Aug 13, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Trump's legal fights burn through his campaign war chest

💰 Cash on hand for select super PACs
Data: FEC; Chart: Tory Lysik/Axios Visuals

The political action committees backing former President Trump's presidential campaign are increasingly intertwined with his legal woes.

Why it matters: This has created an unprecedented "grey area" of campaign finance, Jordan Libowitz, a spokesperson for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, told Axios.

Trump's leadership PAC, Save America, paid more than $36 million in legal fees for Trump's aides and his associates between Jan. 1 of 2021 and June 30 of this year, the Wall Street Journal reported from FEC data.

  • "Nearly 90% of Save America's everyday expenses this year accounted for legal-related costs," per the Journal.
  • In the first half of 2023 alone, Trump-related PACs and the Trump-aligned super PAC spent more than $27 million in legal fees and related expenses, according to a New York Times analysis.

Driving the news: Save America, which entered 2023 with more than $18 million on hand, ended the first filing period with about $3.6 million in cash on hand, per the FEC.

  • Save America also requested a roughly $60 million refund of a donation that it had previously sent to MAGA Inc., the Trump-aligned super PAC, the New York Times reported.
  • MAGA Inc. has already sent back roughly $12.25 million to Save America, per the Times.
  • "Using a leadership committee to prop up a super PAC and then using a super PAC to then go back to that leadership committee is just so strange, it is not something you've seen before," Libowitz told Axios.

Zoom out: Trump has been criminally indicted three times in 2023, including over a hush money payment during his 2016 presidential campaign, his post-presidency handling of classified documents and his efforts to overturn 2020 election results.

  • He has strong grassroots energy, despite the numerous legal troubles.
  • But his legal woes are expected to clash with his presidential campaign — and the fees could "continue to mount and arguably explode," national security attorney Bradley Moss wrote in an email.
  • A spokesperson for Trump's campaign did not respond to Axios' request for comment.

Between the lines: Super PACs, which don't have contribution limits, can't directly coordinate with campaigns, but they can spend on advertising and other areas to support a candidate.

  • Because it's much easier to raise large sums of money for super PACs, the original transaction between the two committees is "highly, highly, highly unusual," Paul Seamus Ryan, the deputy executive director at the Funders' Committee For Civic Participation, told Axios.
  • "So, you take dollars raised into a leadership PAC, which are hard to raise, they're from restricted sources and in limited amounts, and you give that money to a super PAC, that transaction alone is unheard of."

What to watch: The Save America PAC has drawn scrutiny from special counsel Jack Smith in his investigation over Trump's alleged efforts to subvert 2020 election results.

  • Special counsel Jack Smith's office grilled Trump ally Bernie Kerik about the money Save America PAC raised after the 2020 election based on false claims of voter fraud, Kerik's lawyer told Politico.

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