Former President Donald Trump’s mounting legal bills reportedly threaten to overwhelm his 2024 campaign, but his campaign’s massive list of email addresses and opaque network of fundraising committees provide a not-so-secret weapon: millions of dollars in small donations from Trump fans across the country.
“I’ll ALWAYS LOVE YOU. Has Biden ever told you that? NOPE! NEVER!”
That’s a quote from a Trump fundraiser sent out on Sunday, one in a barrage of emails that continued unabated after the news broke last week that Trump’s team spent $50 million in campaign donations on the former president’s legal defense in 2023 alone.
“OBAMA IS BACK AND HE’S SPITTING IN YOUR FACE,” reads a fundraiser sent to millions of supporters and signed by Trump last week. The news hook for this appeal? Former President Barack Obama, who has faced racist attacks from Trump for a decade, is planning to attend an upcoming fundraiser with President Joe Biden.
Democrats hate the nation and “HATE YOU” the email — and plenty of others like it — claim. (Again, emphasis is the Trump campaign’s.)
The campaign finance watchdogs at OpenSecrets recently found that Trump’s network of political groups spent more than $60 million on legal expenses last year and $131 million since 2020. Trump’s two political action committees, Save America and Make America Great Again PAC, each spent over 70 percent of funds raised during the final quarter of 2023 on legal bills, along with about 16 percent of the money raised by the official campaign during that quarter.
Many politicians send fundraising emails containing misinformation and emotional appeals, but the Trump campaign uses fascist rhetoric and is notorious for both its sheer volume of emails and deploying various scams.
For example, the Trump campaign was likely the first to use a confusing website design to sign up unwitting one-time donors for recurring automatic payments drawn directly from their personal accounts. In 2021, small donors facing their own financial struggles were shocked when the Trump campaign quietly drained their savings on a weekly basis in order to stifle a cash crunch.
Victory Amelino, a 78-year-old Californian, made a $990 online donation to Trump ahead of the 2020 election without expecting the payment recur seven more times and add up to nearly $8,000.
“Bandits!” Amelino told The New York Times. “I’m retired. I can’t afford to pay all that damn money.”
The Times reported that the Trump campaign was flooded with fraud complaints at the time, and some donors were able to get the additional payments back after contacting a for-profit company called WinRed.
Special counsel Jack Smith is investigating whether Trump broke federal laws with fundraising emails in late 2020 and 2021 that told supporters their money would support a bogus “election defense” fund supposedly working to reverse the results of the 2020 election. Instead, much of the $250 million Trump quickly raised after losing the election enriched his campaign’s war chest, according to the House select committee that investigated the January 6 attacks on the Capitol.
Smith oversees two federal criminal cases against Trump, who is charged with mishandling classified documents (and lying about it) in one case, and defrauding the United States with his effort to overturn the 2020 election in the other. In all, Trump faces 91 criminal indictments in four criminal cases across multiple jurisdictions, and the costs of defending himself and his codefendants are piling up.
For Trump, these costs come on top of the fines and fees he and his business face in civil cases, including a tax fraud case in New York that could soon result in a $370 million fine. Another jury in New York recently ordered Trump to pay $83 million in damages to writer E. Jean Carroll after finding Trump liable for defamation after sexually assaulting Carroll in the mid-1990s.
Trump faces serious legal problems as he seeks the Republican nomination for president, but he has effectively leveraged media coverage to rile up his base and consolidate support among GOP voters.
Trump’s habit of attacking prosecutors and defying orders from judges may not be the best legal strategy, but it produces plenty of headlines and made-for-TV moments when Trump shows up in court. The Trump campaign then sends out angry, sensationalist fundraising emails each time the media report on developments in the cases against him.
Trump is an “innocent man” and the only thing standing between MAGA fans and the tentacles of the “deep state,” the emails claim. Only Trump can save America from becoming a “Third World Marxist nation” — another nod to baseless conspiracy theories popular on the right.
This is all incredibly misleading, of course, but it’s working. Besides former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley, every Republican primary challenger has dropped out of the race against Trump. After dropping out of the race, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis returned to his home state and vetoed Republican legislation that would provide $5 million in taxpayer funding for Trump’s legal defense.
While both Haley and Trump have raised similar amounts from outside donors, the Trump campaign has outraised the Haley campaign by more than $40 million in the 2024 cycle. The Biden campaign entered 2024 with more cash on hand than any other candidate, with $46 million in cash on hand compared to Trump’s $33 million, according to quarterly financial reports filed in late 2023.
Haley is trailing far behind Trump in the polls, including in South Carolina, where she served as governor. South Carolina primary voters head to the polls on February 24, and a Trump victory would likely clinch his nomination.
As some observers have pointed out, MAGA fans likely believe the victimhood narratives and may have no problem with supporting Trump’s legal defense with their donations. (As long as they don’t get scammed by recurring auto payments, of course.) However, there are plenty of questions about whether it’s even legal for Trump to use cash raised by his campaign and its fundraising committees to pay attorneys and court fees.
Trump is not likely to be held accountable unless Smith can work that angle into the election subversion case. With three Republicans and three Democrats sitting on the Federal Elections Commission, the independent agency tasked with enforcing campaign finance laws is perpetually stuck in a partisan deadlock.