© 2024 Allbritton Journalism Institute

Donald Trump’s Co-Defendants Are Buried in Legal Fees. Trump Is Not Helping.

Georgia’s state Republican Party is helping out Trump’s co-defendants, using finite resources on legal defense instead of campaigns.

Rudilph Giuliani, John Eastman
John Eastman, the former law professor who allegedly helped Donald Trump try to overturn the 2020 election results, seen here standing beside Rudy Giuliani, said that he needed to raise $1 million by February to continue mounting his defense in Georgia. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

As Donald Trump and his campaign spend millions to try and win back the White House, some of his staunchest supporters are selling off property and pleading for money on the internet to defend themselves against charges that they broke the law to help him the last time he ran.

Republican Georgia state Sen. Shawn Still, charged in the sweeping racketeering and conspiracy case in Georgia, sold property to cover his legal expenses, according to two people who know him. Still sold a commercial warehouse he owned for $1.9 million in November, according to local property records. He has kept his seat in the legislature — and owns a pool construction business and an outdoor adventure company offering guided whitewater rafting trips on the side — but the costs of being a named co-conspirator alongside Trump are apparently adding up.

John Eastman, the former law professor who allegedly helped Trump try to overturn the 2020 election results, said that he needed to raise $1 million by February to continue mounting his defense in Georgia — an effort he estimated would cost him as much as $3.5 million in total. Eastman is simultaneously a defendant in the Georgia racketeering case, an unindicted co-conspirator in one of the federal cases brought by special counsel Jack Smith, and the subject of an ethics complaint before the California state bar about his actions in 2020.

“I’m trying very hard not to completely deplete my wife’s retirement fund,” Eastman said recently on the podcast “Happy Hour with Julie & Liz”. His lawyer told NOTUS that he had received no assistance from the legal defense fund set up by Trump. Still did not respond to a request for comment.

Still and Eastman are just two of the many co-defendants and potential witnesses in Trump’s legal cases struggling to pay their legal bills. Their reality isn’t just a personal difficulty. It’s also a liability for Trump and his legal team, as they hope to keep as many associates as possible away from plea deals or cooperation agreements that could ricochet incriminating testimony or evidence back onto the former president.

Trump and his chief allies, however, are so far not stepping in with cash, leaving that burden to others. In some cases, defendants have turned to small-dollar fundraising of their own to try to pay their lawyers. And in Georgia, it’s the state Republican party that is bearing the brunt of costs — using funds on legal defense that could otherwise be put towards competitive races.

Sidney Powell, Jenna Ellis, Rudy Giuliani AP-20324803065707
Trump’s former lawyer Jenna Ellis, who was indicted alongside him in Georgia, raised a substantial sum of money on GiveSendGo. Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Aides close to Trump launched the Patriot Legal Defense Fund last summer with the explicit promise of helping people like Still and Eastman. The fund was described to The New York Times in July as an effort to help witnesses and defendants with their legal bills. Aides said it would not pay Trump’s legal bills which so far have been covered by the Save America leadership PAC, which current Trump campaign advisor Susie Wiles runs and is funded mostly by small donors.

The Patriot Legal Defense Fund, run by 2020 campaign aide Michael Glassner and Wiles, spent $28,578 during its first five months, according to a recent financial disclosure. But so far the majority of that spending went to Trump’s Mar-a-Lago Club, listed as a “banquet venue” on the disclosure form. The fund hadn’t made payments to cover legal bills as of its December report. Rather than tapping Trump’s grassroots donor base, the fund has drawn donations from several wealthy donors including $1 million from a trust affiliated with Caryn and Michael Borland, who drew press scrutiny during the 2020 election after sharing QAnon conspiracy theories online.

In Georgia, where embattled Fulton County DA Fani Willis has charged 18 people including Trump with engaging in a racketeering ring and struck deals with others, the state party has been picking up the bill for some of the defendants, even hosting a fundraiser for them last fall.

The party has paid more than $700,000 to law firms helping alleged fake electors, including Still, who represents a district on the outskirts of metro Atlanta, and Cathy Latham, the former GOP chair of Coffee County. Georgia Republicans have also paid $404,438 to the firm representing former state party chair David Shafer.

Operatives and insiders in the state are growing increasingly worried that these legal woes may begin to impact Republicans’ competitiveness and operations in a critical 2024 battleground —even as Democrats privately fret that President Joe Biden may have a difficult time winning the state.

“They know every dollar we have to spend on legal fees is a dollar we can’t spend supporting a Republican candidate for election,” said Brian Pritchard, first vice chair of the Georgia GOP. “And that is a political strategy.”

“It would absolutely be great if President Trump could put monetary resources to help defend these three,” said Pritchard, referring to the trio of Georgians who agreed to serve as alternative electors and were later charged as part of the conspiracy.

“But, you know, I have to acknowledge his legal bills are in the millions,” Pritchard said.

That’s where the Patriot Legal Defense Fund was supposed to step in. A website that purportedly belonged to the fund sold cups, T-shirts and stickers with Trump’s mug shot on them for a time last year. It eventually stopped selling merchandise and simply linked to the former president’s 2024 campaign page, and later disappeared entirely.

The Trump campaign did not respond to questions about the legal defense fund, or about the former president’s approach to paying legal bills for defendants in the 2020 election fraud-related cases. Trump allies set the fund up as a tax-exempt 527 advocacy organization, which gives it significant flexibility in how it raises and doles out money. The fund is allowed to raise unlimited amounts from donors, and the registration form lists the organization’s stated purpose as raising funds for legal defense, “and to engage in any lawful act or activity” allowed under Virginia and federal laws.

“It leaves the door open to do more than defray legal expenses,” said Shanna Ports, senior legal counsel at the nonprofit Campaign Legal Center.

Without help from the president, some lesser-known defendants have taken to crowdsourcing their own contributors — with decidedly mixed results. People with a capacity to leverage social media or high-profile interviews on podcasts or television have managed to raise six-figure legal defense funds, while others languish in obscurity.

Harrison Floyd, the brash and outspoken former leader of Black Voices for Trump, has raised more than $340,000 on the platform GiveSendGo, a Christian-themed website like GoFundMe. Eastman has raised more than $600,000 on the platform — though he said that covers only about a third of his overall legal bills so far. Trump’s former lawyer Jenna Ellis, who was indicted alongside him in Georgia, raised a substantial sum of money on GiveSendGo — taking in more than $200,000. But ultimately, her lawyers wrote that “legal fees and costs significantly exceeded the amount raised by the fund.”

On the other end of the spectrum, Trevian Kutti, a publicist who once worked for Kanye West, has raised less than $2,000, falling far short of her stated goal on GiveSendGo of $250,000. Kutti is also selling sweatshirts with her mug shot on them on her personal website.

Misty Hampton, a little-known former elections supervisor in a rural Georgia county and a single mother of two, has raised just $7,500 on the platform. And Stephen Lee, a pastor, made an in-person appearance at a fundraising event for the Georgia defendants in November — but raised about $15,000 for his defense through GiveSendGo as of late last year. His lawyer said that they had not received any overt support from the Trump legal defense fund, but noted that Lee’s GiveSendGo page did permit anonymous donations.

Floyd, Kutti and Lee are all accused of trying to persuade a Georgia poll worker to falsely confess she had rigged the 2020 election. Hampton, while an elections officer in Coffee County, allegedly let Trump allies into her office to tamper with electronic voting machines.

Trump Investigations Eastman
Eastman is a defendant in the Georgia racketeering case, an unindicted co-conspirator in one of the federal cases brought by special counsel Jack Smith, and the subject of an ethics complaint before the California state bar. Jae C. Hong/AP

Trump’s reelection apparatus, including PACs tied to the former president, has spent over $20 million on legal bills between January and October 2023, according to financial disclosures. While some of the funds may be going to law firms helping the campaign operate, records indicate that significant money is going to firms helping defend Trump against the array of legal proceedings against him. Trump’s leadership PAC has paid close to $6 million to firms with lawyers who represent the former president.

Trump’s PAC paid an additional $1 million to the firm of Reid Figel and Michael Kellogg, who previously represented Ivanka Trump in the New York civil fraud suit.

Trump has a spotty history of paying for aides’ legal bills — though he has at times been willing to allow political organizations under his control chip in for aides and associates. At least one of Trump’s co-defendants in the Mar-a-Lago classified documents case, Walt Nauta, has been receiving payments from two political organizations close to Trump. In addition, Trump’s PAC has paid the law firm of Stanley Woodward, Nauta’s lawyer, $375,793 since 2020, according to federal disclosures. Woodward represented several people whose testimony is being sought by prosecutors in the trial while also representing Nauta. Last summer, Texas Republican Rep. Ronny Jackson, who Oath Keepers said they believed needed “protection” in the Capitol on Jan. 6, according to court records, paid Woodward’s firm $13,000 as a legal retainer.

The arrangement created a major conflict of interest for Nauta, who nonetheless said in a court hearing in October he wanted to retain Woodward as a lawyer.

Trump’s co-defendants’ mounting legal fees could ultimately come back to haunt the former president. Ellis ultimately took a plea deal on a charge of aiding and abetting false statements and writings in exchange for a more serious racketeering charge being dropped. And as the financial pressure grows on other defendants, they too might begin to consider plea deals or cooperation agreements in place of racking up more legal bills, potentially for years.

“Prosecutors have an enormous amount of leverage over defendants because of the very high costs of criminal defense, and accordingly, defendants often have an incentive to plead guilty even if they have a reasonable chance to prevail at trial,” said Renato Mariotti, a former federal prosecutor and now a defense attorney at Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner.

“If you’re a defendant in a case and you have the means to pay for the legal defense of other individuals who might otherwise have an incentive to flip and testify against you, it is in your interest to do so,” said Mariotti.

Ben T.N. Mause is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow. Maggie Severns and Byron Tau are reporters at NOTUS.