EXPLAINER-Can Trump use political donations to pay for legal defense?

Date:

By Andrew Goudsward

July 31 (Reuters) – Former U.S. President Donald Trump’s main fundraising group, known as a leadership PAC, on Monday reported spending more than $21 million on legal fees in the first half of 2023 amid investigations and lawsuits against Trump, his advisers and his associates.

WHAT IS A LEADERSHIP PAC?

Leadership PACs, such as Trump’s Save America committee, raise money from donors to support political campaigns in the United States.

Leadership PACs emerged in the 1970s as a way for elected officials and candidates to raise money for other political candidates, usually of the same political party, without using their own campaign funds.

Members of U.S. Congress have often used the PACs to help colleagues in closely fought elections and attract support for their own bids to secure leadership positions in Congress, according to campaign finance experts.

The committees are set up and controlled by lawmakers or other political leaders, but are not connected to the candidate’s campaign.

WHAT CAN A LEADERSHIP PAC SPEND MONEY ON?

Leadership PAC funding cannot be used to support the candidate’s campaign, although it has been used to cover administrative expenses such as travel, political consulting and polling.

Unlike super PACs, which can raise unlimited sums from companies, unions and individuals, individual donors may contribute no more than $5,000 a year to leadership PACs.

U.S. politicians have traditionally had wide latitude to spend money raised through leadership PACs. Although U.S. law prohibits candidates from using campaign money on personal expenses, the U.S. Federal Election Commission, which enforces campaign finance law, has not clarified whether the ban applies to leadership PACs.

WHAT IS THE SAVE AMERICA PAC?

Trump, who is the leading candidate for the Republican nomination in 2024, established the Save America PAC in the days after the 2020 presidential election. The committee has often solicited donations by making false claims of widespread voter fraud in the election, which Trump lost to Democrat Joe Biden.

The committee made about $760,000 in donations to other Republican candidates ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, according to OpenSecrets, an organization that tracks political spending in the United States.

But the group has spent far more covering legal bills for Trump and other associates. Save America had previously reported spending more than $16 million on legal expenses through 2022.

Trump has faced two criminal indictments and a host of other investigations since leaving office. The probes have drawn in his political advisers and employees of his real estate business.

Trump has pleaded not guilty to all charges in both cases and has accused prosecutors of political bias against him.

CAN LEADERSHIP PACS BE USED TO PAY LEGAL FEES?

The answer is tricky, according to legal experts. Generally, politicians cannot spend campaign money on legal expenses unless they are tied to a campaign, but many of the investigations involving Trump relate to his conduct as president and as a political candidate.

However, leadership PACs such as Save America also are not allowed to directly support their own candidate’s campaign. Richard Briffault, a professor at Columbia Law School and an expert on campaign finance issues who has supported Democratic candidates, said that because Trump is fighting criminal charges during a presidential campaign, it is possible that covering legal fees could be considered a benefit to his campaign.

Campaign finance experts said the question was unsettled, though Trump’s team would most likely argue his criminal defense is separate from his campaign.

A Trump spokesman said the legal payments were made in “accordance with the law and upon the advice of counsel.”

(Reporting by Andrew Goudsward in Washington. Additional reporting by Jason Lange. Editing by David Bario, Matthew Lewis and Gerry Doyle)

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