Trump appears to have a large war chest – but is he struggling to raise the money?

Several high-profile mega-donors have fled, the stream of small donors that fueled his past is drying up, and he is accused of breaking 'soft money' laws

Tom Perkins

Tue Jan 3, 2023 3:00 AM EST

With the 2024 presidential race officially underway, Donald Trump seems poised to enter the Republican nomination race one step further: The Pacs and his committee boast a war chest of about $95 million, enough to stop any Republican candidate competing against him.

But the scratches beneath the surface reveal a different reality. About $78 million of the $95 million could not go directly to Trump's campaign, according to a Guardian analysis of Trump fundraising websites.

What's more, there's evidence of a steady stream of small dollar donors fueling his past to dry up. Several high-profile mega-donors have fled. And the campaign finance watchdog has filed a complaint with the Federal Election Commission (FEC) alleging Trump violated "soft money" laws because he appears to be playing a shell game with his money.

"There are many moving parts, but there is every reason to believe that Trump is fighting more than he has in recent years to raise money," said Robert Maguire, director of research at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

Trump's fundraising in recent years has racked up an astonishing amount. During the 2020 cycle he raised $882 million, and another $500 million since. But thrift has been drained by Trump spending on his own legal defense, for Melania Trump's personal designer, and for helping the January 6 rioters.

In recent years, Trump's team and close allies have worked on a growing network of at least a dozen Pacs and committees of similar names. Common examples: "Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee" and "Save America Joint Fundraising Committee".

The most prolific entity during the current cycle was Save America's Pac leadership, which raised about $111 million and has about $21 million left after the midterms. But federal rules prohibit Trump from using leadership Pac funds for his campaign because leadership Pacs exist to support other candidates. However, it can be used to support large rallies which is a key campaign strategy.

The various Super Pacs deposited another $57 million, and while that could be used to support Trump's campaign or attack his opponents, the Pacs cannot legally coordinate the campaign.

In total, that means about $78 million of the $95 million made on November 28 could not go directly to the Trump campaign.

Still, that didn't stop the former president from trying to move money from the leadership of the Pacs to the Super Pacs via a legally questionable shell game. On October 3, Save America leadership Pac contributed $20 million to Make America Great Again, Inc because the latter could spend more freely.

But it caught the attention of legal observers who said the move clearly violated the "soft money" provision of the Federal Election Campaign Act. On November 14, campaign finance watchdog the Campaign Legal Center (CLC) filed a complaint with the FEC.

It alleges that Trump, based on multiple statements and fundraising totals, was already a presidential candidate when he made the transfer from Pac leadership to Super Pac.

"Trump is therefore in breach of federal law prohibiting such soft money transfers," said Saurav Ghosh, director of federal campaign finance reform for CLC.

Moreover, Trump seems to be circumventing the Super Pac rule which prohibits coordination with his campaign.

"The Super Pacs are nominally independent of the candidate, but with Trump it's a tough 'independent' quote," said Ghosh. "Obviously when you have a Super Pac like this, organized by allies and people who worked on the previous Trump campaign, independence is an illusion."

Trump has expressed his displeasure with these rules, telling Fox News in an August 2021 interview that "campaign finance laws are so complicated and so stupid." He also used the interview to strongly signal his candidacy.

“Interviews tell you everything you need to know,” says Ghosh.

The new committee that will act as Trump's official fundraiser is “Donald J Trump for President 2024”. However, replenishing it with funds from ordinary sources may prove more difficult than in the past.

That's because the low-dollar donations that fueled previous campaigns – some of which were raised through questionable recurring payment plans – appear to be dwindling. The Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee has brought together his Save America leadership Pac and the official nominees committee.

The joint committee boasted about $24 million in results from July through September, but spent $22 million to get there, records later showed. All told, his Pac network made $13 million over the three-month period leading up to the midterms, fueling speculation of small donor exhaustion.

Additionally, the campaign showed $111 million in revenue before the election, and fell to an estimated $95 million after the election as spending exceeded fundraising.

"He's attracted a large number of small donors who are willing to continue to give him their money," Maguire said. “He still has the capacity to raise money from the Maga crowd, but the question is 'Will it cool off? Is there enough cash in the cash register?', and that remains to be seen."

Among those who defected from Trump's massive donor battalion were his top contributors in 2016, Robert and Rebekah Mercer, CNBC reported. The billionaires instead donated to his main rival, Florida governor Ron DeSantis.

Hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who threw out about $67 million in the midterm, also endorsed DeSantis: “I'd like to think that the Republican Party is ready to move on from someone who has been a three-time loser for the party. ,” Griffin told the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in September.

Meanwhile, Blackstone financier and CEO Stephen Schwarzman, who spent $34 million in the midterm, expressed similar sentiments.

"America is better when its leaders are rooted in today and tomorrow, not today and yesterday," Schwarzman said in a statement. "It's time the Republican Party transitioned into a new generation of leaders and I intend to support one of them in the presidential primary."

But DeSantis faces the same predicament as Trump. He has raised a lot of money through his state-level Pac, but it is not transferable to the federal campaign. Ghosh said he suspected DeSantis would try to transfer money to the Super Pac, like Trump did.

That could trigger another complaint from the Campaign Legal Center, but it's unlikely to work: with an equal number of Democratic and Republican commissioners, the agency has been stuck in a partisan jam for years.

"This is a serious violation because the federal system is designed to be protected from overspending," he said. “But the FEC rarely enforces the law, and in Trump's case they have a very bad track record, so I don't expect them to change here. Obviously I hope they do because it's a clear foul, but we realize what we're up against.

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