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Is Trump Tithing or Conning His Voters? Either Way, He Aims to Cover Legal Fees.

Trump’s leadership PAC alone has spent almost $60 million on his attorneys’ bills since early 2023.

Former President Donald Trump appears in Manhattan Criminal Court on April 26, 2024, in New York City, during his trial for allegedly covering up hush money payments.

Donald Trump’s first criminal trial is underway and three others are in the pipeline. The former president has more than half a billion dollars in civil penalties already accrued against him for both defaming E. Jean Carroll (whom a civil court previously found him liable for sexually assaulting) and for corrupt business practices. As a result, the GOP presidential candidate is facing huge legal bills — which have cost him nearly $90 million so far — and financial penalties. And so, Trump being Trump, he has taken to both creative and coercive methods to raise money.

Political action committees backing the candidate have spent millions of dollars on Trump’s legal fees. Trump’s leadership PAC alone, Save America, which he created immediately after his election defeat in November 2020, has spent almost $60 million on his attorneys’ bills since early 2023, but it is now struggling to replenish its funds. Another PAC, MAGA Inc., which got off the ground with $60 million in funding from Save America, has been stepping into the breach, keeping Save America solvent by paying back $5 million a month. But that money will dry up by the summer, once the $60 million is fully repaid; and so, Trump is looking elsewhere for steady flows of cash to meet his steady flows of legal trouble. His agreement with the Republican National Committee prioritizes sending money from big donors to the PACs that are paying the legal bills before sending additional dollars to the party. And, perhaps unbeknownst to them, his small donor followers are also footing Trump’s gargantuan legal bills. Ten cents of every dollar the Trump campaign raises online goes to the Save America PAC so that they can continue paying the candidate’s army of attorneys.

None of this is a surprise. Trump has spent his adult life caroming from one unsavory money-making scheme to the next. Think the ill-fated Trump University — which a court found lured students to spend huge amounts of money on workshops that promised to teach them the secrets of success in the real estate world, but failed to do so; and which offered up “gold elite” classes for a cool $35,000. Think his use of hotels and golf resorts as lures to bring in cash from overseas governments and business tycoons wanting access to him during his presidency. Think his bizarre victory speech in 2016, a portion of which he spent hawking products ranging from Trump steaks (which were already discontinued) to Trump vodka. Think his recent efforts to hawk an Americana version of the Bible and other, equally tacky, marketing efforts to sell $399 pairs of gold sneakers emblazoned with the Trump logo. The list is, if not endless, then at least excruciatingly long.

Given these tendencies and his need for instant hard cash, it’s no great surprise that Trump’s campaign recently sent out a somewhat extortionary letter to downballot GOP candidates hoping to use the MAGA leader’s name and likeness in their fundraising appeals, demanding that they send over to the campaign at least 5 percent of their takings or cease and desist from referencing Trump in their communications. Of course, the letter continued, it would be seen in an even more positive light if they sent a higher tithe than that, and such acts of generosity would be sure to be pointed out to those high up in the party’s hierarchy. If that was the carrot, then a similar letter last year was yet another iteration of the stick: In that letter, Trump’s team warned the National Republican Campaign Committee and a bevy of GOP consultants that if they used his name in their pitch letters without his consent he might withdraw his support for the political candidates that they backed. The unconditional loyalty that Trump demands of his followers is, it appears, one directional; for the loyalty that Trump offers up in exchange is, always, purely transactional.

A charitable way of interpreting this is that Trump — whose movement is increasingly messianic and many of whose followers view him as literally having been chosen by God for his leadership role — is now tithing his followers. After all, tithing is common in a diverse array of religions — many ancient Mediterranean cultures, including the Phoenicians and some of the ancient Greek polities, tithed; Medieval peasants had to give 10 percent of their farm produce to the Catholic church; Mormons today are still expected to pay up that 10percent tithe on their earnings; in the Islamic world, a 2.5 percent Zakat is the norm.

A more reasonable way of understanding this, without attributing to Trump the tithing powers of an institutional church, is that it’s basically an extortion racket. Trump has such a lock on the Republican Party that he knows his endorsement can make or break a candidate — and he’s seeking to monetize that, refusing to allow candidates to associate their name and image with his, in their outreach to voters, unless they agree to send his political organization a commission on their fundraising trawls.

Like so much of the tawdriness of Trumpism and the Trump political machine, this sort of pay-to-play politics isn’t exactly original. It’s the sort of unsubtle tactic that the Tammany Hall mob that controlled New York City in the 19th century would have been all too familiar with. It’s the kind of arm-twisting raw use of power that leaders such as Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon — with his Committee to Re-Elect the President slush fund — would have loved. Yet, Trump is taking this a whole lot further. He is using all the tools of modern politics — from social media to the mass rally to expensive and exclusive fundraising dinners — to concentrate the Republican Party’s money machine not for the greater good of downballot GOP figures but simply to help him out in his legal woes. And the Republican Party, supine now in its fealty to a man who behaves more like a mobster than a democratic political leader, is doing all in its diminished powers to oblige.

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