During his campaign, Donald Trump promised to pay the legal bills of supporters who beat up protestors at his rallies, but a POLITICO analysis found that Trump’s campaign hasn’t always paid its own legal bills in a timely or transparent fashion.
The analysis of court and campaign filings found that Trump’s campaign committee is still spending heavily to defend against ongoing civil lawsuits alleging assault, incitement, threats and other illegal behavior by the president, his supporters and staff. But in at least four ongoing cases, Trump’s campaign had yet to make a publicly disclosed payment to the law firms representing it, paid months late or paid in tiny amounts that don’t appear commensurate with the amount of work performed by the firms.
In some cases, lawyers from the Trump Organization assisted outside law firms paid by the campaign in defending cases that named both Trump’s campaign and his company, blurring the line between Trump’s political and business operations. And there were at least two cases that Trump’s campaign appears to have settled lawsuits quietly by making lump-sum payments to firms involved in the cases, which it listed in its FEC reports as “legal consulting.”
In all, Federal Election Commission filings show that Trump’s campaign has paid out nearly $4 million in “legal consulting” and “legal fees,” including $556,000 since Election Day. That total is more than twice as much as former President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign spent on legal fees through this point in his first term.
The trail of legal bills dogging Trump’s campaign more than five months after his election — and his team’s opaque handling of them — reflect Trump’s inability to leave behind the chaos and confrontation that marked his presidential run and his decades as a private real estate developer.
In one lawsuit — in which depositions are planned in Washington, D.C., in the coming weeks of several people “who currently hold high level positions in the Trump Administration,” according to court filings — a former Trump campaign staffer accuses the campaign brass of failing to act after he and others reported that Trump’s then-North Carolina state director had pointed a loaded .45-caliber pistol at them on different occasions.
The White House referred questions about that case and legal fees in other cases to a Trump campaign official, who did not respond to messages.
Lawyers at Jones Day, the Trump campaign’s law firm, also declined to comment. It has been the recipient of the overwhelming majority of the legal fees paid by the campaign — $3.3 million through the end of last month — and has worked with other firms on several cases against the campaign.
Listing settlement payments as “legal consulting” — as the Trump campaign appears to have done in cases alleging illegal mass texting and copyright infringement, respectively — keeps the public in the dark, argued Brett Kappel, an election law attorney at Akerman who has represented Republicans and Democrats.
“Basically, the Trump campaign was run just like the Trump Organization — lawsuits are met with bluster and invective and then ultimately settled quietly with everyone involved required to sign nondisclosure agreements so that the public would not know that Trump, in fact, does settle many of the lawsuits against him and his family members,” Kappel said.
In one case, a British photographer sued Trump and his campaign — as well as his son Donald Trump, Jr. and Vice President Mike Pence — for allegedly misappropriating a photo of a bowl of Skittles featured in a tweet by Don, Jr. arguing it was dangerous for the U.S. to accept refugees from Syria.
The photographer dropped the case in December, about a week after a $10,000 payment was made to the firm of the photographer’s lawyer, Heather Blaise. Told that the payment was listed in the Trump campaign’s FEC report as “legal consulting,” Blaise laughed and said “that’s interesting. I have never been retained as counsel or a consultant to the campaign.” She wouldn’t comment on the specifics of the case.
Trump and his campaign make appealing targets for potential plaintiffs motivated by either politics or money, suggested the lawyers defending Trump’s campaign and its former North Carolina state director Earl Phillip against claims by a campaign staffer that Phillip pulled a gun on him.
“Anyone looking at this particular case would have to be naïve to think that there’s not a little bit of both (political and financial motivations) driving it, particularly when you get into the merits of the evidence or lack thereof, and the timing of the claim,” said Phillip’s lawyer, William Harding.
Harding pointed out that the alleged gun incident occurred in February during the crowded GOP primary, while the staffer in question, Vincent Bordini, waited to file the complaint until August, by which time Trump had clinched the party’s nomination.
A GOP operative familiar with the case said Bordini proposed to settle the case for approximately $300,000, but that offer was rejected by the lawyers for Phillip and Trump’s campaign.
Bordini declined to discuss the case, citing a confidentiality agreement between the parties executed this month, though he did say “No former employee gets this far (in court) making stuff up. This is not some kind of I’m-offended kind of thing. A staffer pulled a gun on me.”
In his lawsuit, Bordini claims that, in the days after the alleged gun incident, he flagged it to top campaign officials including then-campaign manager Corey Lewandowski and then-national field director Stuart Jolly. They failed to act, despite prior complaints from others of a similar nature, alleges Bordini’s suit, which argues that the campaign is responsible for the alleged assault and subsequent mental anguish. Bordini quit the campaign days later, convinced that Jolly “would try to cover up what had happened,” according to his suit.
Jolly and Lewandowski did not respond to requests for comment, though a GOP operative familiar with the case said both men have been approached in recent weeks by attorneys collecting information and planning depositions for the case.
Phillip, who declined to comment to POLITICO, had recently been removed as state director when the suit was filed, and he resigned from a different campaign post almost immediately after the suit. Yet in a legal filing responding to the lawsuit, Phillip completely rejected Bordini’s version of events and claimed he didn’t even have a gun with him at the time of the alleged incident.
Nonetheless, the GOP operative familiar with the case told POLITICO that Bordini’s complaint was quickly passed along to the campaign’s general counsel Don McGahn, who was then a partner for Jones Day. McGahn, who has since become Trump’s White House counsel, did not respond on Wednesday to questions about the case, or whether he has been asked to provide testimony.
The Trump campaign argued in its initial response to Bordini’s suit that it isn’t liable for Phillip “because, if true, the alleged actions were not committed within the course and scope of Phillip’s employment with the Trump Campaign.”
That filing was drafted and filed by a Charlotte-based employment law firm called Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn, which has been representing Trump’s campaign for seven months in the case as it’s wound its way through the North Carolina state court system. Yet the Trump campaign did not disclose its first payments to the firm until Friday night. In a campaign finance filing covering the first three months of this year, the Trump campaign revealed that it had paid nearly $51,000 on Feb. 15 to Van Hoy, Reutlinger, Adams & Dunn.
Philip Van Hoy, the partner leading the case, said his firm had invoiced the campaign repeatedly with no response. “After several months, I sent a reminder to the folks I was working with,” he said, and they responded by paying the firm significantly more than it was owed for the billable hours it had completed at the time. “They made an arithmetic error,” Van Hoy said, though he added that the amount of additional work since the payment caught up to the payment, and that the campaign is now current.
That’s just one of several examples of puzzling legal payments by the Trump campaign.
Trump’s campaign through the end of last month had yet to report making any payments to the Birmingham, Alabama, firm Maynard, Cooper & Gale, which has been defending the campaign against a lawsuit filed partly by an African-American man who alleges he was punched, kicked and called racial slurs by Trump supporters at a November 2015 Trump rally in Birmingham, while Trump yelled “get him the hell out of here!”
Lawyers from the firm have filed multiple briefs seeking to dismiss the case, including one late last month arguing that “it would be entirely unreasonable to impose a duty on the Trump Campaign to actively police the behavior of every individual who attends a campaign rally.” But they did not respond to questions about whether they were being paid and, if so, by whom.
And through the end of last month, the Trump campaign had paid only $734.58 to a Louisville, Kentucky, firm called Landrum and Shouse that has been defending Trump and his campaign against a suit brought by a trio of protestors who allege that they were roughed up at — and ejected from — a March 2016 rally in Louisville by Trump supporters who were incited by the then-candidate’s calls of “get ’em out of here!”
The lead Landrum lawyer on the case, R. Kent Westberry, tried and failed to get the suit dismissed on several grounds, including that Trump’s calls to remove the protestors were directed at his security and were constitutionally protected free speech. Westberry didn’t respond to an inquiry from POLITICO about whether his firm was being paid by Trump personally or any other entity for its work on the case.
Lawyers from the Trump Organization have been handling the bulk of the filings and depositions in a New York state court case brought by protestors who allege they were roughed up by Trump’s security, and barred from protesting on a public sidewalk outside Trump Tower in September 2015.
The protestors are suing the president, his campaign, his company and the security guards, some of whom worked for both Trump’s campaign and his company — which could allow the company lawyers to pick up the work without it being reported as an in-kind contribution to Trump’s campaign from his corporation.
Two New York law firms also have been working on Trump’s behalf on the case — LaRocca Hornik Rosen Greenberg & Blaha and Belkin Burden Wenig & Goldman. The firms have been paid more than $109,000 combined by the campaign, though it’s unclear whether the payments are exclusively for their work on the case.
In an early filing in the case, a lawyer for LaRocca Hornik Rosen Greenberg & Blaha argued that Keith Schiller, an athletic 6-foot-4-inch, 210-pound former New York City cop who was serving as Trump’s director of security at the time of the protest, was injured by a much smaller protestor who was trying to retrieve a sign Schiller had confiscated.
Schiller, who went on to travel the country by Trump’s side on the campaign trail and now as director of Oval Office operations “was caused to suffer and experience physical pain, injuries and discomfort, as well as emotional distress,” the LaRocca lawyer wrote.