Yours for only $47, the official T-shirt of Donald Trump’s historic mug shot!

As the former president awaited his court appearance in Manhattan last week, his campaign sent out a defiant fundraising e-mail. “What better way to PROVE that our campaign will NEVER SURRENDER our country to the Left’s tyranny than countless grassroots patriots proudly wearing their very own ‘NOT GUILTY’ T-Shirts,” it bellowed.

In the event, no official mug shot was taken. Nor is Trump 6ft 5in, as shown on the height chart on the campaign T-shirt — two inches taller than usually claimed. But the mocked-up image on the barrage of fundraising e-mails purportedly helped to raise $12 million as the perpetual showman sought to squeeze the maximum advantage out of becoming the first former US president to face criminal charges.

Despite real questions about how Trump uses the cash, there is still an army of several hundred thousand supporters ready to donate, based on his campaign’s claim that the average amount given was $34. This monetization of his base helped Trump appear to emerge stronger than ever as a 2024 candidate after a week of infamy.

“The pre-campaign phase is a couple of years long and the reason money is so important is that it’s one of the only ways to keep score — and Americans love to keep score,” said Michael Goff, a political scientist at the George Washington University and author of The Money Primary, a book about the crucial early stage of the presidential race when rivals compete for their party’s nomination.

Goff said that successful fundraising now, before the primary votes take place during an election year, drives valuable momentum. “The more money you raise, the more credibility or legitimacy you have, and the more the media covers you,” he said.

“The money in the ‘money primary’ is important as a resource to fund your campaign. But I argue that one of the main values of money is as a marker of how well you’re doing in the race and that’s why Trump is making such a big deal of it. It’s all about momentum and perception, and Trump is a master of that.”

His fundraising operation is remorseless. Last week’s T-shirt offer was just one of eight e-mails soliciting cash on the day of his arraignment in New York, exceeding the campaign’s steady stream of five a day in recent times.

Last week’s haul was much better than the lackluster $9.5 million he raised in the first six weeks after his campaign launched in mid-November. It was still not huge, however, for a well-known ex-president receiving wall-to-wall free media exposure.

His campaign has yet to declare its total for the first quarter of the year. Few of Trump’s Republican rivals have launched official campaigns but Nikki Haley, the former governor of South Carolina who declared her candidacy in mid-February, said she raised $11 million from 70,000 donors up until the end of March, an average of $157 per donor.

Trump’s winning 2016 campaign famously only raised half of Hillary Clinton’s $1.2 billion haul. More than a quarter of his campaign funds then came from small donors but things improved in 2020, with 49 percent from small donors. Biden’s campaign received 38.4 percent from small donors, defined as $200 or less.

Last week’s T-shirt offer was just one of eight e-mails soliciting cash on the day of his arraignment.

As Trump is mainly targeting the same pool of people again and again, fundraising e-mails regularly include special offers, such as time-limited opportunities to gain some sort of elite status. Last week donors were promised “founder membership” of the “President’s Trust”, claiming that “founders will go down in history as having defended our movement at the PEAK of the most vicious witch-hunts ever witnessed in our country.”

Free media exposure: Donald and Melania Trump arrive at the 73rd Academy Awards, 2001.

This is just the latest in a long list of similar accolades for sale. Last November the campaign was trying to sell membership of the “2024 Presidential Trump Day One Club”. In October fans could pay to become an “official 45 ambassador” and in August there was the chance to become an “official 2022 ultra MAGA member”. That invitation said: “President Trump was highly selective when choosing who he wanted to be a member of his exclusive group — he only wanted the BEST of the BEST. We can’t think of anyone who deserves this honor more than YOU … You need to accept your personal invitation right now.” While it sounded exclusive, hundreds of thousands are thought to have received the same offer.

A more deceptive practice, according to watchdog groups, involved signing people up towards the end of the 2020 election campaign to weekly donations using pre-ticked consent boxes. Recipients had to untick the box, sometimes buried in small print, to avoid regular deductions on their credit cards or bank accounts. After thousands of complaints, the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee refunded $135 million.

“All of this is just so corrosive,” said Adav Noti, legal director of the Campaign Legal Center (CLC), a not-for-profit government watchdog.

“The people who respond to solicitations are not sophisticated donors, they are people who generally are older and don’t have a lot of money,” he said. “They’re being deceived in terms of where the money is going, and how much they’re giving and, ultimately, that will only breed distrust in the electoral system. That’s a terrible thing for democracy.”

CLC has urged the Federal Election Commission (FEC), the regulatory agency with a mission to enforce campaign finance law, to investigate a striking enigma in the Trump campaign’s use of funds.

Trump’s two main fundraising vehicles during the 2020 cycle — Donald J Trump for President Inc and Trump Make America Great Again Committee — raised $1.6 billion. Of that, $771 million was transferred to a single entity, a private company called American Made Media Consultants (AMMC) to in turn make many of the large media payments such as advertising purchases.

Numerous six-figure payments from both committees to AMMC were logged with brief descriptions of services such as “digital list rental services” and “SMS advertising”. No further details were given so the ultimate destination of the money — and any company or individual receiving a payment from it — remained a mystery.

A Trump campaign spokesman defended the arrangement, saying: “It builds efficiencies and saves the campaign money by providing these in-house services that otherwise would be done by outside vendors. The campaign reports all payments to AMMC as required by the FEC.”

AMMC has no Web site and, as a private company, does not have to declare its directors or accounts although The New York Times revealed that Lara Trump, who is married to Trump’s son Eric, served on its board before resigning in 2019.

Noti argued that this was against the principle of transparency for the use of donor cash. “A huge percentage of the campaign spending goes to this in-house shell company and that has the effect of concealing where the money is ending up,” he said. “You can look at advertising records and sort of reverse engineer how much they’re spending on advertising, and it’s not going into that. The question is, where is it going?”

After thousands of complaints, the Trump campaign and Republican National Committee refunded $135 million.

The FEC declined to investigate: any inquiry requires a majority vote from its six-member board and it failed to get one. The three Trump appointees on the board voted against and issued a statement last summer arguing that the arrangement was not unprecedented and the FEC had to prioritize its resources elsewhere. Noti said: “We’re suing them, because if this is not worth their time, then nothing is worth their time.”

Despite the veil of secrecy hanging over the precise use of donations, more money rolled in last week fueled by Republican indignation at Trump’s arrest and the nature of the charges for allegedly covering up hush money payments to the porn actress Stormy Daniels. In court on April 4, Trump pleaded not guilty to 34 felony charges of falsifying business records with the intent of concealing another crime, namely breaking election law. He is due to reappear for another hearing in December.

So who are Trump’s diehard donors? “There’s a lot of us out there, you know, this is a movement like there has never been before,” said Marlene Stone, 62, an estate agent from Texas.

She said she was more supportive than ever after last month’s indictment. “I think the whole thing is a sham. I’m hoping people are waking up and see this for what it is, which is an attack on him. They just don’t want him running in 2024. They’d love to see him in jail,” she said.

Stone said she received fundraising e-mails from Trump’s campaign and did not necessarily believe everything in them but said he “has to play the game” and that he proved his integrity while in office as president.

“He’s proven it over and over again, everything that he said he would do in his campaign in ’16, he did,” she said. “Look at what he did. We had peace. I mean, look at Obama and Bush and Clinton, they all had wars.”

Asked if she was confident the funds Trump raised were being used properly, she added: “You never have any guarantees with anything or anybody. But the way Trump runs his businesses, the way he ran the country, the way he is no nonsense, that would tell me that if there’s anybody that would have sincere, earnest fundraising and allocate that money to where it should [be], it would be him.”

David Charter is the U.S. editor and Washington bureau chief for The Times of London