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Trump's mounting legal fees could spell financial peril


And now it's time for Trump's Trials.


UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Chanting) We love Trump. We love Trump.

DONALD TRUMP: This is a persecution.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: He actually just stormed out of the courtroom.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: Mr. President...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.

DETROW: Recently, two civil verdicts have hit former President Donald Trump where it may hurt the most - his wallet. First, a jury ordered Trump to pay writer E. Jean Carroll $83.3 million for defaming her. And then a judge ordered Trump to pay nearly $355 million plus $100 million in interest for engaging in fraudulent business practices. In total, Trump now owes about half a billion dollars in legal penalties. That is a staggering number, and it doesn't even include the amount of money that Trump is spending on his legal teams that work on these cases and the four criminal cases that he's also facing.

So we are going to dive into the money surrounding Trump and his various cases today. I spoke with my colleague, senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro, as well as David Cay Johnston, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covers economics and tax issues and is the author of three books about Trump, including "The Making of Donald Trump." I started by asking David how much money we think that Trump is worth and how much cash he may have on hand.

DAVID CAY JOHNSTON: I think we don't know how much he's worth. What we know is Donald always exaggerates and misleads. He testified a year ago that he has $400 million in cash. At the same time, he's out hawking gold tennis shoes and perfume to raise money. So your guess is as good as mine.

DETROW: Domenico, politically and image wise, how important is it to Trump that he is thought of as actually wealthy?

DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I mean, it's hugely important. It makes everything that he is. You know, I mean, it was always sort of a thing in New York, for those of us who grew up in New York, that Trump wasn't exactly the person who was, like, the big Wall Street businessman tycoon. That really changed with "Celebrity Apprentice" for the rest of the country, where he was really selling himself on this image.

But the fact is, you know, Trump, even before he got into this race, people knew who were looking at things - like David and others - that, you know, Trump had taken four different businesses into bankruptcy. He wasn't as successful as he was always trying to paint himself to be. But it is a huge, hugely important part of his political image that he sold for his base.

DETROW: Let's talk about the fines. When does Trump actually have to pay that money, and how tricky do you think it'll be for him to post the payments?

JOHNSTON: Well, I think it'll be very tricky. On March 12 is the deadline for him to appeal the E. Jean Carroll case, and he either has to put up the 83 million or get a bond and some financial institution or person to back him. If he doesn't, then I've written a piece for DCReport saying that Trump may well file personal bankruptcy, and some of the people who follow Trump think that that is a distinct possibility. And Donald would spin that by saying, you know, this was forced on me by the Marxist fascist deep state.

DETROW: I mean, David, can you explain a little more, for people who don't follow this as closely, why bankruptcy would be an option to consider?

JOHNSTON: Well, bankruptcy will not prevent the payment. If Trump does file, its purpose is strategic. It's to get him past November 5, the day of the presidential election. And Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist, you know, filed a personal bankruptcy, and it's now been more than two years. He hasn't paid a dime. This follows the number one legal tactic Donald has always followed - delay, delay, delay. The second tactic - attack anybody who comes after you. You're completely pure and honest. They're utterly corrupt.

DETROW: A couple more questions on this before we shift gears. Is there a possibility that in theory, Trump could have this money loaned to him from either an individual or an entity?

JOHNSTON: Oh, he absolutely could, if someone is willing to take that risk. And what we should be concerned about is if he were to borrow that money from a foreign government or a foreign person - then would obviously be very obligated to if he became president. And of course, the person making the loan probably would recognize that when the appeals are over, if Trump loses and doesn't get any major modifications of the size of the awards, they're going to have to fight him in court to get paid.

DETROW: Domenico, we need to talk about Trump's legal bills here. We're not talking about fees at this point. We are talking about the millions of dollars that he is racking up facing multiple criminal cases, multiple civil cases. How much money has Trump spent so far, and where is that money coming from?

MONTANARO: What we've noticed is a pattern where Trump is getting a lot of money from small donors, from kind of these MAGA voters, mostly around these news events of when he either makes an appearance at court or, you know, there's something that happens, like the mugshot that came out during the case in Georgia where he was booked. That one day was where he raised, actually, the most money in any single day because he's sending these emails to people to say, hey, the witch hunt is after me. Give money. Let's stop them from coming after me because they're really trying to come after you.

That's where a lot of the money is coming from. It's filtering to not just Trump's campaign but different PACs that are supporting him. And then those PACs are actually paying a lot of his legal bills. In 2023, $50 million came from those other groups to help support him in paying those legal bills. In fact, in January, the groups all around Trump, including his campaign, raised only about $13.8 million, which is about $3 million less than Nikki Haley, his rival for the Republican nomination, that she was able to raise in January. And almost 1 out of every $4 that were spent went toward legal fees.

DETROW: I understand this is allowed, that you can take money that people give you to run for president and use it to pay your legal fees. Are there limits to this? I mean, is this yet another instance where he's pressing the limit of what is allowed or is this just standard practice?

MONTANARO: It's definitely not standard practice. We could say he's pushing the limits, or that he's operating in a space that goes beyond the limits, but that there's no enforcement, really, from the Federal Election Commission. A big piece of this here is that the FEC allows you to spend money on legal fees if it arises from the campaign. That's why, when you hear Trump, listen very carefully to when he talks about this. He was asked about this last month about, you know, using fees. And he says, I haven't done anything illegal. These are all political cases. It's a stretch, but there's not a lot that the FEC can do because it's really been so hobbled over the years.

DETROW: That's David Cay Johnston, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who covers economics and tax issues and Trump's finances. Thanks, David.

JOHNSTON: Thank you.

DETROW: And also, as always, NPR senior political editor and correspondent Domenico Montanaro. Thanks, Domenico.

MONTANARO: You got it, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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