Lobbyists reluctant to fund legal defense of Trump officials

Lobbyists reluctant to fund legal defense of Trump officials
© Paul J. Richards/AFP/Getty Images

Republican lobbyists say they are wary of contributing to the legal defense funds of Trump administration officials who are under scrutiny in the Russia investigation — even anonymously. 

Officials in the Trump administration have yet to establish any such accounts, but a federal ethics agency recently gave them the green light, as Politico first reported last week. 

The guidance from the Office of Government Ethics allows otherwise prohibited individuals — such as lobbyists and those with business before the government — to contribute anonymously to the accounts.

The Hill emailed 30 Republican lobbyists, almost all of them donors to President Trump in 2016, to ask whether they would give money to a legal defense fund for someone in the administration; 11 responded. Most asked to remain anonymous. 

Five lobbyists said that it depends on who in the White House was seeking donations, while five replied with an unequivocal “no.”

“Anybody who was stupid to run with this crowd can afford their own lawyers. I don’t have any sympathy for these folks, and some of them are my friends,” said one advocate.

Lobbyists unsure of their willingness to donate to the defense fund said their decision would depend on several factors, such as whether the person was unable to pay his or her legal fees and whether the president or vice president was the one asking (in the latter case one lobbyist would).  

Two people said they would only give to personal friends. 

“Special prosecutors cause all kinds of trouble for perfectly innocent people. Ask Karl Rove,” said another Republican lobbyist, referring to the Republican strategist found to have played a significant role in the politically motivated firings of seven U.S. attorneys during the George W. Bush administration.

Sam Geduldig, a partner at CGCN Group, said he would give money to a legal defense fund on principle. 

"I will continue to support those being prosecuted for practicing politics. It is a troubling trend. I would support any politician or staffer who deserves a fair process,” he said.

Geduldig noted that he’s given to multiple legal defense funds, including one for former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), though DeLay had already left Capitol Hill when the account was set up.

At least five current White House officials, including President Trump and Vice President Pence, have been ensnared by special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the presidential election, and it’s likely that other officials will be questioned.

While no one serving in the administration has established a legal defense fund, former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn now has one in his name. 

Flynn was fired from the White House in February after he misled Pence about his communications with Russia’s ambassador to the United States. 

Since he is no longer a federal official, there are no restrictions on who can donate to fund Flynn’s defense. The account, launched by his siblings, will reportedly not disclose its donors.

A White House official, who asked to remain anonymous, told The Hill in an email that the White House is not helping to set up any legal defense funds “and is definitely NOT trying to set one up that permits employees to accept funds from anonymous donors.”

“Outside groups are looking to set up one or more defense funds, and we are simply involved in seeking to ensure that any arrangement ultimately set up does not create any ethics violations for our staff,” the official said.

The White House is “interested in identifying ways to have donors disclosed and to ensure no ‘prohibited sources’ are contributing funds for the benefit of White House employees,” the person continued. 

While some high-ranking Trump officials are wealthy, others in the White House may struggle to pay the legal fees charged by Washington’s elite defense attorneys; those fees generally range from $1,500 to $2,000 per hour for each attorney. 

Ethics advocates worry about conflicts of interest, or the appearance of a conflict, that may arise if lobbyists start bankrolling legal defense funds.

“Part of the business of lobbying is buying access and influence with government officials,” said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. “Many lobbyists have shown that they don’t care what account a check is deposited into, as long as it helps them gain access.”

Lobbyists are already banned from giving money to the legal defense funds set up for members of Congress, and there are caps for how much other donors can give. 

Daniel Crowley, a partner at K&L Gates, said he would avoid the contributions “for appearance reasons.” 

“Frankly, the phrase anonymous contribution is an oxymoron. In most cases, the recipient knows who the donors are; the only real question is whether there is transparency sufficient to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption,” he said in an email. “In my view, all contributions to a legal defense fund should be publicly disclosed.”

The Republican National Committee (RNC) on Tuesday confirmed that it had donated money to help Trump with the legal expenses stemming from the investigation, which is looking at whether the Trump campaign had colluded with Russia during the election.
 
Campaigns can use money to pay for certain legal expenses, but only if the charges are related to being a public official. 
 
The money for Trump's fees is coming from the Republican Party's legal proceedings account, which is separate from the RNC's main coffer and used for things like the cost of election recounts.
 
Created by Congress in 2015, the account gives the Democratic and Republican party committees the ability to raise money from donors to pay for legal fees and allows contributors to give up to $100,200. As it is a relatively new fundraising vehicle, there is not much guidance for how it can be used.

“There are lots of rules around travel and accepting a cup of coffee from conflicting sources, but when it comes to legal defense funds, it’s just not as clear as it should be,” says Meredith McGehee, the chief of policy, programs and strategy at Issue One.