Trump's Early 2024 Announcement Could Help Fund Legal Battles

Former President Donald Trump has spent the last few weeks teasing a potential 2024 run. And last week, he pretty much confirmed his plans to New York magazine's Olivia Nuzzi, telling her that the only question left in his mind is when he'll announce—before or after this year's midterms.

A presidential bid this early on will likely spike campaign donations from excited Trump supporters. But with legal threats continuing to intensify against Trump, those campaign funds could very well be spent on the legal fees he'd accrue from a series of possible lawsuits that may arise from various federal and state investigations.

Using campaign donations to mount a legal defense is not new. Many candidates disperse funds for typical legal fees, like paying an attorney to file candidacy, hiring legal counsel to ensure the campaign follows the law, or even to have a team help contest the results of an election—issues all rooted in campaigning.

However, the line is a little blurrier when it comes to using campaign money to fund legal battles that might stem from events outside the election cycle.

Per the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the independent regulatory agency in charge of enforcing campaign finance laws, a candidate is technically allowed to use donations on legal fees as long as they can prove that those fees are connected to or related to the campaign itself.

"One of the tests that the FEC uses is: Would you have incurred these legal fees even if you were not a candidate?" David Schultz, an election law professor at the University of Minnesota, told Newsweek.

Donald Trump 2024 Campaign
Donald Trump would still face the expenses arising from a New York civil case if he never ran or became president of the United States. Above, Trump speaks during a rally at Alaska Airlines Center on July 9, in Anchorage, Alaska. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Fulton County, Georgia, District Attorney Fani Willis is investigating Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the 2020 election. He's also facing a probe from New York District Attorney Letitia James into the Trump Organization's business practices.

At the federal level, Attorney General Merrick Garland is facing calls to indict Trump for the January 6 Capitol riot based on the evidence being presented by the House committee in their ongoing public hearings. Some have speculated that Trump will announce his candidacy for president early in the hopes of avoiding an indictment.

However, on Tuesday, U.S. Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco said an early announcement by Trump would not affect the DOJ's January 6 probe and that the investigative team will follow the facts "no matter where they lead."

Richard Briffault, a professor specializing in campaign finance reform, election law and government ethics at Columbia Law School, told Newsweek that under the FEC's restrictions, Trump could probably use the money for anything related to the 2020 election. That could include any lawsuits involving criminal charges that materialize from the investigations into the Capitol riot or efforts to overturn President Joe Biden's victory.

It would not be the first time a candidate has tried to convince the FEC that their campaign funds can be dispersed in the case of a criminal charge. In 2007, former Senator Larry Craig of Idaho tried to justify his campaign expenditures after he faced three criminal charges for allegedly trying to sexually solicit an undercover officer by tapping his foot in an airport bathroom in the Twin Cities.

As part of the FEC lawsuit, Craig was ordered to pay the U.S. Treasury more than $240,000 after it was determined he improperly paid his attorneys for personal use with campaign funds.

Schultz said that looking at the Court of Appeals opinion issued in Craig's lawsuit—which, coincidentally, was written by Garland—it would be hard to argue that anything Trump's been accused of doing, like witness tampering, is a product of his candidacy for office. The 2016 opinion would help make a strong argument that any criminal charges arising from January 6 really stem from Trump's own personal behavior.

While tying his legal fees to his candidacy in the last election could be difficult, Schultz said a 2024 Trump campaign could take a different approach by arguing that it's permitted to use donations in a criminal defense, contending that a possible indictment could negatively affect his campaign over the next two years.

Trump Legal Fees Probe
If Donald Trump wants to use campaign funds for any legal defense, he would have to prove that any legal fees he accrues are connected to or related to the campaign itself. Above, a video of Trump is played during the sixth hearing by the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol on June 28 in Washington, D.C. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Although Trump is more likely to be allowed to fund his legal defenses in such cases, he would have to find a different pool of money to pay for the fees he collects as part of the probe into the Trump Organization's alleged inflated financial statements. Using the FEC test Schultz mentions, Trump would still face the expenses arising from the New York civil case if he never ran or became president of the United States.

"Those would be expenses he would have had irrespective of whether or not he's a candidate, so therefore he couldn't use it for that," Briffault confirmed.

Ultimately, the decision as to which legal fees Trump would be allowed to pay for with campaign funds would be left to the FEC—an agency that has become increasingly criticized for being ineffective. Since the FEC has an equal number of Democratic and Republican members, the common deadlocks that arisen have resulted in a number of controversial investigations not being pursued.

If someone makes a complaint about Trump's campaign expenditures, and the FEC doesn't rule and comes to another deadlock, he'd be allowed to keep doing so. However, if the FEC did rule against him, the former president would still be allowed to go to court to challenge the decision.

"Let's say he does declare this fall and he starts making those expenditures, assuming he's indicted by the Justice Department. By the time the FEC rules and says he can't, he's probably already expended resources from his campaign for that purpose," Schultz said. "It would be hard to prevent him from doing this."