Former President Donald Trump’s team has been involved in discussions about a legal defense fund created to support aides targeted by the House panel investigating January 6, sources tell CNN.
While declining to use his own war chest to cover the sky-high legal bills that some of his current and former aides are facing, Trump’s team has instead been working with American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp to determine which individuals subpoenaed by the select committee should receive help from Schlapp’s “First Amendment Fund,” which is run by the ACU’s nonprofit arm.
Schlapp told CNN that he is “in communication with [Trump’s] team” about who can and cannot take advantage of the legal fund, which he said has raised “over seven figures” from donors. While Schlapp has not yet rejected any requests, he acknowledged that there will likely come a point where he “will have to make choices on who to fund.”
One of the deciding factors could be how an individual who is seeking financial assistance views the committee.
“We are certainly not going to assist anyone who agrees with the mission of the committee and is aiding and abetting the committee,” Schlapp said. He noted that the fund withholds “the right to make decisions over whether someone gets assistance or doesn’t.”
“I am in communication with [Trump’s] team about those decisions,” he said.
Another person familiar with the situation described Trump as “more than aware of this fund,” adding that the former president has been “telling people to take advantage of the Schlapp fund.”
If current or former Trump aides have sought his help, “Susie would have said, ‘Contact Matt,’” this person said, referring to GOP campaign veteran Susie Wiles, who has become Trump’s top lieutenant in Florida. A spokesperson for the former president did not return CNN’s request for comment.
The behind-the-scenes coordination between Trump’s team and Schlapp further illustrates how the former President is helping allies navigate congressional investigators, including by connecting them to relief funds depending on the extent of their cooperation and their loyalty to him. Attorneys for the former President previously urged some of his top aides and allies not to comply with the select committee, arguing in an October letter that they were not obliged to submit records or provide testimony related to January 6 because of “executive and other privileges.”
In the letter to former White House chief strategist Steve Bannon, for example, Justin Clark, who serves as counsel to Trump, wrote that the panel’s investigation “is merely a partisan attempt to distract from the disastrous Biden administration” and that Trump “vigorously objects to the overbreadth and scope” of its requests. Clark instructed Bannon, who has since been held in contempt of Congress for refusing to cooperate with the committee’s investigation, to not provide testimony or documents to the committee.
One former White House official who testified before the committee following a November subpoena confirmed that he has not received assistance from any legal fund, including the Schlapp-backed reserve.
“I have not taken advantage of ACU, or any organization, covering any legal bills related to the January 6 House Select Committee,” said Gen. Keith Kellogg, who served as former Vice President Mike Pence’s national security adviser.
Schlapp, who would not disclose which or how many Trump officials have turned to him for help covering their legal bills, said only that “many” have made use of the First Amendment fund, which is intended to assist lower-level aides who he believes “are being squeezed to tell dirt on more senior people.”
“Our interest is in helping those who don’t have the financial resources to help themselves, especially those from the Trump administration who are from a younger generation,” Schlapp said.
Two people familiar with the matter said at least two former Trump campaign aides – Tim Unes and Maggie Mulvaney – and former White House lead advance representative Justin Caporale have been helped by the fund so far. Neither Unes nor Caporale responded to a request for comment.
Tatum Wallace, communications director for GOP Rep. Carol Miller of West Virginia, in whose office Mulvaney currently serves as a senior adviser, could not confirm whether Mulvaney has taken advantage of the First Amendment Fund.
“Maggie has been in close, constant communication with the House Ethics Committee to ensure that all House rules are strictly followed. Legal fees can be covered in certain circumstances in accordance with House rules, but I do not have additional specific details other than to reiterate everything is being done in accordance with those rules,” Wallace said in an emailed statement.
In some instances, Trump aides who have sought help from Schlapp’s fund have been referred to attorneys at the Kansas City-based law firm Graves Garrett, where former acting Attorney General Matthew Whitaker is now of counsel.
“There are lawyers that we’re partnering with from Whitaker’s firm. He’s been very generous with his time and has been a very important mentor to these younger staffers,” Schlapp said.
Neither Whitaker nor Graves Garrett responded to requests for comment.
One Trump ally who is not working with Whitaker’s firm but has sought assistance from the First Amendment Fund said the vetting process involved questions about their anticipated legal costs and the amount they would like to submit for reimbursement. This person also said their eligibility for assistance did not appear to be contingent on whether they defied the committee’s requests.
“I cooperated and that wasn’t a condition,” said the Trump ally.
Schlapp said his foundation has “a process which allows us to verify it’s a legitimate request without creat[ing] stifling bureaucracy.”
While Trump has blasted the House panel as a “witch hunt” by “Democratic hacks” and is actively working to unseat GOP Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, who serves as the top Republican on the panel, Schlapp said the First Amendment Fund is still available to individuals who have sat for committee depositions or complied with its record requests.
“We do understand that when you are young and you have your whole career ahead of you, you have to take the right steps to defend yourself and sometimes that can include having your lawyers talk to the committee,” he said.
Members on the panel have previously suggested that Trump is pressuring key witnesses to not cooperate with their investigation. A spokesperson for the select committee declined to comment for this story.
When asking House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy to voluntarily cooperate, Democratic Rep. Bennie Thompson, who chairs the committee, outlined how McCarthy’s statements about the January 6 attack have changed over time and questioned whether meeting with Trump at Mar-a-Lago last January impacted how McCarthy spoke about the riot.
“Your public statements regarding January 6th have changed markedly since you met with Trump,” Thompson said in his letter to McCarthy earlier this month. “At that meeting, or at any other time, did President Trump or his representatives discuss or suggest what you should say publicly, during the impeachment trial (if called as a witness), or in any later investigation about your conversations with him on January 6th?”
The role of Trump’s influence was also floated when former White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows went from engaging with the committee – including by turning over 6,000 pages of documents – to halting cooperation, which resulted in Meadows being held in contempt of Congress.
Thompson and Cheney insinuated that Meadows’ decision to stop cooperating coincided with his book tour. At the time of the book’s release in early December, Trump issued a statement accusing Meadows of including “fake news” in his book about the former president’s Covid-19 diagnosis while in office.
“Mark Meadows has informed the Select Committee that he does not intend to cooperate further with our investigation despite his apparent willingness to provide details about the facts and circumstances surrounding the January 6th attack, including conversations with President Trump, in the book he is now promoting and selling,” Thompson and Cheney said on December 7.
Democratic Rep. Peter Aguilar of California, another committee member, suggested to CNN last month that Meadows’ 180-degree turn was the result of Trump’s continued grip on his allies.
“Maybe his conflict was with his book tour,” Aguilar said. “I will say the only thing that really changed was the former President’s posture. According to press reports, the former President wasn’t happy with Mr. Meadows and a lot of these folks, just, you know, clearly as we saw on January 5 and 6, do whatever the former president wants.”
The committee also cited Trump’s control over his allies as the reason for GOP Rep. Jim Jordan’s recent announcement that he will not voluntarily cooperate with the panel’s investigation.
“Mr. Jordan has previously said that he would cooperate with the committee’s investigation, but it now appears that the Trump team has persuaded him to try to hide the facts and circumstances of January 6,” a select committee spokesperson told CNN earlier this month.
Trump’s reluctance to use his own personal fortune or political committees to cover some of the legal bills that former and current aides of his have accumulated is not unprecedented. CNN reported last January that Trump directed his team to stop paying Rudy Giuliani’s legal fees amid his frustration over facing a second impeachment trial. Trump, a self-declared billionaire, has also turned to the Republican National Committee for assistance with his own legal bills – much to the dismay of some GOP officials.
Federal Election Commission records show the RNC made two payments totaling $121,670 to Trump attorneys in October, which the party has said it approved because the attorney fees were related to “politically motivated legal proceedings waged against President Trump.” An RNC spokeswoman did not return multiple requests for comment.