Trump Is Said to Avoid Donating to Staff Fund for Russia Probes

(Bloomberg) -- President Donald Trump has been advised not to contribute to a fund set up to help former campaign aides and White House staffers pay legal bills related to the investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election, a person familiar with the matter said.

The fund, which began taking contributions last week, offers a financial lifeline to staffers who may face tens of thousands of dollars in legal expenses from just a single interview with Special Counsel Robert Mueller. The fund hasn’t disclosed how much it’s raised or who has donated.

Trump told some staffers last year that he wanted to help with their legal bills and asked his lawyers whether that could be done without violating regulatory and ethical standards, the person said. After reviewing the structure of the fund, people involved in the process advised him not to contribute.

The law doesn’t bar the president from giving gifts to those who report to him, but Trump’s case raises unique questions about whether his contributions could influence his staffers’ testimony. The fund, in a plan submitted to the Office of Government Ethics, didn’t specify whether or not the president could make a contribution.

The fund, the Patriot Legal Expense Fund will create two pools of money -- one for former campaign staffers and volunteers and another for administration officials, who face restrictions on who can give them money. The fund said it will not assist anyone who has admitted or been accused of wrongdoing, such as former campaign manager Paul Manafort and former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Legal Bills

To cover the legal bills for all those questioned by investigators probing Russian interference in the 2016 elections, the fund may have to raise well over $1 million. One interview with Mueller’s team or a Congressional committee could cost more than $30,000 in legal bills to prepare for questioning and turn over requested documents, even if the individual isn’t suspected of any wrongdoing.

Mueller and congressional investigators have interviewed more than 20 White House staffers, including former White House communications director Hope Hicks, ex-chief of staff Reince Priebus and general counsel Don McGahn. Mueller has also talked to at least 17 former campaign employees and 11 people associated with the campaign, according to a January memo from Trump’s former lawyer John Dowd.

Some aides have relied on lower-cost legal advice from friends or tried to go it alone, putting them at risk of making costly slip-ups. Keith Kellogg, chief of staff for the National Security Council, didn’t take a lawyer with him to his interview with Mueller, and former campaign foreign policy adviser Carter Page testified before the House Intelligence Committee without an attorney.

Trump associate Sam Nunberg said on national television he refused to talk to Mueller because of the costly legal bills, among other reasons. He eventually relented and has used a family friend as his lawyer. Former Trump campaign adviser Michael Caputo has said he had to clear out his kids’ college fund to pay his bills.

The fund hasn’t yet established a process to distribute money to those seeking help with their legal bills, according to a person familiar with the process.

Individual legal defense funds have also been set up for longtime Trump adviser Roger Stone, Manafort, Flynn and campaign aide Rick Gates. None of those funds have disclosed how much money they’ve raised or who donated.

Tax-Exempt Fund

Americans have shown a recent willingness to help with a legal fight. A Go Fund Me account to help former Deputy FBI Director Andrew McCabe battle his firing hours before his retirement raised $554,456 in six days before it stopped taking additional donations on April 2. Stormy Daniels, an adult entertainer suing Trump over a non-disclosure agreement preventing her from discussing an alleged affair with him, has raised more than $300,000.

The OGE didn’t raise any concerns after reviewing the structure of the fund to assist Trump staff, which will operate as a tax-exempt political organization under section 527 of the tax code.

But ethics watchdogs and Democrats in Congress have said there are several areas ripe for abuse. The fund manager is able to communicate with the Trump campaign. Though such 527 groups report their donors to the Internal Revenue Service, they can accept contributions from corporate entities, including limited liability corporations and nonprofits, that do not have to disclose the original source of the funding.

Democrats on the House Oversight Committee sent a letter earlier this month to the OGE asking for additional information.

On its website, the fund asks potential donors a series of questions to determine eligibility, including whether they would benefit financially from the actions of a White House or Justice Department employee, or whether they’re involved in any business regulated by certain agencies.

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