President Donald Trump is committing at least $430,000 from his own wallet to help White House and former campaign staffers pay legal bills tied to the Russia investigation, White House officials said on Saturday.
Details on how and where Trump will make the donation remain a work in progress, though a White House aide acknowledged the president’s team has been working with outside attorneys and the Office of Government Ethics since the summer to establish a legal defense fund as one outlet to help support some mid-level aides who are facing unexpected attorney bills connected to the congressional and special counsel Russia probes.
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Trump’s campaign and the Republican National Committee have said Russia-related work is a driver behind the more than $2 million spent this year on law firms and lawyers who work at the company owned by the president.
Recent payments have included $230,000 from the RNC in September to Trump’s primary outside co-counsels: Jay Sekulow and John Dowd. The Trump campaign last Sunday also disclosed spending $802,185 for “legal consulting” from its law firm Jones Day, as well as $25,885 to the Trump Corporation.
Trump’s campaign, in its last disclosures to the Federal Election Committee, also said it had paid $237,924 to Alan Futerfas, who is representing the president’s oldest son, Donald Trump Jr., as well as other members of the Trump Organization, as part of the Russia probe, and $30,000 to Williams & Jensen, the law firm of another Trump Jr. attorney, Karina Lynch.
The president’s plan to make a personal donation of $430,000 or more was first reported Saturday by Axios. One White House official said the story was accurate but declined to offer any additional details.
A second senior White House aide familiar with the process explained Saturday evening that the president’s commitment to pay the legal bills of his current and former aides was “aspirational” and would be done “to the extent allowable” by the Office of Government Ethics and tax requirements.
Trump’s donations, the White House staffer added, would not go toward either former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn or former campaign chairman Paul Manafort – two staffers who were under FBI scrutiny before special counsel Robert Mueller’s appointment in mid-May.
Mueller’s wide-ranging Russia probe is likely to draw in a dozen or more current and former White House aides. Earlier this month, the special counsel held day-long interviews with Sean Spicer and Reince Priebus, the former White House press secretary and chief of staff, respectively. POLITICO also reported that Trump’s lawyers are considering approaching Mueller by Thanksgiving to see if he wants to schedule an interview with Trump himself — if the special counsel hasn’t already made the request by then.
Trump’s offer to help current and former staff pay their legal bills has already sparked controversy over the optics.
“A potential witness or target of an investigation (and boss of investigators) paying for legal fees of other potential witnesses or targets?” Walter Shaub, the former head of the Office of Government Ethics and a frequent Trump critic, wrote Saturday on Twitter.
But Trump’s attempt wouldn’t be without precedent. Corporations often pay their employees’ legal bills. President Bill Clinton made his own pledge to support many of his aides during the investigation into his Whitewater land deals. “I am going to help them pay their legal bills if it’s the last thing I ever do and I stay healthy,” the Democrat told CNN in a 1996 interview, though his lawyers ultimately talked him out of the move.
Current Trump White House aides have multiple options to help them afford white-collar lawyers, with a premier attorney charging as much as $1,500 an hour for their services. But their choices also come with ethical and legal challenges.
Free or discounted legal advice from friends or family is possible, though they must list the gift on their next financial disclosure forms. Law firms with business or clients that work with the executive branch – which covers some of Washington’s biggest legal operations – pose potential conflict of interest for aides who would likely need to recuse themselves from the firm’s issues.
Getting an attorney who reduces their legal fees also may matter little if the staffer ends up making multiple visits before a grand jury or with congressional investigators, driving up their bill.
Defense funds are one of the more common approaches for administration employees caught in a major investigation. Clinton aides set up their own funds. And former Trump national security adviser Michael Flynn’s family also established a fund in September.
The Trump legal defense fund is still being finalized, according to the senior White House staffer who explained that key tax and administration questions must be resolved before it can become operational.