This Is Why The RNC Can Pay Don Jr’s— Or Other Staffers’—Russia Probe Bills

Christine Frapech
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Donald Trump, Jr. never held an official position on his father’s 2016 presidential campaign, nor did he join his father and sister in the White House as a member of the administration.

But the Republican National Committee is helping foot Trump Jr.’s mounting legal bills stemming from the multiple investigations into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The RNC and Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign together have shelled out around $250,000 on his behalf to date.

The RNC’s ability to spend all this money on Trump Jr. is possible thanks to a rider that a powerful Democratic lawyer slipped into a government spending bill at the eleventh hour in 2014, allowing national party committees to establish special legal accounts for campaign-related expenses. Those accounts can take in three times the normal contribution limit to the parties’ general funds—which would be roughly $101,700 per person—and are subject to hardly any federal oversight. They serve as a deep, opaque pool of money that campaign finance experts described to TPM as a “gray area” or “wild west,” and their boundaries now are being tested as the sprawling congressional and federal Russia investigations press forward.

“The extent to which that money can be used for something like this has never really been nailed down by the Federal Election Commission,” Jan Baran, an election law expert at Wiley Rein who previously served as the RNC’s general counsel, told TPM of the RNC account.

Larry Noble, a senior director at the Campaign Legal Center who specializes in election law, criticized the FEC’s lack of guidance or regulations on the matter and said that the RNC footing Trump Jr.’s bills prompts a “real question of whether this is an appropriate use of their funds.”

“It raises the possibility that large donors will make large contributions knowing that the money is going to help the Trump defense,” he added.

FEC spokesman Christian Hilland told TPM that the committee couldn’t comment on specific details of the Trump campaign’s or the RNCs’ legal spending, but acknowledged that “the Commission has not promulgated regulations” related to the national party committees’ legal funds.

The RNC’s special legal fund, like the campaign itself, is permitted to cover any legal expenses that arise directly from a campaign or a government official’s duties in office. The costs of election recounts and routine compliance matters are covered; drunk driving arrests and sex scandals are not. If the RNC counts the legal defense of the President’s son, a private citizen, in the Russia investigation as a campaign-related expense, Noble asked, “where does that stop?”

The lack of clarity on this point was underlined by the RNC chairwoman herself in a July interview with Washington, D.C. radio station WMAL.

“I don’t even know if that’s legal, if we would even be allowed to do that,” Ronna Romney McDaniel said when asked if she could cover the legal costs for Trump and other officials caught up in the probe.

RNC lawyers have since determined that the funds they’ve paid to the President’s personal attorneys, which amounted to some $230,000 in August alone, are lawful, and are looking into the legality of covering the legal bills of current White House staffers, who must comply with gift rules, according to a Washington Post report.

Asked how the four administration officials who have retained legal counsel in the Russia investigation—Communications Director Hope Hicks, Vice President Mike Pence, White House counsel Don McGahn and senior adviser Jared Kushner—are covering their bills, a White House spokeswoman referred TPM to the RNC. The committee did not return repeated requests for comment.

Only Trump and his son have taken advantage of the RNC’s or the campaign’s legal funds so far. But campaign finance experts told TPM that there’s nothing legally preventing any other campaign associate or White House official from doing the same.

Those outside the administration have taken a wide range of approaches to their defenses in the probes. Higher-profile associates like longtime adviser Roger Stone and ousted national security adviser Michael Flynn, through his family, have established legal defense funds. Former campaign adviser Carter Page has taken the unusual step of not hiring any representation at all, despite having sat for over 10 hours of FBI interviews, telling TPM that he’s not concerned “since I haven’t done anything wrong.”

Still others are simply draining reserve funds to cover thousands of dollars in white-collar legal bills. Former campaign adviser Michael Caputo told TPM he has exhausted his childrens’ college funds and was planning to tap his retirement savings next.

Asked if he had contacted the RNC or Trump campaign for financial assistance, Caputo said, “They know where to find me.”

“Perhaps it’ll happen,” he continued. “But I think the priority is that we as Republicans protect the President and his family. People are like, ‘Oh aren’t you upset that they’re spending money on legal fees for people who are wealthy when you’re going through this?’ I’m not upset by that at all. I think it’s our responsibility.”

Page, too, said he was “not a bit” bothered by a President who claims to be worth $10 billion drawing funds from the RNC and his re-election campaign to pay legal expenses for himself and his son, while those loyal to him struggle to pay their own bills.

As with with Trump’s decision not to divest from his business empire and to hire his own family members for White House roles, the operative question seems to be less if he can take those steps than if he should.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Allegra Kirkland is a New York-based reporter for Talking Points Memo. She previously worked on The Nation’s web team and as the associate managing editor for AlterNet. Follow her on Twitter @allegrakirkland.
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