By Shannon Pettypiece, Bloomberg News
Four months as a communications adviser to Donald Trump’s campaign have turned Michael Caputo’s life upside down.
Since congressional investigators decided they wanted to interview Caputo as part of an investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election, he’s drained his children’s college fund to pay more than $30,000 in legal fees. He bought guns for his home and office after receiving death threats. He worries about the stress on his wife and daughters.
The Russia investigations by Special Counsel Bob Mueller and five congressional committees appear to have focused on prominent Trump associates including his former campaign chairman Paul Manafort and his former national security adviser, Michael Flynn. But outside the spotlight, a large cast of peripheral characters are finding themselves drawn into the probe, incurring legal fees that can run up to $1,000 an hour and infecting people in the West Wing and Trump’s orbit with a deep paranoia.
“Everyone is facing this. I talk to them all. I know they are worried and I think it is awful,” Caputo said. “We heard about this happening during the Clinton investigations. Those stories loom heavily over us.”
Trump is using campaign funds to cover his legal costs. The Trump campaign also made a $50,000 payment to the law firm representing Donald Trump Jr.
Dozens of People
Members of the House Intelligence Committee have said there are dozens of other people they’re interested in hearing testimony from, including White House aides and campaign advisers. Special Counsel Robert Mueller has informed the White House that his team is planning to interview at least four current and former White House aides. He’s also summoned associates of those at the center of the investigation, such as Manafort’s personal spokesman Jason Maloni, who was called before a grand jury last week.
White House staffers including Communications Director Hope Hicks and Counsel Don McGahn have hired their own lawyers. Mueller is also expected to interview former Press Secretary Sean Spicer, former Chief of Staff Reince Priebus, and possibly Josh Raffel, a spokesman for Jared Kushner, and James Burnham, an associate counsel in McGahn’s office, said a person familiar with Mueller’s work. The list could grow, the person said.
If past investigations are any indication, the probes will create anxiety, distrust and distraction in the West Wing. The lawyers that staffers hire will advise them not to talk to each other or leave the room if any discussion of Russia or the investigations comes up. In the past, that’s put staffers on edge as they worry about saying something that could get them in trouble or wonder what their colleagues are saying to investigators about them.
“It does raise the suspicion level within the White House and clearly impacts the ability of everyone to do the mission,” said Leon Panetta, who was chief of staff to Bill Clinton during the Whitewater investigation. “It casts a dark shadow.”
During the Clinton administration, staff ranging from administrative assistants to Secret Service agents to the president’s deputies racked up hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal bills. For a few, the expense topped half a million dollars -- and that was 20 years ago, when lawyers charged a fraction of today’s rates, said Stan Brand, an attorney who represented then-White House aide George Stephanopoulos.
Preparation for testimony before a single congressional committee can cost $20,000 to $50,000 in legal fees -- and some of those involved in the Russia investigation may be called before multiple panels. Add in a grand jury subpoena from Mueller and the total cost for a mere witness -- someone not suspected of any wrongdoing -- could exceed $100,000, Brand said.
Even those testifying as a witness may wish to have legal help to assist in preparing testimony and avoiding misstatements that could put them at risk of perjury charges.
Those at the center of the investigations can anticipate bills reaching into the seven figures, lawyers said.
Flynn and Roger Stone, a long-time political adviser to Trump, have both established legal defense funds to try to raise money for lawyers. In a statement announcing the formation of Flynn’s fund, his brother and sister said that his bills “far exceeded” his ability to pay and appealed to donors by noting his 33 years of service in the Army.
For lower-profile figures without the name recognition of Flynn or Stone or connections to wealthy donors, finding help for their legal bills is unrealistic.
Caputo spent seven years working in Russia and is close to Manafort and Stone, factors he believes drew congressional investigators’ attention despite his brief service on Trump’s campaign.
During a House Intelligence hearing in March with former FBI director James Comey, Representative Jackie Speier brought up Caputo’s work in Russia and his wife, who is Ukrainian. He was away on business and immediately began receiving threatening calls, he said, including one person who threatened to burn down his house with his wife and children inside. One night someone threw rocks at his house, he said.
After Republican congressmen practicing for a charity baseball game were attacked by a gunman in June, Caputo installed a new security system in his home, applied for a pistol permit and bought several guns. He considered sending his wife and three daughters out of town, he said.
The former Trump aide has had a colorful career as a media relations consultant; in past gigs, he spread U.S. propaganda in Latin America and hired a man in a chicken suit to taunt a campaign rival. He worked in Russia from 1994 to 2000, including as an adviser to the former president, Boris Yeltsin, and for Gazprom Media, which was favorable to Vladimir Putin.
He said that most of his Russia contacts dried up by 2008 and he’s done little work there since.
He first met Trump in 1988 at the Republican convention when Stone asked him to help set up chairs for an event the real estate magnate was hosting. Years earlier, he’d worked as a driver for Stone, who helped him get his start in politics. He kept in touch with Trump over the years and advised the billionaire when he considered a run for governor of New York and when he thought about purchasing the Buffalo Bills, Caputo’s hometown team.
But by 2010, Caputo was mostly out of politics -- he moved back to Buffalo to raise his children. Then Trump called, seeking help in the New York primary. Caputo stayed on after Trump’s win, and spent two months in Cleveland running communications for the Republican convention.
He left the campaign June 20 after mocking former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski in a Tweet.
More than a year later, Caputo says it was a surreal experience. He’s been called before the House Intelligence Committee and has been asked by Senate investigators to turn over documents. He may also hear from Mueller’s team. With his children’s college fund depleted, he says he’ll tap his retirement account next.
“The politics of personal destruction ruined Washington 15, 20 years ago and now it has followed me, like aliens to my tiny little town,” Caputo said. “The price of entry into this Washington game is far more expensive than a guy from a little village in upstate New York is willing or able to pay.”
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