Trump Campaign Funds Pay Legal Fees But Donors Unfazed
President Trump has started raising money for re-election much earlier than most of his predecessors in the White House, beginning with a high-profile event in Washington last month. But the donations he is raking in now might never see a campaign — a fact that apparently has not discouraged supporters from donating but is raising eyebrows among some Republican strategists.
Spending on legal fees by Trump’s campaign committee, Donald J. Trump for President Inc., ballooned to roughly $700,000 from April through June, the New York Times reported earlier this month, more than doubling such spending from the previous quarter. Those steep legal payments ate up roughly one-quarter of contributions taken in by the committee from donors during the same period.
This fundraising and spending behavior is unusual for a few reasons. For one, incumbent presidents traditionally do not begin fundraising so early in their first term, typically choosing to wait until after the midterm elections to begin building a war chest. But Trump also faces unusual expenses at this early stage: legal bills piling up as a result of multiple investigations into possible collusion between his 2016 presidential campaign and Russia, including an inquiry by special prosecutor Robert Mueller.
“What Trump is doing here is unprecedented,” said one Republican strategist with high-level presidential campaign experience. “If you were building up massive war chest, that might be one thing. But the reality is, they’re raising money here for paying off legal bills.”
During the last quarter, those expenses included a $50,000 payment to the attorney representing Donald Trump Jr., who earlier this month disclosed a Trump Tower meeting with Russian contacts during the campaign, where he sought damaging information regarding his father’s rival, Hillary Clinton. Another $545,000 went to the law firm Jones Day, which has been representing the campaign on various legal fronts.
Many of the donors who helped to foot those bills are less bothered that their money has bankrolled the president’s legal defense, however, than by the investigations that are necessitating such spending.
“My thoughts are that these special prosecutors are a waste of time and money,” said Anita Airee of Tennessee, who has so far donated $500 for Trump’s re-election.
Douglas Abramson of Dana Point, Calif., said it “doesn’t bother” him that the $500 he has so far donated for the president’s next campaign might go to legal fees instead.
“I trust his judgment to spend donations in a fashion that suits his purpose,” said Abramson.
Another Republican strategist who is familiar with the campaign likewise could not recall any donor or prospective donor expressing concern about the issue.
“No one’s upset that the campaign would take on the burden of legal fees,” the strategist said.
Meanwhile, the ongoing investigations targeting the president have not seemed to dampen fundraising — and, indeed, perhaps have helped fuel it. As Trump faced backlash in May for firing FBI Director James Comey, in part due to the FBI’s investigation into the campaign, his campaign committee announced a single-day record haul for digital fundraising since Election Day: $314,000 on May 17.
Michael Glassner, executive director of Donald J. Trump for President Inc., said in a statement at the time that the donations show support for Trump was “stronger than ever before.”
But if the investigations have been a useful fundraising tool, the health care fight in Congress could have been one too, or the president’s promise to build a wall along the border with Mexico, or any number of other issues.
And some Republicans believe that Trump’s campaign should not be soliciting these small-dollar donations at all, fearing that he could be “taking low-dollar money away from the party” ahead of a key election, said the first GOP strategist.
“It’s important because some of these people are going to max out, and when it comes time in 2019 to really focus on his re-elect, some people won’t be able to give any more,” the strategist said. “That’s why you normally have it go to the party instead.”
These considerations are why past presidents have not traditionally started to raise money until well after the midterms. During his first term, President George W. Bush did not kick off his re-election fundraising until June 2003, more than half a year after the conclusion of the 2002 midterms. Likewise, President Obama did not headline a fundraiser for his re-election until April 2011.
But Trump is charting a different course, as he has in so many other areas. As a candidate last year, a key selling point for Trump was that he would not fuel his campaign with large donations, instead self-funding or relying on smaller contributions. As the party’s nominee, however, Trump began fundraising more aggressively — and he seems poised to continue that approach in his re-election effort.
He is not biding his time, either. Last month, the president headlined a glitzy fundraiser at his eponymous D.C. hotel, where guests paid $35,000 per plate. The dinner benefited Trump Victory, a joint fundraising committee that divvies up contributions between Trump’s re-election campaign and the Republican National Committee.
Aside from that event, his fundraising operation is not yet in full swing: His campaign committee is not otherwise hosting fundraising events or aggressively seeking out big donors for contributions, the second GOP strategist noted.
But the committee has continued to accept donations directly from supporters, soliciting them via the campaign’s email list. These “asks” remain successful, even as the campaign spends a large share of its money on legal fees, because Trump “has a set of extremely committed supporters who would probably support him no matter what he does,” said the first strategist. “So, if the president says, ‘What helps me is burning stacks of $100 bills,’ a lot of people do that because they want to be supportive.”