Self-proclaimed billionaire President Donald Trump is turning to rich Republican party donors to help cover the costs of some of his hefty legal fees related to investigations into his campaign’s alleged ties to Russia. Government watchdog advocates say that move breaks political norms and escalates the power wealthy people have over politics. Effectively, the big donors can offset Trump’s personal costs by donating to the legal fund, lining his pockets without directly handing over money.
Early in his campaign, Trump promised voters he would not accept outside money from anyone, including from the Republican National Committee, boasting that his personal wealth made him immune from political influence by individuals and the establishment. “I don’t need anybody’s money,” he said in June 2015, kicking off his campaign. “I’m using my own money. I’m not using the lobbyists. I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”
But by mid-July this year, he was reportedly hungry for RNC funds. People close to Trump were reportedly pestering the party to cover the increasingly hefty legal fees incurred as the investigations kept probing allegations of collusion with Russia. The RNC has since answered those calls, sending money from the political party’s legal fund coffers — an account largely funded by billionaires such as investor Charles Schwab, Home Depot founder Bernard Marcus, Breitbart founder Robert Mercer, and Houston Texans owner Robert McNair, according to FEC filings.
Those funds are typically used to cover the cost of ballot access disputes, compliance requirements and other routine legal matters, so using them to help a sitting president defend himself during an investigation breaks from political norms. It also provides new avenues for donors to give directly to Trump and thereby wield an even larger influence over Washington politics, according to Aaron Scherb, director of legislative affairs for the government watchdog group, Common Cause.
“It doesn’t appear to be illegal what the RNC is doing but it certainly looks bad and smells bad and I think some donors might question how their resources are being used,” Scherb told ThinkProgress. “This empowers the ultra-wealthy and gives them more influence than they had before.”
The RNC gave Trump the legal fees amid an investigation being conducted by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who has been looking into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to help sway the 2016 presidential election. On Wednesday, the New York Times reported that Mueller asked the White House for documents related to several questionable actions by Trump, including a meeting he had with Russian officials the day after F.B.I. Director James Comey was fired.
The RNC in August, through that legal fund, paid more than $230,000 to cover the cost of some high-profile firms and attorneys representing Trump during the investigations, according to reports by CNN and Reuters. That reportedly includes $100,000 to the president’s lead attorney John Dowd and $131,250 to the Constitutional Litigation and Advocacy Group, where another Trump lawyer, Jay Sekulow, is a partner. The RNC has also paid nearly $200,000 for Trump Jr.’s lawyers.
While individuals are limited to donating $33,900 per year to the political parties, they are allowed to exceed that amount by donating up to $101,700 to each of three separate party accounts: one that funds the presidential nominating convention, another that pays for items related to the national party headquarters building, and an account that pays for legal fees and contesting election results.
Those accounts and the change in rules were created in 2014 without public debate and introduced while Congress was finalizing a 1,603-page spending bill, according to the Washington Post.
Using political party funds to assist in the criminal investigation of a president is not normal, according to Paul S. Ryan, the vice president of policy and litigation at Common Cause. President Bill Clinton helped pay his legal fees during the Whitewater investigation using his own insurance, having supporters start legal defense funds, and paying off millions of dollars in personal debt through speaking fees once he left office, according to Reuters.
“I cannot recall any other instance in which a president has utilized RNC funds for any legal defense expenses,” Ryan said.
Donors in July and August donated $1,088,729 to the legal fund, surpassing the $781,400 that poured into those coffers throughout the first six months of the year.
Who’s giving the most and what do they want from the administration?
Warren A. Stephens has historically donated to both parties, favoring the GOP, but looked like a never-Trump partisan: He was an early supporter of the Stop Trump movement, and donated millions to the anti-Trump fund.
But since the election, it appears he’s had something of a change of heart, expressing cautious optimism about the Trump administration’s potential. “I certainly think the Trump administration could be doing a better job of keeping things focused on healthcare, and tax reform, and Dodd-Frank,” he told an Arkansas news site last spring.
In April, he gave the maximum amount to the RNC legal fund. So did the trust bearing his name.
In late May, his oped for WSJ pleaded against the stultifying effects of Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Protection Act, and claimed the 2012 JOBS Act doesn’t go far enough to allow companies to “issue equity in the public markets.” He blames regulation and government for income inequality. Forbes puts his 2016 net worth at $2.4 billion.
In short, he doesn’t appear to be a Trump fanboy as much as a fanboy for capitalism (and deregulation of financial markets).
ThinkProgress reached out to Stephens for comment on how his RNC donations are being spent, but have not received a response as of press time.
Diane Hendricks is a mainstay of Trump’s circle of deep-pocketed loyalists. She threw her cash behind Scott Walker’s initial bid for the nomination, then got in line behind Trump. After candidate Trump faced backlash for announcing an economic advisory council composed largely of men named Steve, he added Hendricks, among others.
C. Boyden Gray, former diplomat and White House counsel for President George H. W. Bush, maxed out a donation to the legal fund in June. He’s a member of the Federalist Society, and in the primaries, supported Jeb Bush before switching teams to Ted Cruz. He’s advocated for Trump to sell his company to his kids to avoid ethical conflicts. Gray also wrote an oped in WSJ calling for a swift resolution of the Russia investigation, urging Mueller to avoid letting the inquiry range too broadly, lest it drag out too long. He’s spoken before on the importance of Washington experience in helping run the White House. Gray is not a dyed-in-the-wool Trump loyalist or fringe believer as much as he is a D.C. swamp native—Don Graham hosted a party at his house and his daughter is a journalist, and apparently they had a pet pig in the nineties, when it was trendy in Washington circles to be a bit of an eccentric, as long as you were rich or influential.
ThinkProgress reached out to Gray for comment on how his RNC donations are being spent, but have not received a response as of press time.
Bernie Marcus is the (now retired) co-founder of Home Depot. He’s from New Jersey and his parents are Russian Jewish immigrants. Together with his wife Wilma, they have a broad portfolio of philanthropic efforts. He’s been a significant Trump donor but claims to want little from the president: “I’m one of the very few people that wants absolutely nothing from him. There’s nothing that he can do for me. Nothing. Zero. I’m living my own life. I don’t have time for this kind of politics.” In 2016, his op-ed for Real Clear Politics called “Why I Stand with Donald Trump” emphasized deregulation of business interests: “I have never seen our government as hostile to free enterprise, especially small business, as it is today. It is driving over-regulation, over-taxation, over-litigation, and over-spending.” He has a lot of money to give away, and because he is sticking to his rhetoric about Trump being good for small businesses, it appears he’s paying minimal attention to where he’s spending it. He donated the maximum allowed to the legal fund in July.
Charles Schwab maxed out his legal fund donation in July. In an odds-defying coincidence, his 21-year-old granddaughter Samantha had a “volunteer” job in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs as of spring. The elder Schwab also gave bigly to the inauguration, and given his financial industry ties, he is likely bigly interested in rolling back financial regulations.
Richard and Suzanne Kayne are big donors to UCLA. Richard founded Kayne Anderson Capital Advisors, which deals heavily in oil and gas and energy infrastructure—pipelines. He’s donated to various other Republican campaigns.
Joseph Hardy, of 84 Lumber fame, maxed out his legal fund contribution, and so did the trust bearing his family’s name. Remember the building material supply company’s Super Bowl ad about an unspecified wall? Hardy’s daughter, now the company’s CEO, has reiterated she’s a big proponent of Trump’s wall on the border with Mexico. “The wall, I think it represents, to me, security. I like security,” she said in an interview with People magazine. The family has partnered with Habitat for Humanity on building projects, so perhaps this is just a pro-construction stance they’re taking. Either way, look for the Hardys to be keenly pushing for the wall to go up—it would be a vision in wood—and the contracts to start rolling out.
Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, founders of Uline Corp., backed Scott Walker in the primary, then took leadership roles on the Trump fundraising committee when the winds changed in 2016. They’ve historically backed conservative Republicans at state and federal levels via PACs, committees, and direct contributions to the tune of tens of millions of dollars. They’re keenly interested in limited government and corporate tax breaks. The Ed Uihlein Family Foundation has also given tens of millions over the years to state and federal conservative efforts.
The Uihleins aren’t shy about spending on candidates when they have a specific ask in mind to make of the government: A meandering bog was pestering their Wisconsin home and they leaned hard on state officials (they had donated to Walker) to get help wrangling the errant land mass by bolting it to the lake floor. The bog fiasco landed them in hot water with ethics watchdogs, sporting groups, environmental advocates, and others, but the experience didn’t put a damper on their political contributions.
Robert and Diana Mercer both gave almost $100k each to the legal fund in August—after it had been reported that the funds could soon be used to help ease the Russia scandal’s burden on Trump’s personal bottom line. No surprise here: The Mercers are awash in influence with the Trump administration, and the family backed him early and heavily. They’re Breitbart funders; daughter Rebekah Mercer was on the transition team.
They’ve donated tens of millions to conservative campaigns, and Richard was widely reported to be the single biggest donor of the entire campaign. But as several thoughtful features have noted, we’re not entirely sure what they’re after. Still, it’s eminently clear that if they knock, White House doors will swing right open. Just don’t claim they’re “quietly” influencing policy because they’re media-shy: If money talks in D.C., they’ve forked over enough cash to this administration to tune up the volume to a deafening roar.