BY ARI MELBER, NBC News
(NBC News) - After railing against a "corrupt" fundraising system in the Republican primaries, Donald Trump now says he will raise hundreds of millions of dollars to compete in the general election.
But the new money Trump raises is available not only for future campaigning — it can also go directly into Trump's pocket, reimbursing him for his personal spending in the primaries.
Trump aides say that option is not currently under discussion, NBC News has learned, but they also decline to rule out the possibility entirely.
Legally, Trump has the option of recouping any or all of the money he spent on the primaries.
That is because Trump almost never directly donates funds to his campaign. He has only spent about $317,000 of his own money outright.
The rest of his personal spending is structured as a loan to the campaign, which now owes Trump $35.9 million.
Those loans comprise about 75 percent of the campaign's total funds. Another 25 percent are from individual donations during the primaries. (The numbers are from the campaign's most recent filing, required under federal election law.)
Loans and Payback
The main reason candidates use loans to fund their campaigns, election law experts tell MSNBC, is to maintain an option to pay themselves back later.
Former FEC general counsel Larry Noble believes that's the case with Trump.
"He loaned himself money — as opposed to contributing it — with the idea that he would pay himself back," says Noble, who is now general counsel of the Campaign Legal Center.
On the stump, Trump regularly invokes his choice to self-fund as crucial to his independence.
"I'm self-funding my campaign," he said at an April rally in Rhode Island. "Let me tell you, the politicians will never do the job because they're bought and paid for, folks."
By that logic, Trump would presumably refuse outside money to pay back his loans. The same logic, however, would suggest he wouldn't take outside money in the general election — the path he is now on.
This week, two campaign sources told NBC that Trump will aggressively raise funds for the general election, and the campaign expects voters understand he has to do "whatever it takes" to win.
Asked about Trump's loans in March, during the primaries, campaign manager Corey Lewandowski told the A.P. "he is not going to repay himself."
That was months before the campaign decided to take this outside money for the general election, however, opening up a vast new source of campaign funds.
Now, as Trump adjusts his funding plans as the nominee, some campaign officials are striking a more circumspect note.
Paul Manafort, Trump's convention manager, told MSNBC it is not the campaign's "intention right now" to use fundraising to pay back the loans.
Asked if the option is off the table, Manafort says he has not discussed the idea with Trump, and the campaign's focus is on spending for the future.
Another campaign aide tells MSNBC the possibility of Trump using donations to pay back his loans "is not being discussed or considered." The aide declined to say the option is definitively off the table.
Trump's August Deadline
Legally, Trump has until August to pay himself back with any funds raised, right before the party's convention.
"He can't use general election money to repay his primary debt," said former FEC lawyer Ken Gross. "If he is going to repay it, he'll have to pay it back with contributions raised before the convention."
That deadline is set by the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. The law requires candidate loans be reimbursed within 20 days of an election, and the convention's nomination of a candidate is treated as the end of the primary election.
Trump can legally tap any individual donations of up to $2,700, made in that window, to pay towards the loan. It would require over 13,000 donations, at that maximum rate, to retire the debt.
Gross tells MSNBC that while "it's fairly common" for self-financing candidates to use loans, the main goal is preserving the "prospect of getting your money back at some point."
Recent presidential candidates who used such loans, rather than direct donations, include Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and John Kerry.
Clinton, Romney and Huntsman each swallowed the loans, converting them to donations.
Kerry used campaign donations to pay himself back for a $6.4 million loan he made to his 2004 primary campaign.
He took the money in the midst of his contest against President George W. Bush, the week before the Democratic convention, but faced little criticism, since the loans were made more out of desperation than an effort at self-funding.
Bob Mutch, who wrote "Buying The Vote," a history of campaign finance rules, says Trump faces different expectations because he's made self-funding a centerpiece of his candidacy.
"Now he won't be able to tell all of his supporters that he's self-funding," Mutch told MSNBC. "The self-funding idea was a great P.R. point that helped him in the primary, but it's something that's simply not available in the general."
In his business career, Trump consistently stressed the importance of using investors' money instead of his own.
In "The Art of the Deal," Trump advises readers to never "personally guarantee" investments. Indeed, in a rare public admission of a mistake, Trump told Tim O'Brien, author of "TrumpNation," that he risked bankruptcy by personally guaranteeing loans for his business ventures, saying "I didn't follow my own advice."
Ultimately, if Trump did use new donations to pay himself back for his loans in the primaries, the move would come at a politically sensitive time, near this summer's party conventions.
Using donations to pay off personal debts could also risk alienating new donors, who are motivated by supporting the Republican ticket in the fall, not settling the nominee's debts from the primary.
It would also conflict with Trump's stated rationale for taking donations in the general election — to help Republicans in a wider effort.
"I really won't be asking for money for myself," he told MSNBC's Morning Joe last Wednesday, when he became the presumptive nominee, "I'll be asking money for the party."