The Russia investigation is costing President Donald Trump hundreds of thousands in legal fees, but it’s his campaign fund and the Republican National Committee (RNC) that are footing the bill — a move legal experts called unprecedented and legally questionable.
The RNC confirmed it has shelled out $230,000 to cover Trump’s personal legal fees and related to the probe into whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, Reuters first reported.
Trump is the first president in the modern era to use donated campaign funds for his re-election to cover the costs of a criminal investigation, Reuters reported. A special investigation lead by Robert Mueller is probing whether Trump obstructed justice by firing then-FBI Director James Comey in May in hopes it would offset the investigation into potential collusion.
What’s more unusual is that the RNC has paid out another $200,000 to cover Donald Trump Jr.’s expenses related to the investigation, Mother Jones reported.
“It pushes the envelope,” said Larry Noble, general counsel at the Campaign Legal Center, a watchdog group told Mother Jones. “It fits into a framework of them using all sorts of means to spend the money of others.”
But pushing the envelope doesn’t necessarily mean it’s illegal — A 2014 law dramatically increased donations that party committees can accept to cover campaign legal expenses — things like recounts and ballot access issues.
Still, the Federal Election Commission allows use of this money to cover candidates’ legal bills as long as it’s related to the campaign. Experts say the RNC could argue the Russia investigation is campaign-related, though justifying Trump’s Jr.’s bills is more of a “stretch,” Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer with Ackerman LLP, said.
“[The legal fund] is supposed to be for election challenges, not for defending the president’s son over allegations that arose out of the election,” Kappel told Mother Jones.
The RNC was quick to mention the payments to the Trump lawyers were "from a pre-existing legal proceedings account and do not reduce by a dime the resources we can put towards our political work." It is also looking into the legality of covering staffers legal expenses related to the investigation.
But Kappel had one more closing point: “We’re dealing with someone who claims he’s worth billions of dollars,” he said. “Does he really want to be in the position of soliciting money to pay his legal fees?”