Donald Trump has earned a reputation as perhaps the most litigious American politician in living memory. But, while that defining characteristic has not changed since he left office a year ago, Trump’s most recent campaign finance filings reveal a sharp and dramatic drop in legal expenses.
It’s not because he’s involved in any fewer legal battles, however. It’s because he got someone else to start picking up the tab.
According to financial disclosures filed on Monday, Trump-affiliated committees paid their various lawyers and firms a combined $2.3 million for their services between July 1 and Dec. 31. That may seem like a lot—and in absolute terms it is for any politician—but the amount is actually less than 30 percent of the $8 million in legal expenses Trump’s political groups incurred during the first half of the year.
And yet, while Trump was cutting back, the Republican National Committee saw an unusual off-year bump. When the national party ledgers closed on Dec. 31, they had racked up more than $5.3 million in legal fees during the back half of 2021—a marked increase over the first half of the year, and more than double Trump’s own costs over the same period.
That’s because, in August, for reasons still unknown to the public, RNC officials agreed to cover $1.6 million of Trump’s upcoming legal fees. The RNC claimed that at least part of the pledge would fund Trump’s defense against ongoing criminal and civil investigations into his business practices—practices which predate his candidacy for office.
Or, in the words of an RNC spokesperson, “certain legal expenses that related to politically motivated legal proceedings waged against [ex-]President Trump.”
And that $1.6 million largesse lines up fairly closely with the $1.1 million spike in the RNC’s legal fees.
A review of RNC filings since August shows that the committee has, in that time, paid more than a million dollars to firms who have recently represented Trump in legal disputes. However, the incestuous overlap between committees and law firms makes it difficult to know for sure how close the RNC is to tapping out its $1.6 million budget.
Of course, in the light of the previous $8 million splurge, Trump’s most recent $2.3 million six-month total may seem reasonable—even more so when stacked against the $7.2 million in legal costs the ex-president’s donors shelled out to bankroll the eight-week pseudo-litigation blitz between Election Day and the end of 2020. During that period, Trump spent an astounding $125,000 a day.
But step outside of the MAGAverse and perspective reasserts itself—with a vengeance.
FEC data shows that President Joe Biden’s affiliated political committees paid his lawyers a combined $403,000 over the course of 2021. That’s about 4 percent of Trump’s total over the same period. The Democratic National Committee also eased back on the legal throttle after the inauguration.
But unlike Biden, Trump has a confounding network of affiliated groups. Still, when it comes to legal costs, it’s Trump’s old campaign committee—re-christened as “Make America Great Again PAC”—that still bears the brunt.
In the first half of the year, MAGA PAC’s legal fees accounted for the vast majority of Trump’s spending—about $7.8 million of $8 million. Over the last six months, the committee accounted for another $1.7 million, or about three of every four dollars the full Trump apparatus spent on legal costs.
Trump’s Save America leadership PAC shelled out another $241,000. And his Save America joint fundraising committee ponied up another $105,000—all of it to Elections, LLC, a joint effort between three top campaign aides which reaped millions from Trump-aligned groups last year.
Another official Trump fundraising vehicle, Trump Victory, is reportedly shutting down. But over the last six months, it still sent about $114,000 worth of business to GOP megafirm Jones Day. That firm—the past and present home of Trump’s former White House Counsel Don McGahn—represented the campaign in a bizarre trademark dispute over its now anachronistic “Keep America Great!” tagline.
But while the legal world revolves around money, when it comes to explaining the root of Trump’s legal bills—and why the costs ebb and flow—numbers alone don’t set much of a scene.
It’s telling, then, that one of the Trump firms that had a banner year in 2021 did so while representing the campaign in a major defeat.
The culmination of that lawsuit—a nondisclosure dispute with former campaign official Jessica Denson—was more than two years in the making. The loss in federal court last spring dealt a crippling blow to the ex-president’s efforts to gag disgruntled associates. But the New York firm leading the campaign’s defense in the matter cashed in about $200,000 in the first six months of 2021—and then saw another $272,000 on the back end of the year, when Trump lost another headline-making NDA dispute in arbitration. After publication, Denson told The Daily Beast that she continues to fight Trump in state court.
Trump’s arch pettiness was also on full display in the recent filings. For instance, his old campaign committee threw nearly $100,000 into defending a copyright lawsuit brought by musician Eddy Grant over the use of his 1982 hit, Electric Avenue. It took the campaign more than a year to even file a response to Grant’s original complaint, which it only did in November. The argument apparently did not take—the suit is set to be settled in March.
The twin New York investigations into the Trump Organization also bore their first fruit later in the year, in the form of a June indictment against the company and its top money man, Alan Weisselberg. The Daily Beast later reported that, over the following months, a number of Trump’s star attorneys bolted from the stables. One of them, Marc Mukasey—who in September abandoned the Trump Organization to the New York attorney general’s investigation—saw a possibly final $22,000 payout come his way in October.
More high, and silent, drama can be found reading between the lines of legal payouts after last October’s shakeup at the only Trump-endorsed super PAC. The group’s chair, longtime Trump confidant Corey Lewandowski, had allegedly sexually assaulted a donor at a fundraising event—an infraction too serious even for Lewandowski, who Trump aides believed had long outlived his strangely charmed welcome in MAGAland.
That super PAC had never reported any legal costs previously. Over the next few days, it paid out $100,000.
—Corrected at 1:55 p.m., 02/07/2022 to reflect that Jessica Denson’s case against Trump was in federal court, not arbitration court