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Trump’s ‘Show Me the Money’ Campaign—Full YOLO in 2024

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February 23, 2024 3:20 p.m.
ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 29: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the California GOP Fall convention on September 29, 2023 in Anaheim, California. Presidential candidates set to speak at the convention... ANAHEIM, CALIFORNIA - SEPTEMBER 29: Former U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at the California GOP Fall convention on September 29, 2023 in Anaheim, California. Presidential candidates set to speak at the convention include former President Donald Trump, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and entrepreneur, Vivek Ramaswamy. The event takes place from September 29 through October 1. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images) MORE LESS

For weeks political observers have been having fun with Donald Trump’s decision to launch if not a hostile then what we might call an abusive takeover of the RNC. Of course, one might ask what was left to take over exactly. Since the day before his inauguration in 2017 the RNC has been under the management of Trump’s pliable toady Ronna McDaniel (née Romney McDaniel) who has served in that role for the unheard of span of seven years. But that was clearly not a tight enough bond to the Trump family. Trump wants to replace McDaniel with his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who has become an increasingly visible Trump political surrogate. Technically, it’s not just Lara Trump. They propose a kind of co-leadership with North Carolina GOP chair Michael Whatley and Lara Trump serving as cochairs. Presumably Whatley is there for the operational experience and management; Lara is there for the control. Trump campaign senior advisor Chris LaCivita will become the RNC’s COO.

Trump campaign sources tell pliant media outlets that this is to assure a “seamless operation,” uniting the campaign and the RNC. And there’s no arguing that point. They will become in effect the same organization. You can’t get more seamless than literally no seams. But I think we should not underestimate the odds that the takeover of the RNC is for reasons beyond the mere crony-fication of political institutions. Trump clearly needs the money. Certainly for legal expenses and quite possibly to pay legal judgements to the state of New York and E. Jean Carroll.

On its face it might seem absurd that political committees, whether the RNC or Trump’s campaign or the myriad other committees and super PACs that surround these entities, might pay such judgments. But why not? It’s not clear to me why it’s any crazier than those donors who are paying his legal expenses in the same cases or paying to defend against criminal charges that relate to actions taken when Trump was no longer President or, at least on paper, had any political role whatsoever.

And even if it’s not quite legal, does it even matter?

A friend this morning pointed me to an article in The Daily Beast as an example of things to come, both at the Trump campaign and now at the RNC. It requires a bit of explanation. But it’s worth it.

National political campaigns usually must refund substantial amounts of money, often totaling into the hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars. The need to do this is straightforward. Political contributions in the United States exist under various donation limits. A donor may contributes too much money, or a recurring donor may donates again and the new donation goes over this or that donation limit. The accounts likely haven’t been reconciled at the front end. So the money passes into the campaign’s coffers. But once they’re tabulated it becomes clear that Joe Jones has given over his limit. So the campaign refunds back to Joe the sum of money necessary to come back under the limit. That means giving up a small but not insignificant amount of money and it also provides a clue to outside observers about how many of the candidates’ regular donors are maxing out and thus not available to give more.

The problem is that Trump’s campaign and affiliated committees have essentially stopped issuing refunds. There’s simply no way a campaign of that scale doesn’t have a vast scale of refunds to make. So by analyzing the available evidence and finding hints in various FEC filings, political money advocates and the Beast conclude that Trump has just stopped coughing up the money and instead resorted to either handing off the money to other Trump entities or ascribing it to other non-tapped out donors. How can this possibly be okay? Well, the argument seems to be that money is fungible. So if I’ve given Trump $9,000 and you’ve given $3,000 the campaign assumes that we’ve both maxed out to the $6,000 limit and it’s all fine.

Key parts of this amount to what is best termed illegal. But who knows?, the Trump operation seems to reason. They a legal theory. And if the FEC decides in 2025 or 2026 that it’s not okay they’ll deal with it then. For now, they’re doing it. And in their defense the FEC not infrequently decides that things that look pretty illegal are in fact fine. And it may not even matter since Republican Commission members have generally prevented the FEC from making such decisions or enforcing them for years.

As the Beast notes, other campaigns, including Joe Biden and Nikki Haley, do part of this rollover function. But in their case they’re being rolled over to other campaign entities that are not entirely under their control. In Trump’s case they’re all controlled by the same people. The most logical rollover target is to the RNC. Which happens to make it very convenient to put the main party committee entirely under the control of the Trump campaign.

The point here isn’t this one non-refunding gimmick. It’s better seen as an example of the kind of at best shady, bust-out style stratagems the Trump campaign seems to be resorting to. In other cases noted by the Beast, the campaign seems to be just holding on to the cash as long as it can, or until someone forces them to give it back without any particular accounting gimmick at all. The campaign and the RNC are already in a bit of a cash crunch. Some part of that may be tied to a lack of enthusiasm on the part of potential donors — something that is affecting both campaigns, at least to some degree. But the big driver is the fact that Trump has had a contested primary whereas Joe Biden has not. Second is the fact that Trump and his various committees have already spent a staggering $76.7 million on legal expenses over the last two years.

That is an almost unimaginable amount of money for a campaign to be paying to expenses entirely unrelated to the campaign. Pay a few grand in campaign dollars to pay your mortgage and you can go to prison. Fork over $100 million to pay your legal bills and it’s fine. This is a large part of what makes me think the disgorgements and legal judgments get paid this way too. At least in part.

The well appears to be running dry. Or perhaps the campaign (technically one of the Super PACs) is now seeing that it’s paying so much in legal expenses that it needs someone else to fund the campaign.

When pressed on the matter, Lara Trump wouldn’t rule out the RNC footing the bill for Trump’s legal expenses. Which I think means they will definitely be picking up at least some of his legal bills. But really it’s not even necessary. Money is, after all, fungible. Maybe the campaign or its committees will fund all the legal expenses and the RNC will fund what we generally call his campaign.

We know that Trump’s real legal strategy for all 91 felony indictments is getting elected President. Everything else is just delaying tactics and legal ploys to bring the presidency into his grasp. On paper, I don’t think there’s even the most outlandish argument that Presidents don’t have to pay their debts or legal judgments. But I think the reasoning — probably correct — is that you just focus on becoming president. As Mel Brooks once said, it’s good to be the king. Every problem will work itself out. And on the off chance the presidency doesn’t work out, best to pay off as many obligations as possible out of the political bank accounts in advance before the voting starts. It’s like a mob bust-out. Trump’s not thinking about what happens to the RNC if he doesn’t win the election. And he certainly doesn’t care who controls Congress if he comes up short.

Democrats should probably hope that Trump raids the RNC and every other political committee to pay off as many debts and obligations as possible. That’s all money that otherwise might go to canvassing, commercials, turnout operations and more. But everyone else should probably be watching the accounting at the RNC and all the other Trump-controlled political committees very closely over the next nine months.

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