Originally Published: 31 JUL 23 00:14 ET
Updated: 31 JUL 23 08:37 ET
Analysis by Stephen Collinson, CNN
(CNN) — The fateful clash between former President Donald Trump’s legal imbroglio and the 2024 election is deepening amid new signs his GOP poll-topping campaign is partly designed to bankroll his defense and beat criminal charges.
News that Trump’s leadership PAC, which raises most of its money from small-dollar donations, has spent more than $40 million on attorneys’ fees for himself and associates emerged as he tightens his grip on the GOP race – a New York Times/Siena College poll released Monday finds Trump with a monumental advantage over the rest of the GOP pack – and ramps up claims that President Joe Biden wants him arrested so he can’t pull off a stunning White House comeback.
While many of Trump’s rivals are still wary of openly criticizing his legal morass for fear of alienating his supporters, some are becoming more vocal after the ex-president was hit by new charges in the classified documents case last week and as he predicts new indictments are coming soon in the special counsel’s investigation into efforts to overturn the 2020 election and in another probe by a district attorney focusing on a similar bid in Georgia. The federal grand jury in Washington is next expected to meet on Tuesday.
Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – who is seeking to turn the New Hampshire primary into a referendum on how Trump’s legal woes could jeopardize GOP hopes among more moderate and crucial suburban voters – slammed Trump on CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday as a billionaire who was using contributions to pay his legal fees.
“This is a guy who’s putting himself before the country. You can’t put America first with Donald Trump, because it’s Trump first,” Christie told Kasie Hunt, saying the ex-president and his associates had acted like “the Corleones with no experience.”
“I want voters to listen to this. It is most likely that by the time we get on the debate stage (on) August 23, the front-runner will be out on bail in four different jurisdictions: Florida, Washington, Georgia, and New York,” Christie said.
Another candidate, former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, demonstrated the dancing on a political pin head that Trump is forcing his opponents to do as they seek to exploit his plight while also trying to avoid angering the GOP base, much of which appears to believe Trump’s claim he’s a victim of political persecution. Haley, who served in Trump’s Cabinet as ambassador to the United Nations, warned on CBS’s “Face the Nation” that new accusations in the case of classified documents her old boss hoarded at his Florida resort were “incredibly dangerous to our national security” – if they were true. But she added that the American people didn’t trust the Justice Department and hinted she might pardon Trump if she won the White House.
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis is also edging closer to criticizing Trump over the case, though he’s also treading carefully in order to avoid further damaging his recently wilting campaign. “If the election becomes a referendum on what document was left by the toilet at Mar-a-Lago, we are not going to win,” DeSantis told ABC News during a campaign swing through Iowa on Friday.
The growing turbulence in the Republican race comes as Biden tries to boost his appeal to voters. The administration, for instance, launched a beta website Sunday for a new income-driven federal student loan payments system finalized after the Supreme Court struck down his student debt forgiveness initiative. And the pace of campaigning by Vice President Kamala Harris is increasing. As the Republican candidates gathered in Iowa on Friday, Harris flew into the state to highlight the overturning of a constitutional right to an abortion – part of Democrats’ efforts to make the conservative majority Supreme Court’s decision last year detrimental to GOP hopes in 2024.
The vice president also went to Florida earlier this month to attack DeSantis over new educational standards in the Sunshine State that she claims will teach kids that some enslaved people “benefited” from skills they acquired. DeSantis accused her of misleading voters by seizing on one line of a much broader curriculum about the entire topic of slavery – but it’s a line that’s sparked some public spats between him and Black Republican lawmakers, ensuring it remains in the news.
Legal net tightens while Trump creates new echo of first impeachment
Trump’s legal struggles still dominate the Republican race. In an unexpected move worsening his legal position, Smith brought new charges on Thursday against Trump, his aide Walt Nauta and a third co-defendant, Carlos De Oliveira, in the case alleging the former commander in chief mishandled classified documents after leaving the White House. The charges included allegations that Trump and his employees attempted to delete Mar-a-Lago security footage sought by the grand jury. Trump and Nauta have already pleaded not guilty to earlier counts brought against them in the case.
Despite Trump’s legal woes, no rival Republican has shown much sign of narrowing his double-digit lead in national primary polls. And Trump showed at a Republican Party dinner featuring most of the major candidates in Iowa on Friday and in a raucous rally in Erie, Pennsylvania, the next night, that he will be very hard for them to stop. The former president accused Smith and the Biden administration of trying to make it illegal to question the result of an election and branded investigations into his conduct as “election interference” to keep him from a White House return.
His attitude threatens to tarnish the faith of his supporters in yet another American presidential election as he seeks to become only the second president to win a non-consecutive second term and readies a hardline agenda reflecting his authoritarian tendencies. There is no evidence of widespread fraud in the 2020 election and Trump’s claims otherwise were rejected by his own Justice Department.
Trump also said Saturday the probes into his behavior were intended to cover up “crimes” by the current president and his son, Hunter, following the collapse last week of a plea deal for Hunter Biden on tax charges that would have also resolved a felony gun charge. There is no evidence of wrongdoing by the president, but Trump’s GOP allies in the House are making noise about an impeachment inquiry to probe their claims that Biden and his son used his influence as vice president to enrich themselves.
And Trump’s now calling on Congress to halt all aid to Ukraine until Biden cooperates with congressional investigations – an echo of the conduct that led to his first impeachment, when he used the prospect of military aid to try to coerce Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky into opening an investigation into the former vice president and eventual Democratic nominee.
Fundraising for a legal defense
The extent to which Trump’s 2024 campaign has merged with his legal defense as he faces multiple criminal charges was laid bare in news about his PAC’s expenditures, which are expected to be reported to the Federal Election Commission on Monday. The PAC, Save America, has spent more than $40 million on legal fees since the start of this year, a source familiar with the matter told CNN, which is more than double the amount the group spent on legal fees in all of 2022.
PACs and political parties have a Monday deadline to file midyear disclosure reports that will offer a glimpse into the financial health and spending of some groups used to support presidential candidates.
Trump’s team is strongly defending the expenditures as an integral part of the ex-president’s larger political project.
“In order to combat these heinous actions by Joe Biden’s cronies and to protect these innocent people from financial ruin and prevent their lives from being completely destroyed, the leadership PAC contributed to their legal fees to ensure they have representation against unlawful harassment,” Trump campaign spokesman Steven Cheung told CNN. The details of the spending on legal fees by Trump’s PAC were first reported by The Washington Post.
Both Nauta and De Oliveira are being represented by attorneys paid for by Trump’s operation.
As the costs mount, Trump’s team is also creating a legal defense fund, two sources familiar with the planning told CNN, adding that the entity will be called the Patriot Legal Defense Fund Inc., and will be led by Trump associate and adviser Michael Glassner. It will cover the bills of some of Trump’s current and former aides and employees. The development was first reported by The New York Times.
Ohio Republican Sen. J. D. Vance wrote on Twitter on Sunday that attacks on Trump for using fundraising dollars for legal fees were “lame” and said the strategy alleviated the burden on some of the president’s associates. “I have good friends who did nothing wrong who had their legal fees paid by Save America PAC. Would you rather they throw all of their employees under a bus?” Vance wrote.
Trump and allied fundraising operations send out multiple emails a day to supporters, and the ex-president has frequently used indictments and other twists in his legal saga to boost his campaign coffers. On Sunday, for instance, the Trump campaign and Save America sent out a joint appeal that told supporters: “While my primary opponents continue to take cheap swipes at me as the Department of Justice plots ways to throw me in JAIL for up to 561 YEARS, I am asking YOU to stand with me at this pivotal moment in the election.”
The new counts in the classified documents case are just a portion of the legal jeopardy Trump faces. He’s due to go on trial in Manhattan in March on more than 30 counts related to business fraud arising from a payment to an adult film actress before the 2016 election. The former president says he has received a target letter from Smith regarding the investigation into the aftermath of the 2020 election, which is a step often followed by criminal charges. And Trump is expected to learn by the end of August whether he or associates will face charges in Fulton County, Georgia, stemming from alleged attempts to overturn the result of the 2020 election in the crucial swing state.
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis over the weekend praised increased security measures around the local courthouse as charging decisions approach, and indicated her investigation had all but wrapped up.
“The work is accomplished,” Willis told CNN affiliate WXIA at a back-to-school event. “We’ve been working for two-and-half years. We’re ready to go.”
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