Can the RNC bail out Trump’s legal bills? Probably not.

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NEW YORK — Donald Trump’s dizzying legal bills have sparked a debate within his party: Should the Republican National Committee help bail him out?

Trump’s daughter-in-law Lara Trump, whom the former president has endorsed to be the RNC’s new co-chair, floated the idea last week — and was met with quick opposition from other party insiders.

But even if the party wanted to cut Trump a check, it would run into both practical and legal problems: The RNC is strapped for cash, and campaign-finance laws restrict how it can spend the money it does have.

“I don’t think that the drafters of the Federal Election Campaign Act envisioned a situation where a national party committee might be asked to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to satisfy a candidate’s legal debts,” Jessica Levinson, a law professor at Loyola Marymount University, wrote in an email.

Yet that is the magnitude of debt that Trump is facing. His bills fall into two buckets: the legal fees he owes his lawyers and the civil judgments that courts have ordered him to pay. His judgments alone now total over $500 million after massive verdicts in a business fraud case brought by the New York attorney general and a defamation case brought by the writer E. Jean Carroll.

Trump has relied heavily on his political operation, especially his leadership PAC, Save America, to fund his legal defense — to the tune of over $50 million just last year — and he’s sure to continue doing so. Individuals can donate up to $5,000 a year to a leadership PAC — but the donation limit is more than eight times that, $41,300, to a national party committee like the RNC.

But federal law limits the RNC’s ability to chip in, campaign-finance experts say.

And the party probably can’t afford to make a meaningful dent in Trump’s bills anyway. The RNC’s cash on hand at the end of January was $8.7 million, a tiny fraction of Trump’s debts.

None of that has stopped Republicans from mulling the issue.

Lara Trump told reporters she believes Republicans have “a big interest” in the party paying her father-in-law’s legal bills, though she added that she isn’t familiar with the legal restrictions on doing so.

Henry Barbour, a Mississippi committee member, is trying to quash the idea. He introduced a pair of draft resolutions declaring that “spending any RNC financial resources for any candidate’s personal, business, or political legal expenses, not related to the 2024 election cycle, does not serve the RNC’s primary mission of helping to elect our candidates in 2024.”

Chris LaCivita, a senior adviser to Trump’s campaign whom Trump has endorsed for chief operating officer of the RNC, has repeatedly said the committee won’t pay Trump’s legal bills.

Fees for lawyers

The RNC does have a history of helping Trump pay his lawyers: The committee spent nearly $2 million on two law firms working on Trump cases in 2021 and 2022.

But Trump was not an official candidate for office at that time.

Under the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, parties cannot use money they raised from corporations or labor unions to pay the legal bills of declared candidates, said Samuel Issacharoff, a constitutional law professor at NYU Law School.

So once Trump launched his campaign to return to the White House, the RNC stopped paying his lawyers’ fees.

“We cannot pay legal bills for any candidate that’s announced,” Ronna McDaniel, the outgoing RNC chairwoman, said in 2022, before Trump announced his bid to return to the White House.

Hefty civil judgments

Trump signaled this week that he does not have enough cash to cover the full amount of his civil judgments. But he likely cannot count on the RNC to help him on that front, either.

It would be illegal for a political party to pay a legal judgment arising from someone’s personal conduct (as opposed to a judgment tied to the person’s conduct as an officeholder or candidate), according to legal experts.

Issacharoff said the judgments against Trump in both the civil fraud trial and the Carroll trial fall into the “personal conduct” category.

Ciara Torres-Spelliscy, a professor who specializes in election law at Stetson University law school, said there would be a “high risk” of the RNC violating campaign finance laws if it were to pay the civil fraud judgment because that case concerned only Trump’s family business.

“That cost was generated by his running the Trump Org fraudulently,” she wrote in an email. “That has nothing to do with him being a candidate or an office holder.”

And even setting the law aside, there is the matter of whether the party can afford his bills.

Lara Trump has set a goal of raising $500 million, and even if it were successful in doing so, directing some of all of those funds toward the former president would quickly diminish the party’s ability to pay for anything else, including the presidential election or congressional races.