Apr 12, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Scoop: DNC covered Biden legal bills in special counsel probe

Illustration of a donkey holding a big hundred dollar bill in its mouth

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

President Biden used campaign donations to help pay his legal bills last year during the special counsel's probe into his handling of classified documents, according to two people familiar with the matter and an Axios review of campaign finance records.

Why it matters: The payments, made through the Democratic National Committee, are at odds with the Biden campaign's recent attacks on Donald Trump for spending his campaign funds on legal fees.

Driving the news: The DNC — which has been collecting the biggest donations to Biden's re-election effort — paid more than $1.5 million to lawyers or firms representing Biden during the probe, according to the committee's financial filings.

  • In January 2023, special counsel Robert Hur began investigating Biden's handling of classified documents after papers from Biden's vice presidency were found at his office and home.
  • From July 2023 to February 2024, the DNC paid $1.05 million to Bob Bauer PLLC — the professional limited liability company for Biden's lead attorney, Bob Bauer.
  • Those payments were largely for handling the special counsel probe, including bringing on veteran lawyer David Laufman. He's a former Justice Department official who previously oversaw the politically fraught probes into Hillary Clinton's email server and Russian interference in the 2016 election.

Starting last July, the DNC increased its monthly payments to law firm Hemenway & Barnes from $15,000 to $100,000.

  • Special counsel Hur's final report, released in February, identified Jennifer Miller — who works at Hemenway & Barnes — as one of Biden's attorneys.
  • It's unclear how much of the increased payments were for Miller and her work on Biden's case, and the expanded role the firm was taking in DNC work.
  • The DNC declined to say exactly how much money it spent on legal work related to Hur's probe.
  • Hur ultimately declined to pursue charges against Biden.

Zoom in: The Biden team increasingly has attacked Trump for using campaign donations to pay for his myriad legal fights.

  • Last weekend, the Biden campaign's finance chair said on MSNBC that "every single time you give to the campaign, we're going straight to talk to voters…We are not spending money on legal bills or hawking gold sneakers," a reference to Trump.
  • A deputy campaign manager for Biden called a recent glitzy fundraiser for Trump "a handful of billionaires figuring out how to pay his legal bills."
  • Asked about Biden's use of the DNC to pay his legal bills, DNC spokesperson Alex Floyd told Axios: "There is no comparison — the DNC does not spend a single penny of grassroots donors' money on legal bills — unlike Donald Trump, who actively solicits legal fees from his supporters and has drawn down every bank account he can get his hands on, like a personal piggy bank."

Reality check: Trump almost certainly has spent many times more of his campaign money on legal fees, in response to the criminal and civil investigations into his actions on Jan. 6, an alleged sexual assault, his real estate businesses and his own handling of classified documents.

  • Trump has faced $100 million in legal bills since he left office, according to a recent tally by The New York Times.

The intrigue: After the Justice Department appointed Hur as special counsel in Biden's documents case in January 2023, Biden officials debated whether to have the DNC cover the legal costs, according to a person familiar with the matter.

  • That was after the DNC had mocked the RNC for picking up some of Trump's legal tab.
  • In 2021 when the RNC began paying some of Trump's expenses stemming from the state civil fraud probe into Trump's real estate empire, a DNC spokesperson told The New York Times: "If we were the RNC's donors, we would certainly be asking questions."

Since Trump became a presidential candidate in 2022, his legal bills have been paid from campaign donations he's diverted to the Save America PAC, which has a maximum donation limit of $5,000 — much lower than the RNC's.

  • Donations to Trump's campaign are filtered to the PAC before the RNC gets a cut.
  • Trump's campaign has told RNC members that committee funds will not go to the legal fees.

What they're saying: Through a spokesperson, Bauer declined to comment.

  • Hemenway & Barnes did not respond to requests for comment.
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