WASHINGTON ― President Donald Trump, a billionaire, is reportedly using money raised by the Republican National Committee to cover legal fees associated with the Department of Justice investigation into his 2016 presidential campaign.
Trump has used over $230,000 in money raised by the RNC for his own legal defense, according to Reuters. The president is currently under investigation for potential illegal coordination with Russia ― which is alleged to have hacked the Democratic National Committee and intervened in the election to defeat Hillary Clinton ― and for possible obstruction of justice when he fired James Comey, the former FBI director, in May.
In a bit of an ironic twist, the RNC money with which Trump is paying for his legal defense is available for him to use thanks to the work of Clinton’s campaign lawyer, Marc Elias. Elias played a key role in negotiating the expansion of campaign contribution limits for the political parties in 2014. Based on reports from Politico and HuffPost, it was Elias who proposed the existence of an account that could cover nearly any legal expense.
That account was created under a deal between House Republicans and Senate Democrats to expand political party fundraising capabilities as part of the omnibus spending bill passed in December 2014.
“Not only were the Democrats involved, but Democrats spearheaded this,” Paul S. Ryan, a campaign finance lawyer with the nonpartisan watchdog group Common Cause, told HuffPost.
Then-House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) said at the time that the provision “was worked out in a bipartisan way to allow those who are organizing political conventions to raise the money from private sources as opposed to using taxpayer funds.”
The bipartisan deal created two new fundraising accounts and expanded another for political party committees like the RNC and the DNC. The new and expanded funds could each receive a maximum contribution of $100,200 from a single donor ― a massive increase from the $33,400 limit that applied to the main party account. Of the two new accounts, one was to be spent on any updates to a party’s offices and the other was to be spent on political conventions. The expanded account had originally collected money to pay for legal expenses in the event of an election recount. Now, not only could this account receive larger contributions than before, but the funds could be spent on nearly any legal expense at all.
The process that created these accounts began after Republicans voted to end public funding for the party conventions. They suddenly needed to raise more money for their 2016 presidential nominating convention. So, they sought to create a new party account with higher contribution limits to help defray the costs, and sought to get some Democratic Party support. Senate Democratic leadership agreed to the new political convention account, and then asked for the inclusion of the office account and the expansion of the recount account to cover any and all legal expenses.
The thinking behind the expanded legal accounts was to help pay the costs associated with challenging GOP-backed voting restrictions and redistricting maps that could discriminate based on race. Elias has successfully argued many cases challenging voter identification laws and gerrymandered maps as the Democratic Party’s lead lawyer in these suits.
But that one change has also enabled the billionaire Trump to use money raised by the RNC to cover his legal defense. He is the first president to use political party campaign funds to pay for his own criminal defense lawyers.