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Trump is funneling campaign money into cash-strapped businesses. Experts say it looks bad.

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Donald Trump’s main 2024 White House campaign fundraising operation sharply increased spending at the former president’s properties in recent months, funneling money into his businesses at a time when he is facing serious legal jeopardy and desperately needs cash.

Trump’s joint fundraising committee wrote three checks in February and one in March to his Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, totaling $411,287 and another in March to Trump National Doral Miami for $62,337, according to a report filed to the Federal Election Commission this week.

Federal law and FEC regulations allow donor funds to be spent at a candidate’s business so long as the campaign pays fair market value, experts say. Trump has been doing it for years, shifting millions in campaign cash into his sprawling business empire to pay for expenses such as using his personal aircraft for political events, rent at Trump Tower and events at his properties, which has included hotels and private clubs.

While the practice is legal, some campaign finance experts believe it raises ethical concerns when a candidate is generating personal revenue off running for office.

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“When voters see something like this happening it contributes to their distrust of the political system and their elected officials’ motives,” said Shanna Ports, senior legal counsel with the Campaign Legal Center, a nonprofit government accountability group.

Trump faces huge legal costs amid multiple civil and criminal cases

The money Trump’s campaign is spending at his businesses could help the former president as he faces a big cash crunch.

Trump has been hit with a pair of large financial judgements after losing two civil lawsuits.

He posted a $91.6 million bond in a defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll, and a $175 million bond in a fraud case involving falsifying business records. The New York attorney general is challenging whether the deal Trump made to post the larger bond payment is financially sound.

The payments Trump’s campaign has made to his businesses are small compared to his large court-ordered financial judgements, but have been growing in recent months.

The Trump campaign and affiliated political committees paid businesses owned by Trump at least $4.9 million since the start of 2023, according to an analysis by USA TODAY. Most of that money – $4.1 million – went to TAG Air, Inc. for air travel.

Trump lists TAG Air, Inc among his assets on his latest financial disclosure required of presidential candidates, with a value of between $5 million and $25 million. It operates his private aircraft, nicknamed Trump Force One.

Trump’s various campaign committees and a super PAC controlled by his supporters also spent at least $809,000 at his properties since the beginning of last year.

Campaign spending at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Doral in Miami

The bulk of the campaign spending at Trump’s properties since the start of 2023 — $663,000 — has been at Mar-a-Lago, and most of it occurred in February. It’s not clear what events the money went toward.

A Trump spokeswoman did not respond to specific questions about the campaign spending at his properties but instead sent a statement attacking President Joe Biden.

Other GOP candidates also have been spending considerable campaign cash at Trump properties.

Ohio Republican U.S. Senate candidate Bernie Moreno’s campaign spent $109,000 on “event catering” at Mar-a-Lago in April, December and January of 2023, records show. Trump endorsed Moreno in December. Moreno won the primary in March and will face three-term Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown in November.

Nevada U.S. Senate candidate Jim Marchant’s campaign spent about $67,000 at Mar-a-Lago on “event venue rental and catering” in November and December. Trump backed Marchant in his unsuccessful bid to be Nevada’s secretary of state in 2022. Marchant is now seeking to unseat first-term Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen.

A PAC called Giuliani Defense spent $2,400 on fundraising expenses and food at Trump’s golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey in January. That PAC has spent $540,000 on legal fees, according to FEC filings. Trump hosted a fundraiser for Rudy Giuliani at Bedminster in September to help with the former New York mayor’s legal costs, which stem in part from the criminal charges Giuliani faces in Fulton County, Georgia, for trying to help Trump overturn the 2020 election.

Trump hosted a party at Mar-a-Lago on March 5 with a large group of supporters to watch the Super Tuesday primary election results from 16 states. He also held a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in October that drew hundreds of supporters, including U.S. Reps Marjorie Taylor Green and Byron Donalds, Texas attorney general Ken Paxton and the actress Roseanne Barr.

Another fundraiser at Trump National Doral in March was hosted by former Ambassador Carlos Trujillo, with the money benefiting the Make America Great Again, Inc. super PAC.

The Trump Save America Joint Fundraising Committee, which raises money for Trump’s campaign and his Save America leadership PAC accounted for the majority of the spending at Trump properties, with other expenses paid for by Trump’s main campaign committee, the MAGA Inc. super PAC and Save America.

Concerns about Trump’s business conflicts go back to 2016 election

Questions about how Trump’s businesses have benefited from his political career have swirled around him throughout the former president’s three campaigns and his four years in the White House.

Under pressure to avoid potential conflicts of interest between his role as president and his vast business dealings, Trump declared after winning the 2016 election that he wouldn’t cut any “new deals.” The incoming president also put his two adult sons in charge of the family business, which was controlled by a trust that critics said didn’t have strong enough requirements to prevent potential ethical conflicts.

Lawsuits accusing Trump of violating the emoluments clauses in the Constitution during his presidency were unsuccessful. Critics said those seeking to influence Trump’s administration funneled money into his businesses, including a hotel near the White House in Washington, D.C. that has since been sold and rebranded as a Waldorf Astoria.

America Democracy Legal Fund filed a complaint with the FEC in 2016 alleging “Mr. Trump is using funds from his presidential campaign to further his business and personal interests.” The complaint was dismissed, but concerns remain in the minds of some campaign finance experts.

“People should be running for office because they want to serve the public, not because they want to enrich themselves,” Ports said. “So the fact that campaigns are allowed to pay the candidate’s business raises those concerns. While legal, it creates kind of a negative impression of the election system.”

Richard Briffault, a legislation professor at Columbia Law School, said Trump’s use of campaign funds at his businesses may not be illegal, but it’s “a little bit dicey.”

‘Nobody’s ever seen anything like it’

Briffault said the only comparable political candidate with such a sprawling business may be former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who ran for president as a Democrat, but even then, they’re not an exact comparison. “Everything with Trump, nobody’s ever seen anything like it,” he said.

The primary thing Trump’s businesses need to do is charge his campaign and PACs the same amount they would charge any other paying customer for the services. But there’s also an ethical question of whether the campaign and PACs could get a better deal somewhere else.

“How much are they charging? And to what extent are they putting people up who might be staying someplace else that might be cheaper?” Briffault asked. “You could imagine that there could be cheaper venues to these things, but they’re purposely holding them there.” 

Trump’s leadership PAC also has been spending vast sums on attorneys as the president faces four criminal cases. He currently is on trial in New York City in a case involving alleged payments to an adult film star during the 2016 presidential campaign to keep her quiet about an alleged sexual affair.

Since days after the 2020 election, the leadership PAC Save America spent more than $72.5 million on legal bills to many of the same firms that are representing him in his civil and criminal cases. That fund accounts for the bulk of his legal spending, but his affiliated committees have spent millions more.

Spending money on legal issues is not unusual for a campaign, but campaign finance experts say Trump has pushed the boundaries of what is allowable.

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