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How Trump’s legal expenses consumed GOP donor money

As some Republican candidates face fundraising shortfalls, the former president, the RNC and key state parties have all spent significant sums on legal fights

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a Save America rally at Legacy Sports Park in Mesa, Ariz., on Oct. 9, 2022. Trump is traveling around the country after endorsing some Republican candidates before next month’s midterm election. (Joshua Lott/The Washington Post)
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Donald Trump’s political operation has spent more money since he left office on lawyers representing the former president and a pair of nonprofits staffed by former Cabinet members than it has on Republican congressional campaigns, according to a review of financial filings.

Trump’s leadership PAC, Save America, has blitzed supporters in recent days with fundraising solicitations that focus on next month’s high-stakes contest for control of Congress. “It is IMPERATIVE that we win BIG in November,” blared an email last week.

The group has contributed about $8.4 million so far directly to Republican campaigns and committees, while devoting $7 million to Trump’s lawyers and another $2 million to the nonprofits, which employ former members of his administration, including former White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. Legal fees are expected to climb, Trump advisers say, as he employs a growing retinue of lawyers to fend off federal, state and county-level investigations.

Available filings, which disclose payments only through the end of August, show Save America sent its single biggest check in the last 20 months not to a Trump-backed candidate or to advertising aimed at swing-state voters. Instead, the $3-million payment went to a Florida law firm representing the former president in the Justice Department’s investigation of his handling of government documents at Mar-a-Lago and its probe of the riot on Jan. 6, 2021, aimed at keeping Trump in power. Trump attorney Christopher Kise demanded the fee up front before he accepted the role. (A series of payments to multiple groups working unsuccessfully to oust Gov. Brian Kemp (R-Ga.) surpassed $3 million.)

Legal expenses incurred by Save America exploded this summer, as multiple probes of Trump’s conduct intensified, from the capital, where lawmakers and prosecutors are investigating possible wrongdoing, to New York and Georgia, where authorities are scrutinizing the former president, his political associates and members of his family.

Cash doled out to lawyers by the leadership PAC nearly tripled between May and June, as authorities sent subpoenas to a wide range of people involved in efforts to reverse Trump’s November 2020 loss. That sum nearly doubled in July compared to June, reaching almost $1 million.

And in August, Save America spent more than $3.8 million on legal consulting, according to a filing with the Federal Election Commission. The committee has spent $42 million in total so far this cycle — with much of that sum going to payroll, event staging and fundraising — and had more than $92 million in reserve at the end of the summer.

In response to questions about the use of donor money to cover the former president’s legal bills, Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich accused Democrats of “weaponizing taxpayer dollars with fake investigations and meritless cases in an attempt to intimidate and silence Republicans.”

The status of key investigations involving Donald Trump

State-level Republicans have also used party resources to defray legal costs related to Trump’s attempts to stay in power. The Georgia GOP paid more than $20,000 this summer to the firm representing party officials, including the chairman, David Shafer, before the House panel probing the Jan. 6 attack. Another $25,000 went to the firm representing Shafer and other members of a slate of alternate electors backing Trump despite his loss in the state. Shafer declined to comment.

In Arizona, the state GOP has paid more than $127,000 to a pair of law firms representing the party’s chairwoman, Kelli Ward, in her lawsuit seeking to block the House’s Jan. 6 committee from obtaining her phone records and in the party’s litigation against Maricopa County over the hiring of poll workers, according to state and federal filings. It was unclear how much of those expenses were related to those two legal battles; a spokeswoman for the state party did not respond to requests for comment.

The cash outlay comes as some Republican candidates face a fundraising shortfall in the final weeks before the election, especially challengers going up against Democratic incumbents. Herschel Walker, the Republican nominee for Senate in Georgia, entered the final four months of the midterm season with $6.8 million on hand, compared to $22.2 million held in reserve by Sen. Raphael G. Warnock (D-Ga.). Blake Masters, the Republican nominee in Arizona, had $1.6 million on hand at the same juncture, compared to $24.8 million for Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.).

Republican officials and fundraisers, most of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity to address the dynamic candidly, said Trump has raised vast sums for the party, whether directly or via use of his name or likeness in campaign solicitations. Aides at other committees, including the RNC, say their pitches secure more small-dollar money when they invoke Trump, which often angers him. His political team has asked the committees to send his team every ad that features him for approval.

But these people also said his PAC’s incessant appeals over email and text message have contributed to burnout among small-dollar donors who might otherwise send more of their disposable income to competitive races. Those donors, said one GOP fundraiser, are being “told they’re pitching in for a fight against Democrats” but are instead “helping Trump fight off his legal problems.” Some Trump small-dollar donors have reached out to the former president’s office to say they’d like to give more but cannot afford it after receiving so many requests.

Annoyance at the requests has gotten back to Trump, who has at times suggested his team should tone them down. And some of his advisers believe the list has been overused with too many misleading pitches.

But his advisers have told him if he slows down the appeals, the money will slow down, so he has approved more. His small-dollar fundraising has declined some in recent months, Trump advisers say, but picked up after FBI agents searched his Mar-a-Lago Club for classified documents.

A new Trump-backed super PAC promising to up the former president’s financial commitment in the midterms may assuage some concerns within the party about his use of donor money. Its forerunner, Make America Great Again, Again!, was essentially disbanded, partially because of Trump’s frustration with the money some of his advisers were making from it. The new super PAC, called simply Make America Great Again Inc., put about $5 million behind advertising in five states as of the end of last week, according to the tracking firm AdImpact.

Trump’s leadership PAC has shied from such commitments. Among Save America’s expenditures totaling $500,000 or more, just seven have gone to groups devoted primarily to spending in races this cycle. Meanwhile, 10 such payments have gone to a wide range of other recipients, including law firms and vendors that stage Trump’s events throughout the country. The Smithsonian Institution was sent $650,000 to fund portraits of Trump and former first lady Melania Trump for the National Portrait Gallery.

These payments are permitted because Save America is a leadership PAC with few restrictions on the use of funds. Such committees, in addition to boosting like-minded candidates, can be used to pay advisers, cover travel expenses and defray legal bills, among other costs.

Trump has personally been unwilling to spend money in many cases for other politicians, believing that having a major financial reserve shows political strength, aides say. Some advisers have called for a bigger spend — believing it would buy more goodwill in the party.

Some of the committee’s spending has benefited Trump’s business — or people close to the former first family. Save America has directed about $245,000 to Trump properties for lodging and meals, as well as facility rental, since he left office, according to a review of the PAC’s filings. Hervé Pierre, the French American fashion designer who served as Melania Trump’s stylist when she was in the White House, has been paid $78,000 by the PAC in five installments since April. The payments were marked as “strategy consulting.”

Pierre did not respond to a message on LinkedIn seeking comment. But he told Women’s Wear Daily that his work for the former first lady involved interior design, not fashion. “It’s a great honor for me and it is very creative to give my viewpoint on some of these projects,” he said.

Save America’s funds have also helped support nonprofits employing former White House staff, including $1 million to the Conservative Partnership Institute — Meadows’s new employer — and $1 million to the America First Policy Institute, whose board chair is Linda McMahon, formerly Trump’s director of the Small Business Administration.

The Republican National Committee has also doled out hundreds of thousands of dollars to cover Trump’s personal legal expenses. The party explained the unusual arrangement, first revealed by The Washington Post last fall, by assailing the investigations as politically motivated.

Over the last 10 months, the RNC has paid about $633,000 to the law firm of Ronald Fischetti, a veteran defense attorney who has represented Trump in investigations by the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and the New York attorney general’s office. Whereas the criminal probe by the district attorney’s office appeared to wind down earlier this year, the civil investigation by the New York attorney general, Democrat Letitia James, intensified last month when she filed a lawsuit accusing Trump, three of his grown children and executives at his company of wide-ranging business fraud.

Party officials have said the payments will end if Trump announces a bid for the 2024 nomination — a contest in which the RNC is expected to remain neutral. The party’s executive committee has approved payments up to $1.6 million but could decide to surpass that amount.

The RNC’s revenue this cycle, about $276 million as of the end of August, has eclipsed that of the Democratic National Committee, which stood at about $244 million at the same juncture, not counting money raised into a joint account with Democratic state parties. But the GOP has also spent more — and ended the summer with $24 million on hand, compared to the DNC’s $56 million.

RNC spokeswoman Emma Vaughn said spending early in the cycle gave Republicans an edge. “The RNC invested early on in the cycle towards our minority engagement efforts, massive data-driven ground game, and digital strategy to drive turnout for Republicans up and down the ballot,” she said in a statement.

In addition to counsel for Trump, the RNC’s broader legal expenses have been extensive, mostly coming from a special account that can’t be used for other purposes. The payments, totaling more than $20 million, have covered everything from ordinary compliance consulting to wide-ranging efforts to force changes to the way local officials conduct elections. Thomas Galvin, a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, responded to recent lawsuits by the Arizona GOP and the national party accusing the county of favoring Democratic poll workers by saying party leaders were “wasting GOP donor money.”

Vaughn defended the move, saying, “Spending money to ensure that states are following the laws on the books for administering elections, including commonsense policies like bipartisan poll watching and poll working, is an important investment that our donors and supporters are passionate about.” She also said the litigation was made necessary by the county’s refusal to release relevant records, which officials there said they were in the process of doing.

Ron Kaufman, the RNC’s treasurer and a longtime committee member from Massachusetts, also defended the use of party resources on legal fights related to voting and election administration.

“If our state parties or elected leaders come to us and say, ‘There’s a problem with election integrity, let’s fix it,’ I’m not sure there’s any more important expense,” Kaufman said, also noting that such efforts are funded by a legal account with restricted uses.

The party has not skimped on other efforts, Kaufman added, pointing to the GOP’s success in registering new voters. “We’ve been blessed by good management of our funds,” he said.