As Donald Trump fights off four criminal indictments and a host of other costly civil cases, his political money machine is once again footing the bill for his lawyers. But in a new filing with the Federal Election Committee this week, one particular line item stuck out: payments to private investigators.
Using private investigators—or, more broadly, the research work they do—is standard fare on a political campaign. Candidates want to dig up dirt on their enemies, and they want to know their own vulnerabilities. But Trump wasn’t looking into himself or his political enemies. In fact, Trump wasn’t doing anything explicitly political.
He was looking into the actions of his own lawyers.
According to a source familiar with the situation, the private investigators were commissioned to look into missteps by Trump’s legal team in the early stages of his rape defamation case against E. Jean Carroll.
Specifically, this source said, the private eye looked into who Trump’s lawyers had interviewed—and who they hadn’t.
In the last six months of 2023, Trump’s Save America PAC paid $238,100 to CTS Research, a private investigation firm in Brooklyn staffed by two former cops from the New York Police Department, former NYPD captain Sean Crowley and undercover cop Craig Taylor. The firm had previously received $152,285 from Save America earlier in the year, as CBS reported in August.
What’s been unknown until now is what exactly Crowley and Craig’s firm was snooping around on. According to the person familiar with the matter, the private detective discovered that an early iteration of Trump’s legal team failed to interview several witnesses in the Carroll case—something that should have been a basic step in defending the former president. But the private investigator expense is an extraordinarily unusual one to place on a PAC.
At this point, it’s clear prosecutors aren’t the only ones causing Trump’s legal headaches; his own lawyers, and his suspicions of ineptitude, seem to be in his head too.
Save America alone spent $24.8 million on lawyers and lawsuits in the second half of 2023, according to the latest FEC filing released this week. But many of the 166 line items were logged for cases that aren’t remotely related to the official job he did at the White House or his current run for president.
Some of the money went toward the two rape defamation cases Trump lost against Carroll, who emerged victorious when one jury concluded she had indeed been sexually assaulted by the real estate tycoon and a second jury recently awarded her $83 million in additional damages for his unrelenting lies about the encounter.
FEC filings show that Trump’s loyal donors are also funding his personal vendetta against former presidential challenger Hillary Clinton—an ill-fated and poorly written lawsuit that blew up in his face.
Trump, who’s still bitter about the way the Clinton campaign breathed life into the scandal tying Trump to Russia, filed a conspiracy-laden lawsuit that pissed off a federal judge enough to result in sanctions worth $937,989. That punishment was aimed directly at Trump and his lawyer in that case, Alina Habba.
But Trump just can’t let go of the case. In the latter half of last year, Save America spent $134,850 on Richard Klugh, the Florida attorney handling an appeal of the federal judge’s scathing order. Another $191,000 went to Jesse Binnall, a separate lawyer who is helping revive that vengeance crusade and is also defending Trump from a host of lawsuits seeking to hold him accountable for the Jan. 6 insurrection.
Then there’s Trump’s short-lived revenge lawsuit in Florida against his one-time consigliere, Michael Cohen. Trump is clearly angry that his former lawyer has morphed into a witness tapped by the Manhattan District Attorney, the New York Attorney General, and even anti-Trump protesters who were beat up outside Trump Tower. But it was Trump’s Save America donors that got stuck with paying $174,578 to Coral Gables lawyer Alejandro Brito. (Brito ended up dropping the case against Cohen last fall.)
Trump’s insistence on funneling political donations to cover his own legal bills has drawn relentless criticism from government watchdogs and campaign finance reform advocates. Many experts consider the maneuver a plain violation of basic ethics, as political fundraising is meant to be spent on actual politicking, not settling old scores and countering criminal charges.
But Trump, whose disdain for common decency and the law has become his calling card, continues to plow through PAC and super PAC loopholes and dare the FEC to act.
It’s not exactly much of a dare. As of last November, the FEC’s three Republican commissioners have blocked action on all 58 Trump-related matters that have ever come before the agency. That includes 28 instances where the FEC’s own nonpartisan Office of General Counsel suggested there had been a violation.
Still, the loose rules on PACs and Super PACs likely mean Trump will have no problem paying for his lawyers with donor money.
“Those two entities are not subject to personal use rules,” said Daniel Weiner, a former FEC lawyer who examines political spending at the Brennan Center for Justice. “There’s nothing, for instance, that would prevent someone using those entities to buy a Ferrari. There’s a giant loophole.”
Erin Chlopak, another former FEC lawyer who now works at the Campaign Legal Center, called out Trump for exploiting this loophole brazenly.
“There are decades of examples of candidates exploiting the lax rules around leadership PACs, as CLC has extensively documented, including using funds for personal vacations, Disney World and event tickets, five-star resorts, and more. Former President Trump has joined in this parade by using funds from his leadership PAC to pay for extensive personal legal expenses,” she said in a statement to The Daily Beast.
However, the legal bills mentioned above are dwarfed by the colossal sum that Trump spent on trying to shield his private business interests from the New York Attorney General, whose lawsuit is all but guaranteed to cost him hundreds of millions of dollars and potentially destroy his fabled real estate empire. MAGA donors footed the bill that Trump and two of his sons, Don Jr. and Eric, amassed at the three-month bank fraud trial that just wrapped up.
In the second half of last year, which included that trial in New York state court, Save America spent $13.7 million on lawyers who were involved in that battle against the AG—most of whom were later sanctioned by the judge for inappropriate behavior.
The biggest chunk of that was $4.9 million scored by the firm of former Florida solicitor general Christopher Kise, who played the role of Trump’s lead attorney in court. Another $3.9 million went to Clifford Robert, who represented the Trump sons. And a surprising $1.3 million was routed to the Troutman Pepper law firm, which defended Ivanka Trump and managed to pull her from the lawsuit.
The PAC also spent $75,000 on Armen Morian, who guided the legal team as a former member of the very law enforcement office they were facing off against.
But the bank fraud trial had a host of extraneous expenses too that quickly ballooned the total cost of the trial. Trump’s political donors covered the $888,000 it took to hire Eli Bartov, an accounting professor whose bewildering testimony was completely disregarded by the judge, as well as the $302,000 that went to HaystackID, a computer forensics company the Trumps had to hire when they were reprimanded for not turning over evidence in a timely fashion. Donors also got stuck paying $68,000 to fund the three Florida lawyers at Weber, Crabb and Wein who engaged in a misadventure that tried to distract the AG by suing her.
Because Trump tends to use the same lawyers in several different cases, it’s difficult to tell how much each case actually cost. A prime example is New Jersey attorney Alina Habba and her law partner Michael Madaio, whose firm was paid $2.3 million in donor funds during this stretch while it simultaneously represented Trump at his rape defamation and bank fraud trials.
Costs are also skyrocketing for Trump—or rather, his donors—as he fights off Department of Justice Special Counsel Jack Smith and local DAs in Atlanta and New York.
The Save America PAC handed nearly $2 million to Todd Blanche alone. The former federal prosecutor is simultaneously defending Trump from the Manhattan DA in the case that accuses the tycoon of faking business records to cover up his affair with the porn star Stormy Daniels in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election—and also from the DOJ over the former president’s 2020 coup attempt in D.C. and the extensive and unauthorized collection of classified records that he kept at his oceanside Florida estate of Mar-a-Lago.
In the Manhattan DA fight, Blanche is working alongside New York lawyers Susan R. Necheles and Gedalia Stern, whose firm got $485,000, and Steven Yurowitz, who netted $210,000.
As for Trump’s D.C. case, the Save America PAC delivered $2.5 million to John F. Lauro, yet another ex-fed on the team. And $289,000 went to D. John Sauer, who recently argued in that case that Trump should be granted nearly limitless power and immunity—even if he ordered a Navy SEAL Team to assassinate a political rival.
FEC filings also showed that Save America continued to cover the costs to defense lawyers who’ve dropped off the radar as the criminal prosecutions have intensified. Evan Corcoran, who bowed out of the Mar-a-Lago case but sources say continues to advise Trump’s legal team on the D.C. case, received $444,000 for his law firm in the second half of last year. His close companions John Rowley and Jim Trusty, who both quit the team last summer, got $174,000 and $3,000 respectively as they essentially closed out their accounts.
Meanwhile, costs are also ticking upward in the case that threatens to imprison Trump for trying to overturn Georgia’s 2020 election—one that carries state criminal charges he could never avoid by getting re-elected and simply pardoning himself.
Rap celebrity lawyer Drew Findling made off with $648,000 before he quit the team on the eve of Trump’s surrender at the Fulton County jail last summer. Fellow defense lawyer Brandon A. Bullard got $108,000. Steven H. Sadow has received $1.5 million for sticking around.
The lowest single legal expense taken on by Trump donors seems to be the $7,500 it cost him to hire a bail bondsman in Atlanta on Aug. 24, 2023, a day that will be forever remembered as the first time an American president was booked at a county jail—and the first time political donors were stuck footing the bill.
The Daily Beast