Will Donald Trump Get Back The $38 Million He Lent His Campaign?

May 4, 2016
Originally published on May 10, 2016 4:04 pm

Donald Trump likes to say he is self-funding his campaign. That isn't entirely true. He has actually lent his campaign about three-quarters of the $49 million or so that he has spent so far.

That means the campaign can pay him back if it has the money. But there's a deadline. Trump has 11 weeks to repay himself — exactly at the moment when he needs to pivot and start raising cash for the general election campaign.

The loans began more than two months before his announcement speech last June, when he said, "I'm using my own money. I'm not using the lobbyists. I'm not using donors. I don't care." He paused. "I'm really rich."

Trump had lent the campaign nearly $38 million as of March 31. It's not much in the grand scheme of "really rich" candidates. Mitt Romney, for example, lent his 2008 primary campaign $44 million.

Romney later converted the loans into campaign contributions, something Trump may do as well. But the fact that Trump chose to make loans, not contributions, suggests he at least has hopes of getting repaid.

And here's where it gets complicated for the apparent nominee. Fundraising to repay candidate loans is regulated in two ways.

"If he wants that money back, he needs to raise it in $2,700 chunks before the convention, and make that repayment from his campaign committee to his personal bank account," said campaign finance lawyer Paul S. Ryan, at the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center.

The $2,700 limit applies to all contributions to federal candidates. The deadline was imposed by Congress in 2002, to prevent situations where lobbyists' money was going directly into the personal accounts of newly elected lawmakers.

Looking ahead, Trump's general election campaign could easily cost $750 million or more, 15 to 20 times what he has spent on the primaries. So the fundraising pressure is on.

The campaign hasn't laid out clear plans for raising that money or for dealing with the candidate loans. Trump discussed fundraising strategy Wednesday morning, on MSNBC's Morning Joe.

"Do I want to sell a couple of buildings and self-fund? I don't know that I want to do that necessarily, but I really won't be asking for money for myself; I'll be asking money for the party," he said.

He also got on the phone with ABC's Good Morning America, saying his campaign will be seeking general-election contributions up to the $2,700 legal limit. "We will probably take small contributions," he said. "We will take the limits. I don't want big contributions."

Trump strategist Paul Manafort explained the limits of Trump's self-funding last week on the Laura Ingraham Show.

"Now when it comes to the general election, we're no longer running as an individual," Manafort said. "We're running as the head of a ticket. And so the party itself will be doing some things to raise money, and Mr. Trump has indicated he'd be willing to help the party."

Thus, if Trump wants to recover his loans, he'll have to do debt-retirement fundraising at the same time that he solicits wealthy donors for Republican Party committees.

The national committees have much higher contribution limits than do candidate committees. For the Republican National Committee, the per donor cap is $333,400 a year.

The Trump campaign didn't respond to requests for comment.

If Trump decides against converting the loans to contributions, attorney Ryan says the GOP's priorities for him would be obvious: "(a) campaigning for president, (b) raising money for the general election to be spent down the road, not (c) raising money to repay loans I've made to myself and money spent months ago in order to actually get the nomination."

Trump has yet to say whether these are his priorities too.

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Donald Trump likes to say that he is self-funding his presidential campaign, and that isn't entirely true. He has actually loaned his campaign about $38 million of the roughly $49 million that he's spent so far. If Trump wants to put that money back in his own account, his campaign committee will have to pay him back within 11 weeks. But it also has to start raising cash for the general election. NPR's Peter Overby reports on Trump's potential fundraising dilemma.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Trump had already been funding his campaign for more than two months when he declared his candidacy last June - four loans totaling $1.8 dollars. This is from his announcement speech.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: I'm using my own money. I'm not using the lobbyists. I'm not using donors. I don't care. I'm really rich.

OVERBY: In the grand scheme of really rich candidates, Trump's 38 million isn't so much. The most recent example is Mitt Romney. He lent his campaign $44 million in the 2008 GOP primary. Romney converted his loans into straight up contributions. Trump might do that, too. But the fact that he made loans to begin with suggests he at least has hopes of getting repaid. Here's where it gets complicated for Trump.

PAUL S. RYAN: If he wants that money back, he needs to raise it in $2,700 chunks before the convention and make that repayment from his campaign committee to his personal bank account.

OVERBY: Campaign finance lawyer Paul S. Ryan is with the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center. The $2,700 chunks are because these are campaign contributions which have legal limits, and this debt retirement fundraising has to happen before the Republican Convention ends in July because campaign-finance law says so. It's designed to keep newly elected, newly important members of Congress from recouping their candidate loans by putting the bite on lobbyists.

Looking ahead, Trump's general election campaign could easily cost $750 million or more, 15 to 20 times what Trump has spent on the primaries. The trump campaign hasn't laid out a clear plan for raising that money or for dealing with the candidate loans. The apparent nominee discussed fundraising strategy this morning on MSNBC's "Morning Joe."

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORNING JOE")

TRUMP: Do I want to sell a couple of buildings and self-fund? I don't know that I want to do that necessarily, but I really won't be asking for money for myself. I'll be asking money for the party.

OVERBY: He also got on the phone today with ABC's "Good Morning America." He said his campaign will be seeking contributions up to the $2,700 legal limit.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "GOOD MORNING AMERICA")

TRUMP: We will probably take small contributions. We'll take the limits. I don't want big contributions.

OVERBY: Last week on "The Laura Ingraham Show," Trump strategist Paul Manafort explained the limits of the personal spending.

(SOUNDBITE OF RADIO SHOW, "THE LAURA INGRAHAM SHOW")

PAUL MANAFORT: When it comes to the general election, we're no longer running as an individual. We're running as the head of a ticket. And so the party itself will be doing some things to raise money, and Mr. Trump is indicating that he would be willing to help the party.

OVERBY: Here's what it all means for those loans. If Trump wants his money back, he'll be seeking those contributions at the same time he's rounding up the big money for the Republican Party. The Trump campaign didn't respond to requests for comment. Again, Trump could write off the loans and settle the whole matter. But if not, attorney Paul Ryan says the party's priorities for Trump are pretty obvious.

RYAN: A, campaigning for president - B, raising money for the general election to be spent down the road - not C, raising money to repay loans I've made to myself and money spent months ago in order to get the nomination.

OVERBY: Trump has yet to say if these are his priorities, too. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.