By Shannon Pettypiece, Bloomberg News
President Donald Trump has started paying his own legal bills related to the Russia probe, rather than charging them to his campaign or the Republican National Committee, and is finalizing a plan to use personal funds to help current and former White House staff with their legal costs.
The Office of Government Ethics and a tax firm are working on a mechanism for Trump to contribute to staffers’ legal bills that would meet regulatory and ethical standards, White House lawyer Ty Cobb said in an interview. The White House is hoping the issue will be resolved shortly, said Cobb, who declined to elaborate further on the details of the plan.
While there is no law barring a president from giving gifts to those who report to him, Trump’s case raises unique questions about whether his contributions could influence the testimony of staffers, said Walter Shaub, former head of the Office of Government Ethics who has criticized the president over other conflicts of interest.
Cobb said the White House is aware of the ethical questions and has been taking steps to address them in recent weeks.
“The president has assumed responsibility for his own legal fees and while he isn’t involved directly in the creation of a mechanism to take care of staffers, it is important to him that they be taken care of and whatever approach is agreed upon by OGE and relevant tax authorities be bulletproof,” said Cobb.
It is possible, however, that the final plan ethics and tax officials come up with to cover White House staff legal costs wouldn’t allow for Trump to make a contribution, said a person familiar with the process.
Trump’s legal bills had previously been covered by the RNC, which paid out $131,250 to Trump’s attorney Jay Sekulow and $100,000 to attorney John Dowd.
The legal fees for Trump and White House officials could go much higher depending on how long Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation lasts and whether its scope expands.
Cobb has said he expects Mueller to wrap up interviews with White House staff shortly after Thanksgiving and conclude his investigation early in 2018. But a U.S. official with knowledge of the investigations expects it to continue well into next year.
For White House staff, the mounting legal bills have been putting some under a financial strain. One interview with a congressional committee or Mueller could exceed $30,000 in legal costs.
Among those who have been interviewed are former chief of staff Reince Priebus, former spokesman Sean Spicer, and National Security Council chief of staff Keith Kellogg, according to people familiar with the investigations. Mueller has also indicated he wants to speak with White House Counsel Don McGahn and communications director Hope Hicks, said another person close to the investigation.
Trump is only considering using is personal funds to pay for the legal bills of current and former White House aides, not people who served exclusively during the campaign. That would rule out some of the highest profile figures in the investigations, including former campaign manager Paul Manafort and his deputy, Richard Gates, both of whom were indicted on charges of money laundering last month. George Papadopoulos, a campaign foreign policy adviser who pleaded guilty to making false statements to the government, also wouldn’t be eligible.
It’s unclear whether Trump’s offer extends to Michael Flynn, who was fired from his role as Trump’s national security adviser early in the administration.
Flynn’s family has set up a fund to help raise money to cover his legal costs associated with Mueller’s investigation, but it won’t accept contributions from the Trump campaign or the Trump Organization, a person with knowledge of the fund said in September when the fund was established. Flynn’s lawyer Robert Kelner didn’t respond to a request for comment on whether Flynn would accept funds directly from Trump.