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Trump's 2020 campaign is raising millions from small donors and spending it on legal fees

A retiree in Texas gave $3.75 for a fund that was in part redirected to attorneys battling the Russia probe.

Donald Trump Holds Weekend Meetings In Bedminster, NJ Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images

There’s a lot of “NEW GEAR” available for purchase at You can buy navy blue shirts adorned with the hashtag #BuildTheWall, dog leashes that say “MAGA,” or a black button that says “HILLARY FOR PRISON” with the Clinton campaign’s signature arrow.

It’s unusual how early — and how quickly — President Trump’s fundraising apparatus has sprung into gear. Since the 2016 election, Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign committee has raised a staggering $36 million — with more than $2 million going to pay off presidential legal fees, according to multiple reports. A conservative estimate suggests at least $14 million of Trump’s total fundraising since the election has come from what are considered “small dollar” donors, said Michael Beckel, a campaign finance expert at the good-government organization Issue One.

The historical comparisons here are worth highlighting. President Obama didn’t begin his campaign fundraising until 18 months before the 2012 election. (He didn’t write his first direct reelection fundraising appeal until April 2011.) President George W. Bush was criticized for starting his reelection fundraising only 12 months before the 2004 election.

Trump 2020 began fundraising in the president’s first month in office and has intensified rapidly. “The campaign actively fundraising is unique at this stage of a first term,” Bob Biersack, who served on the nonpartisan staff of the Federal Elections Commission for nearly 30 years, said in an email. “The fact that a majority of the money, both directly and through joint fundraisers, is from ‘small’ donors giving less than $200 is extraordinary.”

Where Trump donors’ money is going

The 32 pages of donations going to Trump’s 2020 bid come from all kinds of people living all over the country — $2,700 from Washington Redskins owner Dan Snyder, but also $15 from an office manager in Jacksonville, Florida; $3.75 from a retiree in Texas; and $2.25 from someone who works in food processing in Washington state.

So far, however, a huge proportion of their cash isn’t going directly to reelect Trump but to defend those who helped get him elected in the first place. In the most recent quarter, about one-fourth of the cash that’s been spent — about $4 million — has gone to pay off legal fees almost certainly related to special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian campaign interference, according to the Center for Public Integrity. (The New York Times says most of the money has gone to Jones Day, which is handling Mueller’s Russia probe.)

More specifically, that money has gone to the law firms of Jones Day, Williams & Jensen, Liebowitz Law Firm, Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman, Larocca Hornik Rosen Greenberg & Blaha, and the Law Offices of Alan S. Futerfas, according to CPI. Close to $100,000 from the small-donor army was spent on businesses with Trump’s name — including at the Trump International Hotel and Trump restaurants — in the last quarter, CPI said.

But despite the spending, the 2020 reelection committee still has $18 million in the bank as of Saturday. By contrast, Sen. Bernie Sanders’s (I-VT) campaign remains $350,000 in debt, according to CPI. (Clinton’s campaign hadn’t filed an updated disclosure form as of CPI’s report.) CPI reports that several failed Republican presidential candidates — including Sen. Marco Rubio (FL), and Govs. Chris Christie (NJ) and Scott Walker (WI) — also remain in debt.

A new era of online fundraising extends to the never-ending campaign

One of the reasons Trump’s fundraising is so unusual is that when presidents set out to raise money right after they’re elected, they’re not usually trying to benefit their own campaigns. Instead, they’re working on behalf of their party. Usually Republicans running for Congress and for governor in 2018 would be counting on the newly inaugurated president to help them rake in big donations — or at least not compete with them for donors.

But Trump isn’t operating that way. Biersack pointed to two long-running trends that he thinks are more likely to account for team Trump’s out-of-the-gate fundraising — one technological and one political.

The way campaigns are able to raise money has dramatically transformed over the past 20 years. The internet has exploded the possibilities for grassroots donation — a phenomenon already evident during Howard Dean’s 2004 Democratic primary run, and one Trump exploited over the course of his presidential run. Sanders, too, benefited from the new era of online fundraising.

“[Trump’s] supporters are fired up and ready to go — and to raise this kind of money now via donations on the web is cheap and easy,” Biersack said in an interview last February. “It basically costs the campaign nothing to do, so they probably said, ‘Why not?’”

In other words, the most obvious explanation for why Trump is already fundraising is because he can. Presidents in the 1990s didn’t have the benefit of the online fundraising juggernauts that Trump does.

Still, online fundraising didn’t develop out of nowhere in the past year. Barack Obama also used online donors to raise tens of millions of dollars, though he didn’t begin fundraising for his reelection bid until much later in his term.

Does Trump care about the GOP?

The other reason Trump is free to break with precedent, Biersack suggests, is that other presidents focused more on helping other candidates from their party.

“When you’re the president, the money just comes to you. But you don’t want to get in the way of the national party; you don’t want to inhibit the fundraising ability of congressional campaigns — there are lots of other needs for those funds,” Biersack says. “You want to raise money for them; you don’t want to raise money for yourself if you don’t need it yet.”

Trump, the consummate outsider who didn’t become a Republican until right before he ran for president, is different. He is fundraising through a joint fundraising committee — which allows the Republican National Committee and the Democratic National Committee to circumvent campaign finance laws with huge checks — but much of that money still goes to the president.

And it appears, for now, that Trump’s fundraising apparatus is focusing on helping the president himself. Jane Calderwood, who served for close to a decade as chief of staff for former Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-ME), said Republicans in Congress will be furious if Trump continues to fundraise for himself without redirecting his efforts to help them.

“They’re counting on him — it’s your party, you’re the leader, and fundraising for the rest of it is normally part of your gig,” Calderwood said February. “Even Obama in his last term was raising money like a fiend for House and Senate Democrats. If [Trump] raises a bunch of money for himself and doesn’t give them any, they’re going to be beside themselves.”

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