Trump faces GOP pushback following his latest fundraising gambit

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Donald Trump is no stranger to fundraising controversies. Ahead of Election Day 2020, for example, the Republican and his operation set up a default system for online donors: By adding easily overlooked pre-checked boxes and opaque fine print, the then-president’s operation was able to fleece unsuspecting donors for months.

As The New York Times later reported, banks and credit card companies were soon inundated “with fraud complaints from the president’s own supporters about donations they had not intended to make, sometimes for thousands of dollars.” Some donors even “canceled their cards” just to make the recurring payments to Trump stop.

After Election Day 2020, the Republican and his team pleaded with donors to contribute to his “Official Election Defense Fund,” which didn’t actually exist.

It was against this backdrop that former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, an underdog GOP presidential candidate, yesterday published a message to Twitter, taking rhetorical aim at his party’s front-runner. “Donald Trump is not fighting for us, but is using us to pay his legal bills,” the Arkansas Republican wrote. “He is using small dollar donations from supporters to do this. Americans struggle to make ends meet, while one of the (self-proclaimed) richest men in the country leverages them into paying his debts.”

What was Hutchinson referring to? This New York Times article, published on Sunday, explaining how Trump “has quietly begun diverting more of the money he is raising away from his 2024 presidential campaign and into a political action committee that he has used to pay his personal legal fees.”

The change, which went unannounced except in the fine print of his online disclosures, raises fresh questions about how Mr. Trump is paying for his mounting legal bills — which could run into millions of dollars — as he prepares for at least two criminal trials, and whether his PAC, Save America, is facing a financial crunch.

When the former president kicked off his comeback bid, 99 cents of every dollar raised online went to his 2024 campaign, while one penny went to Save America. What the Times found is that Trump’s operation, “sometime in February or March,” tweaked the ratio: Now, instead of one penny from every dollar, it’s 10 cents.

The effect of that change is potentially substantial: Based on fund-raising figures announced by his campaign, the fine-print maneuver may already have diverted at least $1.5 million to Save America. And the existence of the group has allowed Mr. Trump to have his small donors pay for his legal expenses, rather than paying for them himself.

Note, the Save America PAC has been derided by campaign-finance experts as “essentially a type of slush fund, with few restrictions” on how the money can be spent.

This shift doesn’t come out of nowhere. During Trump’s White House tenure, for example, as the then-president faced growing legal bills, the Republican National Committee agreed to help pay his legal bills. After Trump left office, the RNC continued to help pay Trump’s legal bills.

That’s no longer an option — the former president has rivals for his party’s 2024 nomination, and the RNC’s official position is one of neutrality — but we learned last fall that Trump’s PAC was filling the void, writing millions of dollars in checks to help cover his legal expenses.

Now, it appears the Republican’s political operation has made a subtle tweak in its appeals, making these efforts a bit easier.

Circling back to our earlier coverage, the point behind a political action committee — by most measures, the reason they exist — is to direct funds to likeminded candidates. But those chipping in to support Trump’s Save America operation aren’t just helping the former president’s campaign and its allies, they’re also helping write checks to lawyers representing the former president as he tries to keep up with his criminal indictments and his many ongoing scandals.

Steve Benen

Steve Benen is a producer for “The Rachel Maddow Show,” the editor of MaddowBlog and an MSNBC political contributor. He’s also the bestselling author of “The Impostors: How Republicans Quit Governing and Seized American Politics.”

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