- WASHINGTON POST
Trump Legal Fees Balloon, as Prosecutors Ask about Possible Conflicts
13:17 JST, July 30, 2023
Former president Donald Trump’s political group spent more than $40 million on legal costs in the first half of 2023 to defend Trump, his advisers and others, according to people familiar with the matter, financing legal work that has drawn scrutiny from prosecutors about potential conflicts of interest between Trump and witnesses.
Save America, the former president’s PAC, is expected to disclose about $40.2 million in legal spending in a filing expected Monday, said the people familiar with the filing, who like others interviewed spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss information that has not been made public.
That total is more than any other expense the PAC has incurred during Trump’s 2024 presidential campaign and, according to federal filings from earlier this month, more than Trump’s campaign raised in the second quarter of 2023. It will bring the PAC’s post-presidential legal spending to about $56 million, as Trump faces a federal indictment in Florida, state charges in New York, and the prospect of additional criminal indictments in Washington and Fulton County, Ga.
Trump’s advisers say the costs of providing lawyers for dozens of people are necessary and will continue mushrooming as investigations continue, trials are scheduled and the possibility of indictment looms.
While interviewing potential witnesses associated with Trump, prosecutors have raised pointed questions about who is paying for their lawyers and why, people familiar with the questions said. Trump advisers told The Washington Post that the PAC, which raises most of its money from small-dollar contributions by Trump supporters across the country, is footing the legal bills for almost anyone drawn into the investigations who requests help from the former president and his advisers, the advisers say.
In an indictment unsealed Thursday charging Trump, his longtime valet Waltine “Walt” Nauta, and his property manager Carlos De Oliveira in the classified documents case, authorities allege that Trump called De Oliveira last August to tell him he would pay for his attorney. That same day, authorities said, Nauta had a conversation with a different Trump employee who assured Nauta that De Oliveira was loyal to Trump.
Lawyers for De Oliveira and Nauta declined to comment, as did a spokesman for special counsel Jack Smith, who is leading the federal investigations of Trump.
Steven Cheung, a spokesman for the former president, said Save America was paying legal fees for those who worked for Trump “to protect these innocent people from financial ruin and prevent their lives from being completely destroyed” by what he called “unlawful harassment” from investigators. Trump and his campaign have long accused Justice Department and FBI officials of pursuing politically motivated investigations of him. “They know they have no legitimate case,” Cheung said.
The PAC’s own fundraising and creation is under investigation, The Post has reported, though the group has not been accused of wrongdoing. Much of the money it is using to pay for legal bills was raised on false claims that the 2020 election was stolen.
Paul Seamus Ryan, a campaign finance expert, said he didn’t necessarily see any “legal red flags” with the spending, noting that Trump had wide berth to spend money on legal fees – but that it was far more than any other 2024 presidential candidate would be spending at this point.
“It’s an extraordinary sum of money,” he said. “At the end of the day it’s up to the donors to decide if that’s the way they want their money spent. My sense is if you’re giving money to Trump in 2023, you’re fine with it.”
Thursday’s indictment accuses Trump, De Oliveira and Nauta of trying to have security camera footage destroyed amid the FBI investigation into classified documents Trump kept at Mar-a-Lago, his Florida home and private club, long after he stopped being president.
De Oliveira is also charged with lying to investigators. Trump and Nauta face multiple additional counts from an indictment filed in June.
The backstory to the new charges underscores just how complicated things can get when serving as a lawyer for a Trump employee.
Nauta, who investigators long considered a key witness in the classified documents investigation, has been represented for many months by lawyer Stan Woodward, with Save America footing the bills. Woodward also represents several other Trump-linked clients who have been subpoenaed as part of Smith’s investigations, including an IT worker named Yuscil Taveras.
For much of the classified documents probe, there did not appear to be a conflict between Nauta and Taveras.
After Trump and Nauta were indicted in June, however, Taveras decided he had more he wanted to tell the authorities about his conversations with De Oliveira, according to people familiar with the investigation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private discussions.
Taveras offered information implicating all three defendants in an alleged conspiracy to cover up evidence, these people said.
Legal ethics rules bar attorneys from arguing adverse positions in a case – such as defending one client by cross-examining another client, or advising one person who is testifying to investigators or a grand jury against another.
Once Taveras’s position put him potentially at odds with Nauta’s defense, a judge reviewed the issue, a person familiar with the matter said. A second lawyer – not paid by the PAC – was brought in to provide legal advice to Taveras, who then spoke to investigators, according to people familiar with the matter.
Taveras told authorities that in late June of last year, when federal authorities were seeking security camera footage to determine if boxes with classified documents had been moved in or out of a storage room, De Oliveira pulled him aside for a private discussion about how the computer server that stored images from Mar-a-Lago security cameras worked, these people said.
The indictment describes the same incident, referring to Taveras as “Employee 4” and alleging that De Oliveira told him “that ‘the boss’ wanted the server deleted.”
The employee replied to De Oliveira “that he would not know how to do that, and that he did not believe that he would have the rights to do that,” according to the indictment. “De Oliveira then insisted to Trump Employee 4 that ‘the boss’ wanted the server deleted and asked, ‘What are we going to do?’ “
The indictment does not allege that the footage was actually deleted, and authorities have said in court papers that the security camera footage they received provided critical evidence in their case. But Taveras’s account bolstered suspicions prosecutors already had about Nauta’s and De Oliveira’s conduct based on texts, calls and meetings captured on surveillance video.
The new witness account, these people said, filled in a key gap of what was allegedly said in an unrecorded conversation in a small room and helped authorities build criminal charges against De Oliveira.
Making sure ‘Carlos is good’
The new indictment also shows prosecutors are suspicious about how and why some people in Trump’s orbit have had their legal fees paid.
It is not unusual for political campaigns, or companies for that matter, to pay for legal costs of their employees, if the legal issues involve their work. In Trump’s case, however, prosecutors have suggested there may be more to it than that.
After the FBI conducted a court-authorized search of Trump’s home last August to seize government records and documents with classified markings, at least one Trump employee apparently wanted to make sure that De Oliveira wouldn’t tell officials about attempts to hide the materials, according to the indictment.
“Someone just wants to make sure Carlos is good,” Nauta allegedly said in a call with another Trump employee, who like Taveras is not named in the indictment. That employee assured Nauta that De Oliveira was “loyal” and “would not do anything to affect his relationship with Trump.” The indictment alleges that the same employee also confirmed De Oliveira’s loyalty in a private message chat with Nauta and a representative for the PAC.
The indictment further alleges that on the same day, Trump called De Oliveira “and told De Oliveira that Trump would get De Oliveira an attorney.”
During the course of their investigation, prosecutors have repeatedly asked witnesses about how and why Trump entities have paid for some witnesses to get lawyers. They have also asked whether that legal representation was designed in any way to shield Trump from more criminal exposure, people familiar with those exchanges have said. Prosecutors have asked to see written agreements of legal retainers, according to subpoenas reviewed by The Post.
Witnesses have told prosecutors that Susie Wiles, the head of Trump’s political action committee, has made decisions on whose legal bills should be funded, according to people familiar with the matter, but that Trump reviewed the bills and occasionally offered his opinion during 2021 and 2022. Trump would sometimes ask why certain people had been subpoenaed and how they fit into an investigation, these people said.
Wiles has decided that almost all legal bills incurred by Trump consultants, employees and others should be paid, according to people familiar with the discussions, because they were incurred as a result of their work for Trump.
That means dozens of current and former advisers are sending bills to the campaign. But realizing how expensive such bills have become, Wiles has called lawyers and asked them to reduce their hourly rates in 2023, Trump advisers say. People close to Wiles said she has taken a largely administrative role in the process.
A person familiar with the matter said the cash-strapped PAC had asked for a refund on a large contribution the group had previously made to another PAC supporting Trump. It was unclear if the refund had been granted. That development was first reported by The New York Times.
Earlier this year, Trump’s team upped the percentage of the campaign’s fundraising that goes to the PAC, which largely exists now to pay bills.
Trump advisers say that while they have occasionally recommended lawyers for employees, they have made no demands that those employees hew to the company line to have their bills paid.
The PAC has paid legal bills for dozens of employees, including some who have given damning testimony, the advisers said. They also said Trump’s team has not required former or current employees to hire a particular lawyer to have bills paid.
In the course of the investigation, people familiar with the matter said, prosecutors have obtained emails where some of Trump’s aides discuss whether lawyers should be paid, as well as a spreadsheet that Trump’s lawyers kept in the post-presidency of who had been subpoenaed.
In addition to asking what agreements led to legal representation for certain witnesses, investigators have also tried to ascertain if there were instances where Trump or people close to him debated whether to not pay a particular person’s legal bills, these people said.
Some of Trump’s advisers raised questions about the wisdom of paying for lawyers for people they viewed as in danger of being charged with crimes, or those who fueled some of Trump’s more unorthodox legal maneuvers or the more unfounded legal challenges to the 2020 election.
Some former Trump employees have told The Post they have not submitted bills to Trump’s team because they were uncomfortable with the arrangement, instead paying bills out of their own pockets or finding lawyers willing to represent them for free.
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