A pair of payments the Republican National Committee made to a law firm representing former President Donald Trump is raising questions among former and current GOP officials about the party's priorities in a critical election year and its ability to remain neutral -- as long-standing RNC rules require -- in the 2024 presidential primary.
The separate payments to Fischetti and Malgieri LLP totalling $121,670, listed in the committee's latest filing to the Federal Election Commission, were first reported on Monday. Ronald Fischetti, a partner at the New York-based firm, was hired by the Trump Organization in April amid ongoing investigations into the real estate company's financial practices by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and state Attorney General Letitia James.
A spokesperson for the RNC said the party's executive committee recently "approved paying for certain legal expenses that relate to politically motivated legal proceedings waged against President Trump," and defended the payments as "entirely appropriate" as the party "continue[s] assisting in fighting back against the Democrats' never ending witch hunt and attacks on [Trump]."
However, some RNC members and donors accused the party of running afoul of its own neutrality rules and misplacing its priorities. Some of these same officials who spoke to CNN also questioned why the party would foot the legal bills of a self-professed billionaire who was sitting on a $102 million war chest as recently as July and has previously used his various political committees to cover legal costs. According to FEC filings from August, the former President's Make America Great Again committee has paid Jones Day more than $37,000 since the beginning of the year, while his Make America Great Again super PAC has paid a combined $7.8 million to attorneys handling his lawsuits related to the 2020 election.
"This is not normal. Nothing about this is normal, especially since he's not only a former President but a billionaire," said a former top RNC official.
"What does any of this have to do with assisting Republicans in 2022 or preparing for the 2024 primary?" the official added.
Bill Palatucci, a national committeeman from New Jersey, said the fact that the RNC made the payments to Trump's attorneys in October was particularly frustrating given his own plea to party officials that same month for additional resources as the New Jersey GOP sought to push Republican Jack Ciattarelli over the finish line in his challenge to incumbent Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy.
"We sure as heck could have used $121,000," Palatucci told CNN.
Though Murphy narrowly defeated Ciattarelli to win reelection, the unexpectedly tight race in a state that President Joe Biden carried by 15 percentage points in 2020 left Democrats reeling over what it could mean for their party next fall.
"We were in the middle of hand-to-hand combat trying to win and those resources could have helped here. It just speaks for itself of what the priorities were," Palatucci added.
Another former RNC official, who requested anonymity to speak candidly, said the RNC's decision to foot Trump's legal bills represents "the big conundrum" top party officials face as they try to avoid putting their thumbs on the scale ahead of the 2024 GOP presidential primary, in which Trump continues to tease his potential candidacy, while maintaining a record-breaking fundraising pace with the former President's assistance.
"Trump helps them raise boatloads of money but he's also likely to be a candidate for president and it's only going to become more difficult for them to keep a distance," the official said, while also questioning why the RNC is "having to pay for this when you have these super PACs taking in unlimited money for Trump."
A third RNC official described the relationship between Trump and the national party as "a hostage situation," claiming that Trump could devastate the GOP if he decided to leave the party or encouraged his supporters to stop contributing to it at any point, including if the RNC no longer agrees to cover portions of his legal bills.
"They can't disentangle themselves from him because they need him," this person said.
The RNC did not respond to a request for further comment.
As recently as last week, RNC Chairwoman Ronna McDaniel cited the party's bylaws regarding neutrality while dodging questions about Trump's 2024 ambitions.
"I know you guys love jumping to 2024. I'm just not going to go there. The bylaws of the party are you have to stay neutral," McDaniel told reporters at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.
One of the former RNC officials who spoke to CNN said that while they didn't think the party was flouting its neutrality rules by covering Trump's legal fees right now, it is likely to present issues for the committee later on.
"There are no candidacies yet, so it's not really running afoul of that, but it sends a signal that it's going to at some point," the official said.
Questions of whether the party organization could truly be considered neutral toward Trump if he runs again in 2024 -- which his advisers say is increasingly likely -- have existed since he left office. Not three months after the former President decamped to Palm Beach, Florida, in January, the RNC held part of its annual spring donor retreat at Mar-a-Lago -- a move that included paying the beachside club to use its facilities and cater the event. Around the same time, the party dismissed a cease-and-desist letter from Trump's team demanding that the GOP stop using his name in its fundraising appeals.
The October payments to Trump's attorneys are also not the first time the RNC has covered personal legal bills for the former President or his associates. In 2017, CNN reported that the committee had spent more than $230,000 to cover some of the then-President's legal fees related to the special counsel investigation into Russian election interference. The party also covered nearly $200,000 in legal defense fees for Donald Trump Jr., who became embroiled in the probe over a meeting he took during the 2016 presidential campaign with an attorney he believed would provide damaging information about his father's opponent, then-Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.
In both instances, it remains unclear if RNC donors were made aware ahead of time that their contributions could be used to subsidize the Trump family's legal fees -- a question the Democratic National Committee seized on Tuesday.
"Ronna McDaniel and the Republican National Committee are using their donors' money to finance Trump's personal legal defense while he sits on hundreds of millions of his own money as well as campaign funds," DNC spokesperson Adonna Biel said in a statement. "If we were the RNC's donors, we would certainly be asking questions."
Trump has not been charged in either investigation into his business dealings in New York. However, longtime Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg was indicted by a grand jury in July on 15 state counts related to an alleged tax evasion scheme lasting over a decade.
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