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Politics

GOP Funds Donald Trump’s Defense in Russia Probe With Help From a Handful of Wealthy People



Donald Trump’s attorneys in the probe of Russian election interference are being funded in part through a Republican Party account with a handful of wealthy donors—including a billionaire investor, a property developer seeking U.S. government visas and a Ukrainian-born American who has made billions of dollars doing business with Russian oligarchs.



President Donald Trump’s attorneys in the probe of Russian election interference are being funded in part through a Republican Party account with a handful of wealthy donors—including a billionaire investor, a property developer seeking U.S. government visas and a Ukrainian-born American who has made billions of dollars doing business with Russian oligarchs.

The Republican National Committee, through an account typically used for its own legal bills, paid more than $300,000 last month to help cover Mr. Trump’s private legal fees, according to filings with the Federal Election Commission.

The fund has also paid another nearly $200,000 to lawyers for the president’s eldest son, Donald Trump Jr., according to a person familiar with the payments. Those expenditures will be disclosed in the RNC’s September report, the person said.

The RNC legal fund in August raised about $280,000, according to FEC filings. The previous month, that fundraised more than $700,000. Mr. Trump’s re-election campaign has also contributed to the president’s personal legal expenses.

U.S. investigators are looking into contacts between several current and former associates of Donald Trump and Russian individuals—some with direct ties to the Russian government or state-owned entities. WSJ’s Niki Blasina provides a who’s who of the Russians at the center of the investigations.

In past administrations, private legal fees have taken a significant toll on the first family’s personal finances. When former President Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton left the White House in 2001, Mrs. Clinton’s financial disclosure showed they owed lawyers between $2.3 million and $10.6 million after years of scrutiny by Congress and independent counsel Ken Starr.

Vice President Mike Pence, meanwhile, has opted not to have the campaign or the RNC pay for his private legal representation in the Russia probe, which he hired in June, nor is he having a leadership political-action committee for which he raises money foot the bill.

The RNC and campaign’s payment arrangement for Mr. Trump’s lawyers is legal. But ethics experts cautioned that Mr. Trump’s decision to rely on party and campaign accounts to pay for his attorney fees can raise thorny political issues.

“Big-dollar special interest fundraising to pay the president’s legal bills most certainly raises the threat of corruption,” said Paul Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the nonpartisan transparency advocacy group Common Cause. “Lots of donors to the RNC are looking for access and influence. A big check for the president’s legal bills is one more way to do it.”

Alternatively, some donors could be turned off by the notion of their dollars going to the president’s lawyers, rather than helping fund election recounts and other legal costs for the party. “One of the potential impacts is that it could harden some donors against wanting to give additional dollars,” said Kevin Madden, a longtime Republican strategist who advised former presidential candidate Mitt Romney in 2008.

The RNC has sought to reassure contributors that the legal payments aren’t draining its campaign accounts. The lawyers “have been paid with funds from a pre-existing legal-proceedings account and do not reduce by a dime the resources we can put toward our political work,” said RNC spokeswoman Cassie Smedile.

Many of the RNC legal fund’s donors are longtime party backers, some of whom supported Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign.

Richard Uihlein, a Wisconsin shipping magnate, and his wife, Elizabeth, together gave more than $200,000 to the legal fund last month, according to FEC filings.

Billionaire investor Charles Schwab gave more than $100,000 in July, as did former Home Depot Chief Executive Bernard Marcus and his wife, Wilma. Billionaire Robert Mercer, a top Trump donor; casino owner and longtime Trump friend Phil Ruffin; and a political-action committee funded by Comcast Corp. also have given to the fund, filings show.

Asked whether he was aware that his funds could be used to pay Mr. Trump’s legal bills, Mr. Ruffin said through a spokesman, “It’s no problem. I defer that decision to the RNC.”

The rest of those contributors didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Other donors to the fund have previously backed Republicans but didn’t support Mr. Trump’s campaign.

Investor Richard Kayne and his wife, real-estate agent Suzanne Kayne, each gave about $100,000 to the fund in July, according to FEC records. During the campaign, they supported several of Mr. Trump’s competitors—including Republican Jeb Bush and Democrat Hillary Clinton—but not Mr. Trump. The Kaynes didn’t immediately return a request for comment.

In June, New York-based donor Lianbo Wang donated $329,500 to a joint fund between Mr. Trump’s campaign and the RNC. About $86,000 of that was diverted to the RNC’s legal fund in August, according to FEC filings. Mr. Wang is a board member of a project to build a “new high-end education community,” called Thompson Education Center, in upstate New York.

The initial version of the project sought to draw Chinese investors through the federal EB-5 visa program, which offers green cards affording permanent residency to aspiring immigrants who invest at least $500,000 in certain U.S. businesses that have been determined to create at least 10 jobs per investor. The majority of EB-5 visas in recent years have gone to wealthy Chinese individuals. The U.S. government limits EB-5 visas to 10,000 each year. Lawmakers and others have raised questions about whether the visas are appropriately obtained in some instances.

The project’s website features multiple press releases highlighting the board’s ties to the Trump administration. One notes that Sherry Li, chairman of the board, joined a “cabinet dinner with select cabinet appointees to have an intimate policy discussion.” Another highlights the board’s attendance at the inaugural ball and notes that the project’s goal is “in line with President-elect Trump’s new policy, together we can ‘Make America Great Again!’”

A representative of Thompson Education Center didn’t respond to a request for comment. The June donation by Mr. Wang marked his first to a Trump-linked account. Ms. Li gave $35,000 to Trump Victory last October, less than two weeks before the election.

In April, billionaire Len Blavatnik gave $12,700 to the RNC’s legal fund, on top of donations of about $200,000 to other RNC accounts. He also gave the legal fund $100,000 in 2016, according to FEC filings.

The contribution from Mr. Blavatnik came during the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s probe of U.S. intelligence agencies’ findings of Russian meddling in the U.S. election, a month before the Justice Department appointed a special counsel to oversee its probe of Russian interference—which subsequently prompted Mr. Trump to hire a private legal team.

Moscow has denied interfering in the election. Mr. Trump has denied his campaign colluded with Russia and called the investigations a “witch hunt.”

A spokesman for Mr. Blavatnik didn’t return a request for comment. The White House referred questions to the RNC.

Mr. Blavatnik, who was born in Ukraine when it was part of the Soviet Union, and moved to the U.S. in his early 20s, amassed his fortune in Russia in the years following the collapse of the Soviet Union.

He is a longtime business partner of Viktor Vekselberg, who is one of the richest men in Russia and has close ties to the Kremlin.

In 2013, Mr. Blavatnik earned billions when he, Mr. Vekselberg and two other partners sold their stake in the oil company TNK-BP to Rosneft, a Kremlin-controlled oil company. Rosneft’s chief executive is Igor Sechin, a top ally of Russian President Vladmir Putin.

During the 2016 campaign, Mr. Blavatnik through his company donated to several Republican presidential campaigns, including for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham. He didn’t donate to Mr. Trump’s campaign.

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