The Republican National Committee paid $121,670 in October to a law firm representing Donald Trump in an ongoing criminal investigation in New York.
Two payments to the New York firm Fischetti & Malgieri for “legal and compliance services” were included in an RNC disclosure report filed Friday with the Federal Election Commission.
“I am being paid to represent Donald Trump,” Ronald Fischetti, the head of the firm, told Bloomberg Government in an interview Monday. He said he’s representing Trump in his individual capacity, not Trump’s company.
The payments to Fischetti’s firm are likely legal under FEC precedents because they were made by a party committee. But they’re unusual for a criminal matter apparently unrelated to Trump’s campaign. The FEC has enforced rules against personal use of campaign money, including for some payments for legal fees, as a key safeguard against corruption.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has been investigating Trump and his real estate company regarding possible fraud in valuing of properties, and the office of state Attorney General Letitia James (D), who’s running for governor, has been investigating him as well.
Trump’s office didn’t immediately respond to requests for comment. Trump has said the probe is politically motivated and is being led by Democrats who want to discredit him.
“The RNC’s Executive Committee approved paying for certain legal expenses that relate to politically motivated legal proceedings waged against President Trump,” an RNC spokesperson said in a statement. “As a leader of our party, defending President Trump and his record of achievement is critical to the GOP. It is entirely appropriate for the RNC to continue assisting in fighting back against the Democrats’ never ending witch hunt and attacks on him.”
Fischetti has made his career representing alleged mobsters, politicians, and law enforcement officers. “Ron Fischetti, a highly skilled trial lawyer, has been in practice over 40 years and is considered one of the most prominent federal criminal defense lawyers in the country,” the firm’s website says. “Throughout the years, Mr. Fischetti’s client list has been a veritable who’s who of the famous and infamous.”
Fundraising appeals from Trump have provided a major boost to Republican Party committees and candidates since the former president left office. With Trump’s help, the RNC reported to the FEC that it raised $136.6 million in the first 10 months of this year. The Democratic National Committee raised slightly less, just under $133 million, despite Democrats’ control of the White House and both chambers of Congress.
If the RNC is paying for Trump’s legal costs in the Vance probe, it raises a question about compliance with FEC rules barring personal use of campaign funds, according to election law expert Brett Kappel. However, he said, the FEC ruled in 2009 in a case involving the purchase of clothing for former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin (R) that the personal use prohibition didn’t apply to funds in the RNC’s general account.
The FEC ruled this year that payments from a special RNC legal and election recount fund shouldn’t have been made to lawyers for Donald Trump Jr. in the investigation by special counsel Robert Mueller. The commission dismissed that case based on “prosecutorial discretion,” indicating the payments would have been allowed from the committee’s general account.
“It’s unusual, but not unprecedented for a national party committee to pay the legal fees of a candidate who is the subject of a criminal investigation,” Kappel of the firm Harmon Curran said in an email. “As far as I know, however, this would be the first time that a party committee has paid the legal fees of a former candidate in connection with a criminal investigation of activities that took place before the candidate ever ran for office.”
The RNC’s use of donor money to pay Trump’s personal legal bills shows why Congress needs to extend the ban on such use of campaign funds to party committees, as well as candidate committees, said Paul S. Ryan, an attorney for the nonprofit Common Cause. “Federal law should ensure that contributions to political committees like the RNC are only used for legitimate political expenses—not for personal legal bills,” he said.