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Some Republican donors worry legal troubles will win nomination for Trump

Some big anti-Donald Trump Republican donors fear the former US president is building an unassailable lead in the primary campaign, as his party rallies around him in his battle against federal and state prosecutors.

Trump leads his closest party rival by roughly 30 points in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, according to RealClearPolitics’ polling averages. He has expanded his lead in national polls over the Republican field since late March, when he became the first former US president to be criminally charged.

“I think that a lot of people are really questioning how unjust this democratic thrust against Donald Trump is,” Harold Hamm, the billionaire oil tycoon, told the Financial Times. “What’s America come to? Are we a third world nation?”

The shale pioneer is a former Trump confidant who gave more than $1.2mn to Make America Great Again groups in 2016, 2018 and 2020, but has cooled on the ex-president and donated to GOP rivals Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis for the 2024 election. He recently organised an energy conference in Oklahoma City, which Haley and candidate Doug Burgum attended.

Hamm said Trump’s poll numbers had only “gotten a lot stronger” because of his mounting legal troubles.

Variety Wholesalers chair Art Pope, a big supporter of former vice-president Mike Pence’s presidential campaign, agrees Trump’s legal troubles help him in the Republican primary, but asserts that he could not win the general election.

“I do think president Trump is getting a lot of sympathetic support, because he’s been unfairly persecuted,” said Pope, who supports Pence in part because of his “character”.

“President Trump’s not my choice to be the Republican nominee, but I think those charges are unjust as well. I do think the indictments have actually benefited president Trump among Republican primary voters.”

Trump faces four criminal cases. In Manhattan, he has been accused of falsifying business records to cover up “hush money” payments to a porn star before the 2016 election. Department of Justice special counsel Jack Smith has also charged the former president with allegedly mishandling classified documents, including some regarding US nuclear programmes. One federal case and another in Georgia allege Trump conspired to subvert the 2020 election.

In a significant civil decision, Trump may be forced to dispose of his properties, including Manhattan’s Trump Tower, after a New York judge found this week that the former president and his two eldest sons engaged in fraud by vastly overvaluing the worth of various buildings and golf clubs.

Trump’s legal and political strategies are intertwined, as a pro-Trump political action committee spends millions of dollars in donor money to defend the former president in court. Trump’s federal criminal trial on allegedly conspiring to overturn the 2020 election is set to start on March 4 2024, the day before ‘Super Tuesday’, when voters from more than a dozen states head to the polls.

Top GOP donors are divided on whether they would support Trump if he won the Republican nomination. Hamm said he “certainly would” because he “would have no alternative”, and praised the former administration’s policies.

But others are expected to hesitate. Pope, for example, said he did not know if he would donate to Trump.

“How long are people going to write cheques to the Trump campaign to pay his legal bills,” asked one former major donor to the ex-president. “I think donors decided after January 6 [2021 Capitol Hill attack] that we need to go a different direction . . . Legal bills are just part of the collateral issue.”

Several billionaire donors are on the sidelines, although some megadonors have warmed to Haley. GOP strategist Karl Rove said the former South Carolina governor “had momentum” after the first debate, noting she had jumped ahead of President Joe Biden in some early polls.

Florida venture capitalist Keith Rabois, a fan of DeSantis, told the Financial Times he recently gave “a significant contribution” to Haley’s campaign, adding it was “inconceivable” she would lose in a 2024 general election.

But others have kept their wallet shut.

Hedge fund founder Richard Chilton told the FT that Trump is a “narcissistic”, “terrible”, “scumbag” and Haley is “smart”, “compassionate” and “credible”.

But as of Monday, Chilton had given the same amount — zero — to each 2024 presidential campaign.

“I’m not just spending money to help the Republican Party,” said Chilton, the founder and chief investment officer of Chilton Investment Company. “You know why? Because there are a lot of people that do that. I want my money to count. I’d rather give my money to underprivileged kids than do that.”

“I give my money to make a difference.”

Frayda Levy, who serves on the Club for Growth’s board of directors, said that while some big donors do not like Trump’s antitrade and anti-immigration policies, his support comes from “the base”.

“There is no candidate for the big donors right now,” Levy said. “Big donors really have little say in what goes on in the Republican party today.”

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