, as it is called, is intended to defray costs for those "defending against legal actions arising from an individual or group’s participation in the political process," according to a filing made last month with the IRS. The group will be run by Trump campaign senior advisers Susie Wiles and Michael Glassner.

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"The weaponized Department of Justice and the deranged Jack Smith have targeted innocent Americans associated with President Trump," said Trump spokesman Steven Cheung. "In order to combat these heinous actions by Joe Biden’s cronies and to protect these innocent people from financial ruin and prevent their lives from being completely destroyed, a new legal defense fund will help pay for their legal fees." The fund was first reported by The New York Times.

Smith is the special counsel leading the federal investigations of Trump. His team has expressed interest in the payment of legal fees for Trump-aligned witnesses in the investigations and has sought information about it, according to a person familiar with the matter who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss ongoing criminal probes.

Trump's PAC has also requested that his super PAC, MAGA Inc., return some of the money that it transferred to seed the group to help cover costs. Filings show Trump's PAC, Save America, received $12.2 million in refunds from the group in May and June.

A spokesman for the super PAC did not respond to a request for comment.

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Trump launched Save America, in the days after the 2020 election, which he lost to Biden. For weeks, the group bombarded supporters with a nonstop stream of text messages and emails that purported to raise money for an "election defense fund" that would be used to contest the election's outcome.

But the $170 million that the effort raised in less than a month was not used to contest the election, records show. Instead, it was used to pay down campaign debt and replenish the coffers of the Republican National Committee, with Trump also stockpiling another large chunk for his future political endeavors. Last year, the Justice Department issued a round of grand jury subpoenas that sought information about the political action committee’s fundraising practices.

Since then, Save America has served as a different sort of "defense fund," covering the legal expenses for Trump operatives, allies and employees who have been ensnared in the Justice Department’s ongoing investigation.

Some of Save America's money has been used to boost other candidates, though it's a pittance compared to how much Trump has spent on ballooning legal costs.

As the 2022 midterm elections approached, Trump pledged to back congressional candidates loyal to him. But of the roughly $65 million earmarked by Save America for political spending, less than a third — about $20 million — was used to back midterm candidates through campaign contributions or paid advertising.

Colvin reported from New York. Associated Press writer Eric Tucker in Washington contributed to this report.