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Questions about Donald Trump's campaign money, answered

CNN 11/16/2022 Fredreka Schouten

With his formal announcement of a third presidential bid, Donald Trump now will face new limits on raising and spending money ahead of the 2024 election.

But election lawyers and campaign finance experts said loopholes in federal election rules – and lax enforcement by federal regulators of existing laws – still offer the former president several potential routes to capitalize on the massive fundraising operation he and his aides have built since his 2020 loss.

How much money does Trump have?

A lot. Trump’s political operation, led by his leadership PAC Save America, is sitting on more than $100 million, according to the most recent filings with federal regulators.

Save America has been at the heart of Trump’s post-presidential fundraising. Leadership PACs are generally established as a way to allow political figures to support other candidates. But they also serve as campaigns-in-waiting for presidential contenders – funding travel and polling and paying the staff members who ultimately join a White House campaign.

Leadership PACs also can underwrite personal expenses.

Save America, for instance, has spent more than $8.5 million on legal expenses since the start of 2021 – with some of it going to firms defending Trump in personal legal matters, such as the sweeping lawsuit that New York Attorney General Letitia James brought in September, alleging fraud in the Trump Organization’s business practices. Trump has denied wrongdoing.

The former president’s close allies also recently established a super PAC, which can raise and spend unlimited sums but is barred from coordinating its activities with the candidates it supports.

Last month, Save America transferred $20 million to the new Trump-aligned super PAC, MAGA Inc., with the goal of aiding Trump’s favored candidates in the midterms.

Political observers say that transfer might foreshadow one way Save America’s big war chest could benefit Trump’s candidacy in the months ahead.

When does Trump become a candidate for fundraising purposes?

Shortly before announcing his bid at his waterfront Mar-a-Lago estate Tuesday, Trump filed paperwork with the Federal Election Commission formally establishing his candidacy and the Donald J. Trump for President 2024 campaign committee.

Campaign finance watchdogs argue that Trump has been skirting campaign finance laws for some time by talking and acting like a candidate without formally registering as one. (As far back as July 2021, for instance, Trump told Fox News that he had made up his mind about another presidential bid. And he repeatedly hinted at his intentions in public statements in the months after.)

But with Tuesday’s formal declaration, Trump must comply with limits on the size and sources of his contributions. A federal candidate cannot accept money directly from a corporation or a labor union, for instance.

And, currently, an individual can only contribute $2,900 to a federal candidate for the primary or general election. (That contribution limit, indexed to inflation, will rise for the 2023-2024 election cycle. Federal regulators will announce the new contribution limits early next year.)

And, as a candidate, any money Trump spends to advance his White House ambitions – whether it’s for travel to an early primary state or ads touting his achievements – becomes official campaign expenditures and needs to come out of his campaign account.

“He can’t use any of his PACs to fly around the country and give speeches,” said Richard Briffault, an expert on campaign finance regulation and a professor at Columbia Law School.

And in stark contrast to leadership PACs, campaign committees cannot underwrite personal expenses.

So, is Trump cut off from using the funds he’s raised?

Yes and no, experts say.

Trump can’t simply dump all the money raised by his leadership PAC or an affiliated super PAC into his campaign account. That’s because his campaign committee is subject to strict fundraising limits that don’t apply to those PACs.

But there are other ways the money Trump has amassed can still advance his candidacy.

Larry Noble, a former top lawyer with the Federal Election Commission, thinks federal law is pretty clear: Candidates aren’t allowed to take a big pot of so-called soft money – funds that exceed the candidate contribution limits – and plow it into an entity that’s set up to help them get elected.

But he says the FEC – whose six members often deadlock along partisan lines – has set a high bar for even opening an investigation into potential violations.

As a result, Noble said, there’s probably little to stop a leadership PAC such as Save America from transferring money to a third party – such as a super PAC or a political “dark money” nonprofit group – to run what would look like an independent effort to help Trump, Noble said.

Under the standard set by some commissioners, “you’d have to show evidence that the money was transferred at the candidate’s direction with the idea that it would be spent to help his campaign and show his involvement in the ads and that type of thing,” he added.

On Monday, the nonpartisan watchdog Campaign Legal Center said it had filed a complaint with the FEC, alleging that Trump already has violated campaign finance law by transferring $20 million last month from Save America into the MAGA Inc. super PAC. The group argues the super PAC’s spending is likely to benefit Trump’s 2024 campaign.

Trump’s aides did not respond to CNN’s inquiries about the complaint. And an FEC spokesman declined to comment, citing the agency’s standard policy of not discussing pending legal matters.

It’s far from clear whether the complaint will gain any traction within the FEC. In addition to frequent deadlocks, the agency moves at a slow pace, often ruling years after a complaint is first lodged.

In July, the Democratic group American Bridge sued the commission in an attempt to force the agency to take action on its complaint against Trump. The group had filed an FEC complaint four months earlier, alleging that Trump had broken federal law by raising and spending large sums to promote a likely presidential bid without formally declaring his candidacy.

Given the FEC inaction on many enforcement matters, some election lawyers said Trump would run little risk of trouble if Save America transferred another big sum into MAGA Inc. or into another super PAC actively supporting his candidacy.

“If I were in his position, I’d give the money to a super PAC and have the super PAC spend it,” said one Republican election lawyer, who asked not to be identified because of his ongoing work with GOP political committees. Given that the leadership PAC already has transferred $20 million, “what difference would it make if you give $50 (million) more?”

“Even if the FEC were to find that it’s not permissible – which I don’t believe they will, but even if they did – they aren’t going to fine him millions of dollars,” the lawyer added.

How else could Trump use his existing political operation?

Political observers also said the operation Trump has built since leaving the White House can aid his 2024 candidacy in other ways.

The former president’s relentless fundraising over the last two years has established a small-dollar donor list that’s “constantly updated,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and former spokesman for the Republican National Committee.

The new campaign has established a Save America joint fundraising committee, its filings show – giving it access to Trump’s established donor contact list.

“It’s the largest political donor list in the world,” Heye said. “It gives him the ability to raise a lot of money very quickly.”

And because Trump is launching a new campaign, it allows donors who already have contributed the maximum amount to his Save America leadership PAC to start fresh with donations to his 2024 bid.

The Trump campaign began to ask for those contributions before he had left the announcement stage Tuesday night, with a text message blasted out to supporters, urging them to “Become a 2024 Presidential Founder.”

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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