How Donald Trump Bought the Silence of Potential Detractors
Elie Honig on the Former President’s Manipulation of the Legal System
Donald Trump is famous for using his money to buy glitzy country clubs, schmaltzy casinos, and gilded hotels. But he also harnessed the power of his wealth to protect himself, and others around him, from criminal prosecution.
During the 2016 and 2020 presidential runs, the Trump campaign and pro-Trump political action committees raised well over a billion dollars. Some portion of that money paid for the traditional campaign assets: lawn signs, staff salaries, television ads, MAGA hats. But Trump also spent his campaign funds on something decidedly less get-out-the-vote than get-out-of-jail: lawyers.
The New York Times and the nonpartisan Campaign Finance Institute determined that from 2015 to 2020, Trump and his affiliated political entities spent over $58 million in campaign donations on legal fees. To put that in context, Trump’s two presidential predecessors, Barack Obama and George W. Bush, each spent less than $11 million on lawyers.Trump also spent his campaign funds on something decidedly less get-out-the-vote than get-out-of-jail: lawyers.
Of course, any major political campaign incurs fees for standard election-related legal work—compliance, review of ads, FEC filings, and the like—and some of Trump’s $58 million went to such uses. (It’s impossible to tell from those FEC filings, which contain limited detail, precisely how much Trump spent on conventional legal costs.) But campaign money also funded a flood of litigation designed to advance and protect the personal interests of Trump and his allies.
For example, the Times noted that the Trump campaign and the Republican National Committee spent $1.8 million to challenge a California law requiring candidates for office to publicly disclose their tax returns. Team Trump spent $1.5 million of campaign funds to sue a former campaign worker who claimed she had been sexually harassed by another staffer.
One major law firm, Jones Day, collected over $18 million from Trump-affiliated political entities to defend him in various lawsuits, including one filed by demonstrators who claimed they were assaulted at a Trump rally, and another by a man who claimed he was wrongly arrested at a Trump rally. Trump spent millions in campaign money to sue former employees of his businesses, campaign, and administration who publicly criticized him, including former White House staffers Omarosa Manigault Newman and Cliff Sims. And Trump used political donations to fund defamation lawsuits against media outlets including CNN, the Times, and the Washington Post.
Trump even took a page out of the mob’s playbook. Just as the mob bosses who I prosecuted would fund lawyers to keep lower-level players from flipping, Trump used campaign money to protect himself in ongoing criminal matters. The Trump campaign and associated political entities used tens of millions of dollars in donations to pay for lawyers who represented potential witnesses in criminal investigations relating to Trump, including Donald Trump Jr., Jared Kushner, Hope Hicks, and Corey Lewandowski—all of whom witnessed potential criminality by Trump, according to the Mueller report. Trump campaign funds also covered legal fees for his advisor Boris Epshteyn and bodyguard Keith Schiller, both of whom gave testimony favorable to Trump in the House’s investigation of Russian election interference.
Trump deployed the cash reserves of his private business, the Trump Organization, to similar effect. According to Michael Cohen, the corporation picked up legal fees for Eric Trump, longtime Trump Organization chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, and controller Jeffrey McConney, among others. In its fraud investigation, the Manhattan district attorney targeted and tried to flip Weisselberg and McConney in particular, given their familiarity with the inner financial workings of the Trump Organization.
Prosecutors ultimately charged Weisselberg with fraud, and while he agreed to cooperate against the Trump Organization as a corporate entity, he refused to cooperate against Trump or any other individual. And prosecutors granted immunity to McConney by compelling him to testify in a state grand jury, though his testimony didn’t hurt Trump badly enough to result in an indictment. The Manhattan DA, left without an effective insider witness who could directly tie the organization’s frauds to Trump himself, ultimately declined to indict him; the state attorney general eventually filed a civil lawsuit alleging fraud, but no criminal charges.
Cohen’s saga nicely illustrates the implicit bargain. “Donald would never part with a dollar from his own pocket. He’d pay for lawyers using campaign money, Trump Organization money, insurance,” Cohen told me in an interview for this book. “It was the ultimate piggybank.” Cohen further described Trump’s methodology for keeping his confidants beholden to him: “He’d always be a step or two behind on payments. Miss the payment for the first month, then make a partial payment in the second month,” Cohen explained. “Before you know it, you’re so deep in legal fees that you can’t stop and you need his money to get out of the hole.”
That financial pressure to rely on Trump’s largesse had the practical effect of preventing people from cooperating, lest they lose Trump’s financial backing and meet a fate like Cohen’s. When the Mueller investigation began—and before Cohen gave any public indication that he might flip—Trump used campaign funds and Trump Organization money to pay over $1.7 million for Cohen’s attorney fees. But when the FBI executed a search warrant on Cohen’s office and home in April 2018, it suddenly seemed that he might get arrested—the ultimate incentive to flip.
At first Trump tried the sweet-talk approach. He called Cohen a “good person” and a “great guy” on Fox News, and he tweeted that Cohen was “a fine person with a wonderful family . . . who I have always liked and respected,” adding that he did not think Cohen would flip (wink, wink). Less visible to the public in the immediate aftermath of the search warrant, but perhaps more resonant, Trump also made a payment of over $48,000 to Cohen’s legal team.
Cohen eventually did provide information about Trump to prosecutors and Congress, of course. Trump quickly turned against him, and the money dried up. In an effort to recoup some of his attorney fees, Cohen sued the Trump Organization for $1.9 million in outstanding legal costs that he claimed he was owed as a former employee, alleging that Trump cut him off because he cooperated, in violation of the Trump Organization’s original contractual promise to cover his legal fees. But a New York state judge dismissed Cohen’s lawsuit in November 2021, and Cohen was stuck with his own massive legal bill.
Only the wealthiest and most powerful people can reach the level of the mob boss, or Trump, who can pay not only for his own legal team but also for lawyers to represent other people who need to be kept in line. While Cohen managed to break away, he did so only at great financial and personal cost. And very few people have the independent financial means and the straight-up chutzpah of a Michael Cohen, making it difficult or impossible to cut the financial leash and cooperate against the boss.
Trump similarly used the power of the purse strings to selectively pay for counsel for potential witnesses in the House of Representatives’ January 6 Select Committee’s probe.
American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp confirmed to CNN in January 2022 that his organization had raised “over seven figures” from donors, and that he was “in communication with [Trump’s] team” about who would receive assistance from this pot of money to pay for legal fees. Trump reportedly was “more than aware of this fund,” and encouraged people to make use of it.
Schlapp openly admitted—bragged, even—that the money was reserved for those who stonewalled the committee. “We are certainly not going to assist anyone who agrees with the mission of the committee and is aiding and abetting the committee,” he told CNN. The deal was right out in the open: Trump might authorize payment for your attorneys, but only if you keep quiet.
The committee’s probe hit its stride during the summer of 2022, when it held a series of public hearings that revealed explosive evidence of the effort by Trump and other powerful players to steal the 2020 presidential election. In June 2022, over 13 million people watched on television as Cassidy Hutchinson, a former Trump White House aide, testified that Trump knew that some people in the crowd at the rally held immediately before the January 6 Capitol attack were armed, that Trump nonetheless directed that mob to the US Capitol, and that Trump wanted desperately to accompany them there.
Hutchinson also testified that her former boss, White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, and Trump’s personal attorney Rudy Giuliani had sought presidential pardons. Among those in the television-viewing audience were Justice Department prosecutors who, seemingly beaten to the punch by the committee, were “astonished” at Hutchinson’s revelations, according to the New York Times.
Hutchinson emerged as a star witness for the committee only after she shook loose from her original attorney, Stefan Passantino, a former Trump White House ethics advisor who had been selected and paid for by Trump’s political action committee. Hutchinson testified before the committee, behind closed doors, three times while Passantino was representing her.
But only after she fired Passantino and retained independent counsel of her own choosing, former federal prosecutor Jody Hunt, did she come forward with additional damning information and agree to testify publicly. The committee, seemingly wary of losing Hutchinson to the sway of Trump-world attorneys again, on June 27 called an emergency hearing—despite having previously declared a two-week recess—to have her testify the next afternoon.
Hutchinson was not the only witness who received legal counsel originally paid for by Trump and his allies. The New York Times reported that Trump’s “political organization and his allies have paid for or promised to finance the legal fees of more than a dozen witnesses called in the congressional investigation into the Jan. 6 attack, raising legal and ethical questions about whether the former president may be influencing testimony with a direct bearing on him.” The Times noted that “the episode raised questions about whether Mr. Trump and his allies may, implicitly or explicitly, be pressuring witnesses to hold back crucial information that might incriminate or cast a negative light on the former president.”
While it is not necessarily illegal for Trump, or any third party, to recommend a lawyer or to pay for another person’s legal fees, the undeniable practical reality is that this makes it more difficult for the recipient to turn against the benefactor. Hutchinson managed to break free, despite enormous financial and political pressure to the contrary. But many other potential witnesses over the years took their assigned counsel, paid for by Trump and his political organization, and either toed the party line or stayed mum altogether.
Excerpted from Untouchable: How Powerful People Get Away with It by Elie Honig. Copyright © 2023. Available from Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.