If we’re analyzing this from the standpoint of whether Republican donors will feel betrayed then POTUS is in the clear, right? Whatever Trump wants, the GOP base wants. If he wants to spend the money on a three-story velvet painting of himself, hey. He has his reasons. And if that’s okay, surely it’s okay for him to apply the funds to his personal legal expenses to defend himself from an investigation that most of the party agrees is a witch hunt.
The issue here isn’t whether it’s legal — it (probably) is — but why it’s necessary. He’s a billionaire many times over, as he’d be the first to tell you. It’s bad enough that his non-billionaire underlings are being crushed under the financial weight of Russiagate-related attorney’s fees without help from POTUS, but President Mogul should be able to pick up his own tab.
The U.S. Federal Election Commission allows the use of private campaign funds to pay legal bills arising from being a candidate or elected official.
While previous presidential campaigns have used these funds to pay for routine legal matters such as ballot access disputes and compliance requirements, Trump would be the first U.S. president in the modern campaign finance era to use such funds to cover the costs of responding to a criminal probe, said election law experts.
One person familiar with the matter said the first payments, the amount of which Reuters could not determine, has already been made and would be disclosed in public filings. The person did not explain how the costs would be allocated between the campaign and the RNC.
A candidate who had accepted public financing would be in deep trouble for spending that dough on his own legal needs. It’s the public’s money, after all, not the campaign’s. But the days of public financing ended years ago, with Obama’s mega-bucks campaign in 2008. No national nominee will ever again conclude that they can do better taking government money instead of raising it on their own. And when they raise it privately, it’s the campaign’s money to spend as it likes — within limits.
In any case, Trump’s defense here will be the same as it is on Russiagate writ large, that illegality, not impropriety, is the only relevant issue. Is it illegal for him to use campaign funds to pay his bills? Was it illegal for him to nudge James Comey to go easy on Mike Flynn? No? Then what’s left to talk about? Oddly, though, when Reuters asked Trump lawyer John Dowd who’s paying the bills, Dowd didn’t reply with that spin. His reply, apparently, was “That’s none of your business.” He knows how bad this looks, legal or not.
Other reporters have already noticed that POTUS’s reelection campaign is footing the bill for personal legal expenses and have taken the step of asking some of those donors how they feel about it. Can you guess whether they’re upset or not? I bet you guessed correctly:
“My thoughts are that these special prosecutors are a waste of time and money,” said Anita Airee of Tennessee, who has so far donated $500 for Trump’s re-election.
Douglas Abramson of Dana Point, Calif., said it “doesn’t bother” him that the $500 he has so far donated for the president’s next campaign might go to legal fees instead.
“I trust his judgment to spend donations in a fashion that suits his purpose,” said Abramson.
This gets tricky potentially in two ways, one legal and one political. Legally, what happens if Mueller stumbles onto something incriminating from Trump’s past, before he started running for president? As noted, the FEC allows campaigns to use private funds to pay legal bills arising from being a candidate. Would white-collar criminal defense fees for an offense committed before becoming a candidate qualify if the investigation that uncovered it arose out of the campaign? To put it differently, although Mueller’s probe is aimed mainly at campaign-related activity last year by Russia and any U.S. citizens with whom it might have colluded, there’s a possibility that it’ll head down rabbit holes unrelated to the campaign. Are the funds Trump’s using available in that case or is he on the hook for his own bills?
Politically, the problem is straightforward. Every dollar Trump siphons off from his campaign or the RNC is a dollar that’s unavailable to help his reelection bid in 2020 or Republican candidates downballot who might need the cash next year. As one Republican strategist said to RCP, the more small-dollar donors max out now, the less they’ll be available to kick in when the party needs them later. It’s bananas for a man of Trump’s means, who’s in the fortunate position of being able to cover steep legal bills with no difficulty (isn’t he?), to stick his electoral arms with the tab. He could reimburse them later, but there’s no guarantee that he’ll do it, especially if the midterms look dicey and he doesn’t want to be stuck funneling money into what appears to be a lost cause.
Why doesn’t he just start a proper legal defense fund? Sure, it’d look ridiculous for a man whose name is synonymous with wealth to be rattling his tin cup for help, but (a) again, his fans won’t mind, and (b) he could pitch it as a defense fund for the entire Trump team. With POTUS raising its profile, the fund might do well enough to help relieve some of the pressure from less wealthy Trump aides who are struggling to come up with the money. There’s still the little matter of donations for legal bills depleting wallets that the GOP needs open for the midterms, but that can wait. The midterms will be a wipeout no matter what if Team Trump gets taken down by Mueller.