Is the RNC trying to squeeze Trump into postponing his presidential announcement?

(AP Photo/Jeff Roberson)

Your guess is as good as mine as to why an alleged billionaire needs a few million dollars from the Republican National Committee to help pay his legal bills. But that’s the arrangement Trump and the RNC have and it seems to be worth something to him. RNC chair Ronna McDaniel once supposedly reminded him when he was threatening to form his own party that that would mean he’d get no further help in paying his lawyers. He decided against it.

Per ABC, the RNC intends to turn off the tap anyway once he declares his 2024 candidacy. Why? “Neutrality,” ostensibly.

But the RNC isn’t being “neutral” in the upcoming primary by picking up the tab for some of Trump’s legal bills. Any legal jeopardy he faces between now and then will bear directly on his chances of being renominated. By helping him avoid trouble, they’re improving his odds of winning. And if they’re doing so as part of some blanket policy of helping out prominent Republicans financially, why isn’t Ron DeSantis — very much a middle-class guy — getting a monthly stipend to cover, say, child care expenses?

Cutting off his legal funds isn’t about “neutrality.” It’s about giving Trump an incentive to delay his presidential announcement. McDaniel and her team know that having him declare his candidacy before November would complicate the GOP’s attempt to turn the midterms into a pure referendum on Biden and inflation. So they’re playing a little hardball to pressure him into postponing.

Republican leaders who worry that Donald Trump could hurt their midterm chances by announcing a presidential run too soon are hoping he’ll be dissuaded from doing so by the prospect of losing hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal payments, according to an RNC official.

Since October 2021, the Republican National Committee has paid nearly $2 million to law firms representing Trump as part of his defense against personal litigation and government investigations.

But an RNC official told ABC News that as soon as Trump would announce he is running for president, the payments would stop because the party has a “neutrality policy” that prohibits it from taking sides in the presidential primary.

In January, RNC Chair Ronna McDaniel said, “The party has to stay neutral.”

The RNC isn’t neutral. This is the same committee that declined to pass a party platform in 2020, opting instead for a “whatever Trump wants” message as its official line. They fundraise constantly off of his name and likeness and didn’t interfere when some state Republican parties chose to cancel their primaries two years ago rather than force Trump to compete with token challengers like Mark Sanford and Joe Walsh. As I said, the fact that they’re giving him money now is itself a thumb on the cancel in favor of his reelection bid. “By paying Trump’s extensive legal bills, the RNC is indirectly helping finance the Trump campaign,” said one lefty lobbyist to ABC. “And given the history of the RNC zealously defending Trump, other Republican candidates should expect that they are not just running against Trump, they are also running against the Republican Party.”

It wouldn’t surprise me if Trump started leaning on the RNC privately to cancel primaries again in 2024 and anoint him as nominee in order to short-circuit a challenge by DeSantis. I doubt they’d be willing to do that, but if he starts talking about running third-party again if they don’t, all options are on the table.

The RNC has given him more than $3 million total to cover legal expenses, says ABC. That’s $3 million that could have and rightly should have gone to helping Republican candidates get elected in swing districts. And those legal expenses aren’t strictly related to political matters, which the RNC might feel obligated to help with, but rather the opposite. They’re not giving him money to defend himself from the January 6 committee but they are paying firms to defend his personal businesses from investigations by New York authorities. Why?

Again, if Trump is entitled to committee money to address his personal foibles, why can’t DeSantis get them to cover his monthly car payment?

My guess is that the RNC *likes* having to foot legal bills for Trump, just because it gives them an ounce of leverage in a relationship that’s otherwise one-sided. Will threatening to pull the plug on covering his legal expenses convince him to delay his presidential candidacy until after Election Day, helping Republican candidates keep the focus on Biden? Probably not. But it’s the only card they have to play. So they’re playing it.

And they’re doing so at a moment when Trump’s legal exposure might be about to escalate dramatically. Prosecutors in Georgia are already looking at him and the DOJ, it seems, is increasingly looking at him. Only his accountant knows why he needs (or at least wants) the RNC to help pay his lawyers, but insofar as he does, that need might be about to turn urgent.

Then again, his best defense against criminal charges is probably running for president again since that’ll make it easier to claim that he’s being prosecuted for purely political reasons. So the RNC’s pressure tactics are unlikely to work.

Meanwhile, Trump’s Super PACs are sitting on — no typo — $120 million themselves. He controls that money so long as he’s a private citizen but once he’s officially a candidate there’ll need to be some formal separation between him and the organizations. What exactly is he doing with that $120 million in the meantime? And won’t that “formal separation” create problems for the party if he jumps in before the midterms? Karl Rove wondered today in an op-ed:

If Mr. Trump decides he must upstage the midterms and announce this fall rather than waiting, he’ll immediately need to file a new committee for his presidential campaign to pay his political expenses. That’ll mean asking for donations at the same time GOP candidates for Senate, House, governor, state legislatures and local offices are scrambling for dollars to win midterms. Candidates, donors and grass-roots activists are sure to be angry that the former president put his personal interests above those of the party if he announces before the midterms.

So what can Mr. Trump use his existing cash stash for? Well, financially supporting other candidates, but he hasn’t shown much interest in that so far. Save America, the former president’s leadership PAC, has given $5,000 each—the maximum by law—to 60 House and 13 Senate candidates. This $365,000 is a pittance, and it’s impossible for him to use up Save America’s remaining $103.1 million this year simply with direct contributions. If Republicans were running candidates for every House and Senate seat this year and Mr. Trump gave each $5,000, that would amount to only $2.35 million…

If Mr. Trump doesn’t start actually deploying these funds to help candidates he’s backed for Congress, governor and other statewide offices, donors might not keep giving to the former president’s causes. Trump-endorsed candidates might start to wonder how strong an ally the former president really is, beyond lending his name in a primary.

It’s baffling that Trump’s PACs aren’t spending big bucks to help rescue candidates he’s endorsed like J.D. Vance, Mehmet Oz, and Herschel Walker, all of whom are at serious financial disadvantages in their races. If any or all of them lose in November, it’ll damage Trump’s political stature. And there’s little risk of depleting his war chest by helping them out; no one has a more loyal base of small donors eager to replenish his treasury than he does. They’ll be there for him in 2024, so what is he waiting for? Why so stingy?