Former President Donald J. Trump’s political action committee, which started last year with $105 million, now has less than $4 million left in its account after paying tens of millions of dollars in legal fees for Mr. Trump and his associates.
The dwindling liquidity reserves in Mr. Trump’s PAC, called Save America, has fallen to such a level that the group has made the highly unusual request for a $60 million refund of a donation it previously sent to a pro-Trump super PAC. This money was intended for television advertising to help Mr. Trump’s candidacy, but as he is the dominant front-runner for the 2024 Republican nomination, his most immediate problems appear to be legal, not political.
The super PAC, called Make America Great Again Inc., has already returned $12.25 million to the group paying Mr. Trump’s legal bills, according to federal records — an amount nearly as large as the $13.1 million the super PAC raised from donors in the first half of 2023. Those donations included $1 million from the father of his son-in-law, Charles Kushner, who Mr. Trump pardoned federal crimes in his final days as president, and $100,000 from a candidate seeking Mr. Trump’s endorsement.
The extraordinary shift of money from the super PAC to Mr. Trump’s political committee, described in federal campaign filings as a refund, is believed to be larger than any other refund recorded in the history of federal campaigns.
It comes as Mr. Trump’s political and legal fates increasingly appear intertwined. The repayment of money from the super PAC that Mr. That Trump does not control his political action committee, which he does, shows how his operation balances dueling priorities: paying lawyers and supporting his political candidacy through television ads.
Save America, Mr. Trump’s political action committee is prohibited by law from directly spending money on his candidacy. When Save America donated $60 million last year to Mr. Trump’s super PAC – which is authorized to spend on his campaign – effectively avoided this ban.
It is not clear from the filing exactly when the refund was requested, but the super PAC did not return the money all at once. It returned $1 million on May 1; $5 million more on May 9; another $5 million on June 1; and $1.25 million on June 30. These returns followed Mr. Trump’s two indictments this year: one in Manhattan in March and one last month in federal court.
An additional transfer of a chunk of money to Save America came in July, according to a person familiar with the matter, suggesting the super PAC could continue to issue refunds and therefore indirectly pay for Mr. Trump’s legal bills in the coming months. The director of communications for the super PAC, Alex Pfeiffer, declined to comment on any additional transfers.
The super PAC spent more than $23 million on mostly negative advertising attacking his leading rival, Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, earlier this year.
Super PACs can raise unlimited money, while regular PACs have strict donation limits of $5,000. Some campaign finance experts described the refunds as a backdoor effort by Save America to exceed that limit.
“I don’t know that calling it a refund changes the fundamental illegality,” said Adav Noti, a former attorney for the Federal Election Commission’s legal division.
The pro-Trump super PAC and Trump-controlled PAC must be independent entities and are barred from any coordination of strategy, a fact Mr.
“So for the super PAC and the Trump PAC to send tens of millions of dollars back and forth depending on who needs the money, that’s a stronger indication of illegal financial coordination,” Mr. Noti, who is now the legal director of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group that had filed an earlier complaint over the $60 million transfer.
In response to Mr. Noti’s suggestion of illegality, Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the Trump campaign, said in a statement: “Everything was done in accordance with the law and on the advice of advisers. Any scurrilous insinuation otherwise, especially from Democratic donors, is nothing more than a feeble attempt to distract from the fact that President Trump is dominating this race — both in the polls and with fundraising — and is the only candidate who will beat Crooked Joe Biden.”
Red America was already under scrutiny by special counsel Jack Smith for paying lawyers who represented witnesses in cases against Mr. Trump. The group was seeded with the more than $100 million that Mr. Trump left almost immediately after losing the 2020 election, claiming he was fighting widespread voter fraud. Federal prosecutors are also investigating whether Republicans and Trump advisers knew he had lost but continued to make such claims anyway.
Some of Mr. Trump’s rivals and their allies have seized on Save America’s legal payments, accusing him of using small-dollar donations intended for another purpose to pay for his lawyers.
Mr. Trump’s recent actions appear to acknowledge his vulnerability to such criticism.
For example, his team recently formed a legal defense fund to help allies of Mr. Trump, who faces legal scrutiny, although the foundation is not expected to help cover his own bills. And at a meeting in Erie, Pa., on Saturday, Mr. Trump said he would spend as much of his own money on his campaign as necessary, without mentioning his legal expenses.
The DeSantis campaign is keenly aware that the many criminal charges against Mr. Trump has only intensified his support among many Republican primary voters who see him as a victim of political persecution.
But the latest revelations gave Mr. DeSantis’s hold an opening to claim that the former president insulted his supporters.
Mr. DeSantis’ director of rapid response, Christina Pushaw, suggested that “MAGA grandmothers were being cheated” out of their Social Security checks “to pay a billionaire’s legal bills.”
Mr. DeSantis himself declined to address the issue after an economic-policy speech in Rochester, NH, on Monday, dismissing a question about it as uninteresting to voters.
Red America has also paid some of the labor costs for employees who are also paid by Mr. Trump’s campaign. It included the salary of Walt Nauta, a personal assistant to Mr. Trump, who is also one of his two co-defendants in the federal indictment that accuses the former president of improperly retaining classified material and obstructing efforts to retrieve it.
After all its spending and money back, Mr. Trump’s super PAC enters July with $30 million on hand. Among the group’s largest contributions were $5 million from Trish Duggan, a prominent Florida Scientologist; $1 million from Woody Johnson, Mr. Trump’s former ambassador to England and an heir to the Johnson & Johnson pharmaceutical empire; and $2 million from Phil Ruffin, a Las Vegas casino magnate.
The super PAC also received $100,000 from Bernie Moreno, a businessman running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio who is seeking Mr. Trump’s endorsement. And it received another $138,400 from Saul Fox, a Republican donor who also gave money to the super PAC supporting Mr. DeSantis.
Big-dollar fundraising for Trump’s super PAC has accelerated in recent weeks as the former president added to his commanding lead in the polls over Mr. DeSantis, according to people familiar with the group’s finances. An official with Make America Great Again Inc., who was not authorized to discuss contributions not on the federal filing, said the super PAC had raised $15 million in July — more than it had raised in the first six months of the year together.
Nicholas Nehamas contributed with reporting.