WASHINGTON – President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign this year has been paying the Beverly Hills lawyer handling his lawsuit against an adult film actress – complicating his supporters’ claims that the original $130,000 payment to Stormy Daniels had nothing do with the 2016 election.
The campaign paid Charles Harder’s firm $25,000 on Jan. 4, and then $68,181.25 on Feb. 22, according to the campaign’s quarterly filing Sunday with the Federal Election Commission.
It is unclear how much of that, if any, is related to Trump’s continued efforts to keep Daniels, whose real name is Stephanie Clifford, from discussing the affair she said they had in 2006. Neither Harder nor the Trump campaign responded to several requests for comment.
One Republican close to Trump said he can understand the logic of treating the original nondisclosure agreement Clifford signed one way and the efforts to enforce it the opposite way.
“I can see as how they could construe it as a re-election issue. And I can see how they would construe the NDA as not an election issue,” he said on the condition of anonymity. “But I’m not so sanguine about the believability of that.”
Paul Ryan, a lawyer for the group Common Cause, which has filed complaints against Trump and his campaign with the FEC and the Department of Justice, said the payments could have been for other work Harder has done for Trump, including an attempt to stop the publication of the book “Fire and Fury,” an unflattering portrait of the first year of Trump’s presidency.
Harder also represented Trump’s wife, Melania, in defamation lawsuits against a British tabloid and a Maryland blogger who published stories alleging that she had once been an escort. Those cases, though, were settled in Melania Trump’s favor in early 2017 – meaning it’s unlikely that Harder was still collecting bills for them a year later, Ryan said.
He said campaigns are prohibited from spending money that benefits a candidate personally, but that expenses that would not exist if the person were not a candidate or officeholder are generally allowable.
Paying a lawyer to block the release of an embarrassing book would likely be permitted under that standard, Ryan said.
As to the situation with Clifford, Ryan said he could also envision a scenario where continuing litigation against her is considered campaign-related even if the original payment to buy her silence is not.
“At the end of the day, we don’t know,” he said. “Who knows what this guy was doing for them?”
Michael Avenatti, Clifford’s lawyer who has accused Trump and his attorney Michael Cohen of violating campaign finance law with the $130,000 “hush agreement” just days before the election, said he did not want to speculate about the Trump campaign’s payments to Harder.
“It is too early to jump to conclusions as to the purpose of those payments,” he said. “They may well relate to a legal matter other than Ms. Clifford.”
Ryan said it was puzzling why someone who boasts about his wealth as frequently as Trump does would invite such questions by not simply paying Harder himself. “At the 35,000 foot-level, it’s a question of optics, of perceptions,” he said.
The Republican close to Trump, though, had a simple explanation. “He’s fundamentally cheap,” he said of Trump. “It could be that.”