Trump reaps post-verdict financial windfall

The good news for former President Donald Trump is that his political operation says it hauled in a staggering nine-figure sum in May, including a flood of donations right at the end of the month. The bad news: He had to be convicted on 34 felony counts in order to send his supporters into that fundraising frenzy.

In the short run, Trump’s campaign benefited in a measurable way from a Manhattan jury finding that he illegally schemed to cover up an alleged affair with porn actress Stormy Daniels in order to help his 2016 campaign. Trump aides say the former president, who denies that he had a sexual encounter with Daniels, raised $53 million for a series of connected accounts in the first 24 hours after the verdict, putting his total for May at $141 million.

To put that in perspective, it’s almost twice as much as the Trump operation said it raised in April ($76 million), which at that point was its high-water mark. (The byzantine structure of presidential fundraising makes it hard to confirm these totals in real time, especially before mandatory filings with the Federal Election Commission.)

It’s a financial turning point for a Trump team that has lagged far behind President Joe Biden’s campaign in fundraising, which has been one of the Democrat’s measurable advantages so far. But one of the most pressing questions facing Trump is whether the dollars matter as much as the stigma of the “guilty” brand — particularly in a 2020 election rematch in which many voters’ views of the two candidates are immutable, with little movement in polls.

“I think the felony hurts him more than the fundraising helps him,” said Chuck Rocha, a Democratic strategist who served as a top aide on Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ well-funded 2020 Democratic primary campaign.

Rob Godfrey, a Republican strategist based in South Carolina, said the key for Trump is whether he can find a way to use the money to break through voters’ existing opinions of him and Biden.

“There’s no question that the fundraising windfall the Trump campaign has seen over the course of the last week will be much more of a help than it would hurt him in any way,” Godfrey said. “But the way that you deploy those resources is going to make all the difference.”

The haul could provide Trump a massive injection of funds into his campaign at an important time, as it plows into the convention season and the post-Labor Day sprint.

Blasting the New York trial as “politically motivated election interference,” Trump senior adviser Brian Hughes said that “it’s clear from the response of fundraising, polling, and the enthusiasm of voters” that Trump’s guilty verdict “completely backfired for Biden and his Democrat allies.”

Snap polls taken after the verdict have not shown much discernible movement in voters’ preferences in the race, showing slight if any movement toward Biden, but well within margins of error. What is more clear is the effect on Trump’s bottom line. His aides say the jury won’t have the final word.

“The real verdict comes Nov. 5,” Hughes said.

Biden and Democrats have been in the fundraising driver’s seat over the course of the presidential cycle. That’s been a meaningful edge, according to Todd Belt, director of the Political Management program at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management.

“This has allowed Joe Biden to do the thing you want to do early on in the election, which is set up field offices in the swing states,” Belt said. “The reason that these field offices are really important is because you can organize volunteers and you can engage in more fundraising.”

That creates a “snowball effect” for a campaign, Belt said, adding that the “new influx of money for Donald Trump is going to help him catch up in that regard.”

Biden’s head start

The Biden campaign has raised almost $195 million from the start of 2021 through April 2024, compared to Trump’s more than $124 million. The Democratic National Committee has outpaced the Republican National Committee over that stretch too — $531 million to $497 million.  

The Democratic operation has long used its fundraising edge as an argument to quiet critics, noting that it has made early, important investments in traditional campaign trappings like organizing and media buys. Democrats have also noted that the tens of millions of dollars Team Trump has been spending on legal fees tied to his indictments mean their party’s advantage is even more pronounced. 

“We’ll see how the numbers actually shake out come July, but one thing’s for certain: Trump’s billionaire friends are propping up the campaign of a white-collar crook because they know the deal — they cut him checks and he cuts their taxes while working people and the middle class pay the tab,” Biden campaign director of rapid response Ammar Mousa said in a statement.

But there are clear signs that Trump is closing the gap, at the very least, now that the Republican National Committee has been remade in his image and more and more high-dollar donors come back into his fold following the GOP primary.

The DNC only narrowly outraised the RNC in April, campaign finance documents show. And statements released by both campaigns suggested that Trump’s fundraising operation as a whole outraised Biden’s, $76 million to $51 million.

Democrats and Biden allies have downplayed the possible effects of Trump’s fundraising rebound. The campaign has said the the post-verdict period has been one of its strongest fundraising periods too, but has declined to release specific numbers.

And one senior Biden campaign official told NBC News that they remain confident in their fundraising operation because they see it as more durable than Trump’s, with their long-held fundraising advantage allowing them to spend 2023 testing messages and organizational strategies that will pay dividends in the fall.

Jim Messina, who served as President Barack Obama’s campaign manager in 2012, agreed.

“They always knew that Trump was going to catch up. Both sides will have the resources they need, but the truth is: What you can’t get back is time,” he told NBC News.

“Yeah, they’re raising money overall, but he still just got 34 felony counts, so, don’t get too excited about this. You’d rather not be guilty,” Messina continued.

Already, Biden has shifted his stance to try to take advantage of Trump’s legal woes. In the immediate aftermath of the verdict, Biden said the only way to beat Trump is at the ballot box. But at a fundraising event in the upscale New York suburb of Greenwich, Connecticut, he took a more aggressive approach by using the phrase “convicted felon” to describe his rival.

“For the first time in American history, a former president that is a convicted felon is now seeking the office of the presidency,” Biden said. “But as disturbing as that is, more damaging is the all-out assault Donald Trump is making on the American system of justice.”

Trump also faces criminal charges in a federal case related to his efforts to overturn the 2020 election results, a federal case alleging that he mishandled classified documents and a Georgia case in which he is accused of illegally attempting to reverse the 2020 outcome in that state.

It remains to be seen whether Trump’s organization will be able to sustain this fundraising jolt — and whether his future legal woes will help it.

But campaigns are not always won by the top fundraiser. Hillary Clinton significantly outspent Trump on her way to a defeat in 2016, while Biden did the same in 2020 and won.

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