Trump’s invite to major donors prioritizes the committee paying his legal bills over the RNC

FILE - Lara Trump, the newly-elected co-chair of the Republican National Committee, gives an address during the general session of the RNC Spring Meeting Friday, March 8, 2024, in Houston. Trump's handpicked leadership team for for the RNC includes Trump, his daughter-in-law, who said in February that she thought Republican voters would like to see the RNC pay Trump's legal fees. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)

FILE – Lara Trump, the newly-elected co-chair of the Republican National Committee, gives an address during the general session of the RNC Spring Meeting Friday, March 8, 2024, in Houston. Trump’s handpicked leadership team for for the RNC includes Trump, his daughter-in-law, who said in February that she thought Republican voters would like to see the RNC pay Trump’s legal fees. (AP Photo/Michael Wyke, File)

NEW YORK (AP) — Donald Trump’s new joint fundraising agreement with the Republican National Committee directs donations to his campaign and a political action committee that pays the former president’s legal bills before the RNC gets a cut, according to a fundraising invitation obtained by The Associated Press.

The unorthodox diversion of funds to the Save America PAC makes it more likely that Republican donors could see their money go to Trump’s lawyers, who have received at least $76 million over the last two years to defend him against four felony indictments and multiple civil cases. Some Republicans are already troubled that Trump’s takeover of the RNC could shortchange the cash-strapped party.

Trump has invited high-dollar donors to Palm Beach, Florida, for an April 6 fundraiser that comes as his fundraising is well behind President Joe Biden and national Democrats. The invitation’s fine print says donations to the Trump 47 Committee will first be used to give the maximum amount allowed under federal law to Trump’s campaign. Anything left over from the donation next goes toward a maximum contribution to Save America, and then anything left from there goes to the RNC and then to state political parties.

Adav Noti, the executive director of the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center in Washington, said that is a break from fundraising norms. Usually, Noti said, candidates prioritize raising cash that can be spent directly on campaign activity. Save America, on the other hand, is structured as a “leadership PAC” and thus barred from spending directly on Trump’s own campaign activities. Legal spending made up 85% of Save America’s total operating expenses during the first two months of this year, roughly the same as 2023, when such expenses were about 89%. It has spent $8.5 million on legal fees so far this year.

“The reason most candidates don’t do this is because the hardest money to raise is money that can be spent directly on the campaign,” said Noti, a former staff attorney for the Federal Election Commission. “No other candidate has used a leadership PAC the way the Trump campaign has.”

The Trump campaign noted that Save America spends on expenses other than legal fees and that donors to the April fundraiser who contribute the suggested $814,600 per person or $250,000 per person will only have $5,000 of their donation go to Save America, sending hundreds of thousands of dollars to the RNC.

“Save America also covers a very active and robust post-Presidency office and other various expenses not related to fighting the illegal witch-hunts perpetrated by Crooked Joe Biden. The Trump campaign, the RNC, and state GOP parties ultimately receive the overwhelming majority of funds raised through the Trump 47 Committee. Out of an Individual donor’s maximum contribution of $824,600, less than 1% (.006%) goes to Save America,” Steven Cheung, the Trump campaign communications director, said in a statement.

A separate contribution form for the Trump 47 Committee allows donors to give smaller contributions or a contribution of any size but still spells out in the fine print that the donation is first to be allocated to the Trump campaign and Save America.

Trump’s handpicked leadership team for the RNC includes his daughter-in-law Lara Trump, who is the committee’s co-chair, and Chris LaCivita, who serves effectively as one of two campaign managers for the Trump campaign and is now also taking on a chief of staff role at the RNC.

Lara Trump in February said she thought Republican voters would like to see the RNC pay Trump’s legal fees.

But shortly before the leadership change was voted in at the RNC, LaCivita told the AP in an interview that “not a penny of the RNC’s money or, for that matter, the campaign’s money has gone or will go to pay legal fees,” he said.

Before Trump was a candidate, the RNC was paying some of his legal bills for cases in New York that began when he was president, The Washington Post reported. Former Chair Ronna McDaniel, who was ousted this month, said in 2022 that the RNC would stop paying once Trump became a candidate.

The new arrangement doesn’t direct RNC funds to lawyers, but it ensures that when checks are written to the new combined Republican campaign, Trump’s campaign and Save America get paid first.

According to the fine print, any donor who wishes can direct their contribution to be distributed differently. Donors could also bypass the fundraising arrangement and give directly to the RNC or any other entity.

Trump’s political operation is struggling to catch up to Biden on fundraising and organization. His main campaign account and the Save America PAC reported raising a combined $15.9 million in February and ended the month with more than $37 million on hand, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission Wednesday night.

The two committees are key parts of Trump’s fundraising operation but only a portion of the picture. The rest of his fundraising apparatus is scheduled to report updated numbers in April, along with the new Trump 47 Committee formed with the Republican National Committee.

“Trump is in dire need of money to pay his legal fees and he’s draining his PAC and he’s spending huge amounts of money out of his campaign committee,” said Brett Kappel, a longtime campaign finance attorney who has represented both Republicans and Democrats.

Biden’s campaign, meanwhile, said his political operation raised $53 million last month and ended February with $155 million on hand. That includes Biden’s joint fundraising with the Democratic National Committee. The full picture will not be available until April when some of the committees in his political operation are due to file reports.

His main campaign account raised $21 million in February, according to its latest filing with the FEC, and ended the month with $71 million on hand.

As the party’s presumptive nominee, Trump effectively controls the RNC and his political operation can now take advantage of the far higher contribution limits that apply to party committees. While candidates can accept a maximum donation of $3,300, under the joint fundraising agreement, a single donor could sign a check for just over $800,000, while a couple could contribute $1.6 million.

The April 6 fundraiser slated to benefit the Trump 47 Committee lists billionaire investor John Paulson as a host and co-chairs include Robert Bigelow, a Las Vegas-based businessman who had supported Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ presidential campaign; New York grocery billionaire John Catsimatidis; Linda McMahon, the former World Wrestling Entertainment executive and head of the Small Business Administration while Trump was president; casino mogul Steve Wynn; and former Georgia Sen. Kelly Loeffler.

Guests are asked to contribute $814,600 per person as a “chairman” contributor, which comes with seating at Trump’s table, or $250,000 per person as a “host committee’ contributor. Both options come with a photo opportunity and a personalized copy of Trump’s coffee table book featuring photographs from his administration, ”Our Journey Together.”

Three of Trump’s former rivals for the GOP nomination — South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, and biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy — are all slated to appear as “special guests.”

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This story has been updated to include a Trump statement. Associated Press writers Brian Slodysko and Aaron Kessler in Washington contributed to this report.

AP Politics

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