President Donald Trump was proudly litigious before his victory in 2016 and has remained so in the White House. But one big factor has changed: He has drawn on campaign donations as a piggy bank for his legal expenses to a degree far greater than any of his predecessors.
In New York, Trump dispatched a team of lawyers to seek damages of more than $1 million from a former campaign worker after she claimed she had been the target of sexual discrimination and harassment by another aide. The lawyers have been paid $1.5 million by the Trump campaign for work on the case and others related to the president.
In Washington, Trump and his campaign affiliates hired lawyers to assist members of his staff and family — including a onetime bodyguard, his oldest son and his son-in-law — as they were pulled into investigations related to Russia and Ukraine. The Republican National Committee has paid at least $2.5 million in legal bills to the firms that did this and other legal work.
In California, Trump sued to block a law that would have forced him to release his taxes if he wanted to run for reelection. The Trump campaign and the RNC have paid the law firm handling this case, among others, $1.8 million.
Trump’s tendency to turn to the courts — and the legal issues that have stemmed from norm-breaking characteristics of his presidency — helps explain how he and his affiliated political entities have spent at least $58.4 million in donations on legal and compliance work since 2015, according to a tally by The New York Times and the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute.
By comparison, President Barack Obama and the Democratic National Committee spent $10.7 million on legal and compliance expenses during the equivalent period starting in 2007.
The spending on behalf of Trump covers not only legal work that would be relatively routine for any president or candidate and some of the costs related to the Russia inquiry and his impeachment, but also cases in which he has a personal stake, including attempts to enforce nondisclosure agreements and protect his business interests.
Many of the bills being paid by donors to Trump and his party have come from the RNC’s “recount account.” It is a special fund created after 2014 when Congress allowed much larger contributions by individuals to the political parties, totaling $106,500 per person, compared with the normal $2,800 limit.
It is impossible to know based on Federal Election Commission filings how much of the $58.4 million in total legal bills went to routine legal work. Payments from the political committees to lawyers and law firms are not itemized by case, so the filings do not break down how much donor money went to pay for specific legal actions. A spokesman for the Trump family would not say how much Trump had paid out of his own pocket or his company’s in legal fights.
It is also hard to differentiate between legal clashes the president has initiated and those in which he is the target of opponents. But an examination of spending by his various campaign arms documents how the intermingling of his presidency, business interests, campaigns, defense against the Russia investigation, impeachment and eagerness to penalize rivals have led to millions of dollars in donor money going to help bankroll litigation.
Drawing on donations to pay many legal expenses is permitted by campaign finance law. But as he has done with other aspects of the presidency, Trump has redefined the practice in ways that have unsettled even some Republicans.
“Vindicating President Trump’s personal interests is now so intertwined with the interests of the Republican Party they are one and the same — and that includes the legal fights the party is paying for now,” said Matthew T. Sanderson, who has served as a campaign finance lawyer to presidential candidates including Rand Paul, Rick Perry and John McCain.
A spokesman for Trump declined to comment. But a spokeswoman for the RNC said it was Democrats who were driving this blitz of spending. “The RNC is more than happy to cover the costs of defending the president from the Democrats’ baseless litigation and partisan impeachment sham,” said the spokeswoman, Mandi Merritt.
The filings do not address the value of work for which he has not been charged, like Rudy Giuliani’s unpaid position as his personal lawyer. Nor do they account for the legal support Trump, as president, receives from the Justice Department, which has helped defend him on issues that blur the line between his public and private roles, like the constitutional prohibition on a president receiving benefits from other governments and efforts to obtain his tax returns and financial records.
Trying to Quiet Critics
All presidents are enmeshed in litigation related to their official duties, and Trump’s 2020 campaign and the RNC are fighting an array of topics related to the election, including litigation about mail-in ballots and voting rights.
But for Trump, who has always preferred to use other people’s money in his business ventures, the reliance on campaign funds as a legal kitty extends to issues that are of concern to him personally.
The biggest payments have gone to the Jones Day law firm, which has received a total of $18.8 million from Trump’s campaign, the RNC and America First Action, a super PAC closely affiliated with Trump. Most of that spending — $11.5 million — came from Trump’s campaign, reflecting the firm’s heavy load of campaign-related work as well as cases more personally tied to Trump.
Among the 20 suits Jones Day has been involved in include one filed by demonstrators who claimed they were beaten at a Kentucky political rally, a filing in federal court claiming that Trump and his allies helped distribute information obtained by Russian hackers during the 2016 election and one from a Missouri man who claimed he was arrested after he simply laughed while at a Trump rally.
Campaign funds also were used to fight a lawsuit filed by an aide to Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign who claimed that Trump had inappropriately kissed her, with $196,229 paid to a Florida firm, Ford & Harrison, and to a Los Angeles-based lawyer, Charles J. Harder, who has been paid a total of $3.4 million. (Trump prevailed in this case.)
One major area of spending, records show, has been an attempt to enforce nondisclosure or nondisparagement agreements with former aides who have accused Trump or members of his staff of wrongdoing.
Harder, who is frequently hired by Trump’s campaign, is perhaps best known for his work on behalf of professional wrestler Hulk Hogan in a lawsuit filed in 2012 against the website Gawker.
Another key lawyer in this effort is Lawrence S. Rosen, who has handled real estate legal disputes and other issues for Trump for decades. Bills from Rosen’s firm to the Trump campaign total $1.5 million.
Together, they have taken up more than a dozen cases for Trump, many of which have a particularly personal flavor.
They include legal actions involving Jessica Denson, an actress who took a job as a supervisor of the campaign’s national phone bank; Omarosa Manigault Newman, a former guest on “The Apprentice” reality show who later became a campaign aide, and Cliff Sims, a former White House communications aide. Each of them spoke publicly in a way that Trump considered critical of him or his campaign. In each case, the president asserted that they had violated nondisclosure agreements.
Rosen also represented the campaign in a lawsuit that involved a 2016 campaign aide who became pregnant during an affair with her boss, Jason Miller, and was then dismissed after Miller reportedly told her she could not be seen “waddling around the White House pregnant,” the lawsuit says.
Russia and Impeachment
The investigations of Trump by the special counsel and congressional Democrats have also generated large legal tabs that have been picked up in part by the president’s political operation. That includes paying for lawyers to help represent members of his family who were targeted in lawsuits or were called to testify, including Donald Trump Jr. and Jared Kushner.
Campaign donations have gone to pay legal bills for Hope Hicks, a White House adviser; Keith Schiller, a former bodyguard for Trump; Boris Epshteyn, a former Sinclair Broadcast Group commentator who now serves as a Trump campaign adviser; and Corey R. Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager.
The impeachment effort produced substantial spending by Trump’s political entities. Trump’s campaign and the RNC, which has been raising and spending money in coordination with Trump, have helped pay the legal bills from the firms of Jay Sekulow, Marc E. Kasowitz, Jane Raskin and Alan Dershowitz.
Trump has sometimes used lawyers who also have intervened with the federal government on behalf of other clients, including appeals made directly to him.
Sekulow, for example, has run a nonprofit group that pressed the government to stop abortion funding and has also urged the Trump administration to exempt churches from certain federal policies, such as hiring rules. Sekulow said the dual roles did not represent a conflict of interest because his work for Trump was done through a separate law firm.
The role of the Justice Department in litigation involving Trump has also drawn attention. The department automatically represents the president of the United States when he is sued. But during Trump’s tenure, it has supported Trump’s legal team in lawsuits filed on behalf of Trump against other parties, litigation that is intended to protect Trump’s personal financial interests.
Robert Weissman, the president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit group, said the use of campaign and federal government funds to finance legal actions captured a dizzying array of ethical issues during the Trump administration.
The legal work, he said, is being used to defend violence at political rallies, chill the free speech of former aides and fight allegations of unethical actions by Trump himself. And it is being paid for in part by large individual donors who could seek help from Trump in dealing with government actions that affect their own interests, he said.
“It is an astounding nexus of corruption,” Weissman said.