President Donald Trump’s 2020 campaign is spending unprecedented amounts of donor dollars on lawsuits and cease-and-desist orders as it wages an expensive reelection battle.
The Trump campaign has spent more than $16 million on legal and compliance services between the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, according to OpenSecrets’ analysis of campaign expenditures. That sum accounts for roughly 10 percent of the campaign’s total spending through the end of March.
No other presidential campaign has ever spent that much money on legal services, including President George Bush’s 2004 reelection campaign ($8.8 million), Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign ($6.5 million) and President Barack Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign ($5.5 million). Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has spent roughly $1.3 million on legal services this cycle.
Over the course of Trump’s presidency, his campaign has helped pay legal fees for associates caught up in high-profile lawsuits and investigations. Now the cash-rich Trump campaign is using costly litigation in an attempt to crack down on negative news coverage and attack ads aired by his political rivals as November nears.
The Trump campaign spent its biggest sum, totaling $7.9 million, with Jones Day, the law firm that retains former White House counsel Don McGahn. McGahn is at the center of a U.S. Court of Appeals case over whether Trump can block his former employee from testifying before the House.
The Trump campaign’s payments to Jones Day fell off over the last year, with some White House aides blaming that on Trump’s soured relationship with McGahn. Trump’s reelection committee has also shelled out $1.2 million to New Jersey law firm LaRocca, Hornik et al. The campaign has shifted many of its payments to Harder LLP, spending $2.9 million with the Los Angeles-based law firm led by Trump attorney Charles Harder.
Harder and the Trump campaign have used litigation as a defense mechanism against what they view as negative or misleading press. They won retractions from London’s Daily Telegraph and MSNBC last year over misleading news coverage. The Trump campaign in February sued The New York Times for libel over an opinion piece that alleged a “quid pro quo” between Russian government officials and Trump’s 2016 campaign. It sued The Washington Post for libel a few days later over opinion pieces that alleged Trump campaign coordination with Russia.
The Trump campaign has also used its legal team to go after individuals making unofficial pro-Trump merchandise and rogue PACs that pledge to support the president’s reelection bid. These companies and political groups are harming the Trump campaign’s bottom line by siphoning off potential donations from Trump supporters. Trump’s massive fundraising edge over Biden is lessening, with both candidates reporting raising around $60 million for their campaigns and party committees in April.
The campaign is now leveraging its extensive legal budget in an attempt to remove anti-Trump political ads from the airwaves and intimidate news outlets airing those ads with costly lawsuits. The Trump campaign recently sued a Wisconsin TV station for airing an ad from Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, arguing that it misrepresents the president’s statements on the coronavirus outbreak. The TV station asked the court to dismiss the lawsuit, calling it “speech-chilling litigation.”
While the Trump campaign is filing defamation lawsuits now, it previously invoked free speech to defend itself in several cases, including a defamation lawsuit from adult film actress Stormy Daniels and a lawsuit from donors to the Democratic National Committee.
The Trump campaign is looking at the possibility of further legal battles in the near future. CNN recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to the Trump campaign over a TV ad that the network says deceptively uses CNN footage to mislead viewers. And the committee still owes at least $1.8 million to cities that hosted Trump campaign rallies. The largest bill, over $569,000, is owed to the city of El Paso, Texas, which is threatening to sue the Trump campaign.
Although none spent as much as Trump, other presidential campaigns have had their own legal battles, In 2012, President Barack Obama’s reelection campaign sued Ohio over a law that restricted in-person voting. Obama’s 2008 campaign had some legal issues, including settling a copyright dispute with the Associated Press over the campaign’s iconic “Hope” poster. It also paid a $375,000 fine from the Federal Election Commission for failing to disclose some of its donors.
The Supreme Court will hear two crucial cases regarding presidential powers this week unrelated to the Trump campaign. The high court will weigh in on whether Trump can block prosecutors and congressional committees from subpoenaing his personal financial records.
Researcher Andrew Mayersohn contributed to this report.