Former President Donald J. Trump’s political action committee, which began 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 cash reserves in Mr. Trump’s PAC, called Save America, have fallen to such levels that the group has made the highly unusual request of a $60 million refund of a donation it had previously sent to a pro-Trump super PAC. This money had been intended for television commercials to help Mr. Trump’s candidacy, but as he is the dominant front-runner for the Republican nomination in 2024, his most immediate problems appear to be legal, not political.
The super PAC, which is called Make America Great Again Inc., has already sent back $12.25 million to the group paying Mr. Trump’s legal bills, according to federal records — a sum 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, whom Mr. Trump pardoned for 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 on record in the history of federal campaigns.
It comes as Mr. Trump’s political and legal fate appear increasingly intertwined. The return of money from the super PAC, which Mr. Trump does not control, to his political action committee, which he does, demonstrates how his operation is balancing 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 permitted to spend on his campaign — it effectively evaded that prohibition.
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 gave back $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 that the super PAC could continue to issue refunds and therefore indirectly pay for Mr. Trump’s legal bills in the coming months. The communications director for the super PAC, Alex Pfeiffer, declined to comment on any additional transfer.
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 $5,000 donation limits. Some campaign finance experts described the refunds as a backdoor effort by Save America to skirt that limit.
“I don’t know that calling it a refund changes the fundamental illegality,” said Adav Noti, a former lawyer for the Federal Election Commission’s litigation division.
The pro-Trump super PAC and Trump-controlled PAC must be independent entities and are barred from any coordination on strategy, a fact that Mr. Noti indicated could be at issue with the staggered refunds.
“So for the super PAC and the Trump PAC to be sending tens of millions dollars back and forth depending upon who needs the money more strongly suggests unlawful financial coordination,” said Mr. Noti, who is now the legal director of the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group that had filed a previous complaint about 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 upon the advice of counsel. Any disgusting insinuation otherwise, especially by Democrat 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 fund-raising — and is the only candidate who will beat Crooked Joe Biden.”
Save America was already under scrutiny by the special counsel Jack Smith for paying lawyers representing witnesses in cases against Mr. Trump. The group was seeded with the more than $100 million that Mr. Trump raised almost immediately after losing the 2020 election, as he claimed he was fighting widespread voter fraud. Federal prosecutors are also looking into whether Republicans and Trump advisers knew he had lost but continued with such claims anyway.
Some of Mr. Trump’s rivals and their allies have seized on the Save America legal payments, accusing him of using small-dollar donations intended for another purpose to pay for his lawyers.
Mr. Trump’s more recent actions appear to acknowledge his vulnerability to such criticism.
For instance, his team recently formed a legal-defense fund to help allies of Mr. Trump who are facing legal scrutiny, though the fund is not expected to help cover his own bills. And at a rally in Erie, Pa., on Saturday, Mr. Trump said that he would spend as much of his own money on his campaign as was necessary, without mentioning his legal expenses.
The DeSantis campaign is keenly aware that the multiple criminal indictments against Mr. Trump have only intensified his support among many Republican primary voters, who view him as a victim of political persecution.
But the latest revelations provided an opening for Mr. DeSantis’s team to claim the former president was grifting off his supporters.
Mr. DeSantis’s rapid-response director, Christina Pushaw, suggested that “MAGA grandmas were scammed” out of their Social Security checks “in order to pay a billionaire’s legal bills.”
Mr. DeSantis himself declined to address the subject after an economic policy speech in Rochester, N.H., on Monday, dismissing a question about it as uninteresting to voters.
Save America also footed some of the costs of salaries for staff members who are being paid by Mr. Trump’s campaign as well. That included the salary of Walt Nauta, a personal aide to Mr. Trump who is also one of his two co-defendants in the federal indictment accusing the former president of improperly retaining classified material and obstructing efforts to retrieve it.
After all its spending and refunded money, Mr. Trump’s super PAC entered 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 who is running for the U.S. Senate in Ohio and 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.
High-dollar fund-raising for the Trump super PAC has accelerated in recent weeks as the former president has added to his commanding polling lead 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 combined.
Nicholas Nehamas contributed reporting.