Opinion: The cracks are beginning to show in Trump’s campaign finances

Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author and editor of 25 books, including The New York Times bestseller “Myth America: Historians Take on the Biggest Legends and Lies About Our Past” (Basic Books). The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

Former President Donald Trump is starting to struggle under the weight of multiple legal cases against him.

Trump has so far managed to use his indictments and court appearances to fuel his campaign, railing against what he claims is an establishment out to get him. For all the free airtime that the legal challenges have provided, however, the overall costs are starting to add up — and the financial penalties might just end up being more damaging than the criminal charges.

While Trump has a narrow lead over President Joe Biden in the polls, the efforts to hold Trump accountable in the eyes of the law, and the financial judgments and hefty legal fees that come with them, could potentially take a devastating toll on his campaign.

The most important thing at the moment is money — and the problem for Trump is that as his legal expenses and obligations are piling up, his fundraising efforts have been lagging. His leadership political action committee, Save America, spent nearly $5.6 million in legal fees in February alone. And while the super PAC Maga Inc. has refunded nearly all of that money, that’s money that could have been used for Trump’s campaign. (In total, Maga Inc. has refunded more than $52 million to Save America.)

It doesn’t help that there is a growing fundraising gap between Trump and Biden. Right now, President Biden’s campaign coffers are overflowing. According to recent Federal Election Commission filings, the president had $71 million in available cash in his principal campaign account at the end of February, compared to Trump’s campaign, which reported $33.5 million.

In a campaign where a relatively small percentage of swing voters in a handful of states will likely determine the outcome, turnout and advertising buys will have an outsized impact. Biden’s financial strength has allowed his campaign to unleash a torrent of blistering ads in swing states, targeting core voters such as Latinos. Democrats have also demonstrated that their campaign infrastructure is strong, as was evident in the 2018 and 2022 midterm elections, as well as special elections in 2023 and 2024.

Trump, meanwhile, is desperately playing catch-up and could run into additional problems with fundraising over time, as he tries to persuade donors to give him more. It’s likely that big-ticket supporters would rather back a campaign for the next president than fund a collective bailout.

Then there is the whopping $355 million, not counting interest, that Trump has been ordered to pay in the New York civil fraud case. After getting an insurance company to underwrite the $91.6 million bond to appeal the $83 million judgement in the E Jean Carroll defamation case, Trump is struggling to come up with another massive bond. Sources told CNN that Trump is going into panic mode ahead of the March 25 deadline before New York Attorney General Letitia James can start to collect on the judgment, and the potential threat to his real estate holdings and financial empire are serious. If there is one thing that really gets to Trump, it is any threat to his wealth. That threat is now front and center.

None of this is to say Trump isn’t in a strong position less than eight months out from the election — he is. His takeover of the Republican National Committee is an important step that will help reinvigorate his fundraising operations. His ability to garner free television news coverage, in part because of the trials, should not be underestimated. And his ability to draw money from small donors from a loyal fan base remains formidable.

Trump might also be looking at a windfall, given that investors approved a deal Friday to merge Trump Media with a blank-check company. The new entity, Trump Media & Technology Group, will trade on the stock market under the ticker DJT, with Trump’s shares worth more than $3 billion at current market prices.

But there are still questions surrounding Trump’s ability to monetize his stake in the company, and when, with the $464 million bond due this coming Monday.

The warning signs are there. If Biden can capitalize on his opponent’s financial weaknesses, the road to the White House might seem more promising than the polls have suggested.

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