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Trump opponents have raised nearly $2 million in legal fees through crowdfunding

Michael Cohen, the former attorney to President Donald Trump, set up a crowdfunding account after implicating the president in a campaign finance violation. Cohen is among several Trump opponents turning to the public to help pay their legal fees. (Image: SBG/Circa)

Crowdfunding sites have allowed millions of people to raise money for their causes, including a growing number of individuals ejected from President Donald Trump's orbit who have raised nearly $2 million from online donors.

In recent months, four people who found themselves on the wrong side of the law and the wrong side of the Trump White House have garnered tremendous public support with tens of thousands of mostly anonymous, small donors offering money to pay for lawyers fees, personal damages and lost income.

Former Trump allies, like Roger Stone or former campaign aide Michael Caputo, have also turned to crowdfunding sites to help them lawyer-up and navigate relations with Robert Mueller's special counsel and related investigations. However, these campaigns have been far less successful than those involving Trump's public adversaries.

MICHAEL COHEN - $155,400 OF $500,000 GOAL

Within hours of entering a guilty plea for a litany of financial crimes, Trump's former attorney, Michael Cohen began racking up mostly small donor contributions on his GoFundMe page. By Friday afternoon the "Michael Cohen Truth Fund" had raised more than $155,000.

Cohen's lawyer and former special counsel to President Bill Clinton, Lanny Davis set up the account Tuesday. The stated purpose of the fund is to "help Michael Cohen and his family as he goes forward on his journey to tell the truth about Donald Trump."

Despite a campaign rollout blunder where Davis accidentally told supporters to visit a pro-Trump URL, the site raised upward of $125,000 less than 24 hours after Cohen's guilty plea.

Cohen implicated the president in two of the crimes he confessed to, claiming then-candidate Trump directed him to pay hush-money to two women before the 2016 presidential election to keep them from speaking publicly about alleged affairs they had with Trump.

PETER STRZOK - $460,000 OF $500,000 GOAL

Last month, former FBI agent Peter Strzok was fired from the Department of Justice for exchanging anti-Trump text messages with his girlfriend and DOJ attorney employee while working on an investigation into the Trump campaign.

After being dismissed on Aug. 13, "Friends of Special Agent Peter Strzok" set up a GoFundMe account to cover the ex-agent's legal costs and loss of income. Strzok's allies appealed to the public for financial help in light of the "highly politicized attacks, including frequent slanderous statements from President Trump, who actively—and apparently successfully—pressured FBI officials to fire Pete."

Trump and Republican members of Congress repeatedly attacked Strzok. In July, he was brought before Congress in July for an 11-hour deposition and bruising 8-hour public hearing to look into his alleged bias in handling the Trump investigation and the Hillary Clinton email investigation, which he helped lead. Strzok was recommended for a disciplinary review after an internal Justice Department report determined that he and others expressed a "biased state of mind."

In less than two weeks, Strzok has raised $460,000 of a half-million dollar goal.

ANDREW MCCABE - $554,000

Another Justice Department target of President Trump's ire was former Deputy Director of the FBI Andrew McCabe, who was fired March 16 for unauthorized leaks to the media and lying under oath. Trump repeatedly criticized McCabe as a Clinton loyalist and said he and former FBI Director James Comey conspired to launch the agency's investigation into Trump's 2016 campaign. McCabe, in turn, claimed to be the victim of a political attack.

McCabe was fired just one day before he was scheduled to retire and collect an estimated $1.8 million in pension benefits. In June, McCabe's attorney filed a lawsuit against the Justice Department claiming he was denied access to documents related to his alleged misconduct. McCabe is also seeking compensation for his lost pension.

The Department of Justice referred the former official for criminal charges. He has not been indicted but could have to mount a legal defense.

The former FBI No. 2 initially asked the public for $150,000 to cover the cost of suing the Justice Department. Within a few hours, McCabe exceeded his goal and continued to collect money to the tune of over half a million dollars.

After hitting $554,000 and raising eyebrows about possibly pocketing the excess cash, McCabe shut down the GoFundMe account. His associates said the money would only be used for legal expenses and the rest would be donated to charity.

STORMY DANIELS - $585,600 OF $850,000 GOAL

In March, adult film star Stephanie Clifford, better known as Stormy Daniels, launched a CrowdJustice campaign shortly after filing a lawsuit to invalidate a nondisclosure agreement (NDA) she signed with Trump attorney Michael Cohen. Before the 2016 presidential election, Stormy Daniels accepted $130,000 and agreed to stay quiet about an alleged affair she had with Trump in 2006.

Winning the suit, she said, would allow her to "speak honestly and openly to the American people about my relationship with now President Donald Trump and the intimidation and tactics used against me."

In the first week of the campaign, Stormy Daniels raised more than a quarter-million dollars toward her $850,000 goal. A CrowdJustice spokesperson described the campaign as "one of the most successful" on the platform, involving "one of the most high-profile people to use the platform."

With about three weeks to go before the campaign ends, Stormy Daniels has raised about $585,600 from more than 16,000 donors.

IT PAYS TO BE AN ENEMY OF TRUMP

Crowdfunding is a useful tool to fund political or personal causes on either side of the aisle. It just happens that the high-profile opponents of President Donald Trump have been the most effective in leveraging the public spotlight to raise large amounts of money for their personal, legal causes.

"This is all about getting Trump," said Republican strategist Ford O'Connell. "These are not real charity cases. It just tells you how raw the emotions are on the side of the resistance."

Dan Backer, founding attorney of political.law, a boutique law firm, explained that many donors are likely indifferent to the charges brought against the fundraisers, despite evidence suggested serious criminal offenses and misconduct.

"People aren't giving money because they think they're innocent. They're giving money because they hate the president and they feel some connection between giving money and causing him pain," he noted.

It's fairly common for political or public interest groups to appeal to the public and set up legal defense funds to pay lawyers' fees in connection with their causes. Until recently, it was not as common to see individuals able to raise the amounts of money seen in former Trump associates' crowdfunding campaigns.

"If you're talking about individuals who are in trouble with the law, not that many are so sympathetic that they can raise tens and hundreds of thousands of dollars," explained Bruce Green, a law professor at Fordham University. "It's unusual in that respect, but it's not unheard of."

Ultimately, it is entirely lawful to solicit gifts or public support to pay for legal costs or virtually anything else, though it may be difficult to verify that all contributions are used for the specific purpose named in the crowdfunding campaign. GoFundMe does provide a guaranteed refund if a campaign intentionally misleads donors or is convicted of a crime related to the fundraising campaign.

Acknowledging that anyone can freely contribute to whatever cause they wish, Backer warned that the recent crowdfunding campaigns suggest "a society in which we are rewarding misconduct."

Cohen pleaded guilty to multiple counts of financial fraud and apparently gave up privileged information regarding his work for Trump. In the cases of McCabe and Strzok, independent Department of Justice assessments determined the former officials were liable for misconduct and recommended them for criminal charges. As to Stormy Daniels, her decision to publicly discuss an alleged affair with Trump apparently violates the terms of an NDA she signed.

"People are in these positions where they're staring down potentially major legal bills and are looking for ways to not have to pay for their own wrongdoing," he added. Including through crowdfunding.

PROFIT OR LOSS?

Based on the performance of a handful of these campaigns, it's either very costly or very profitable to be an opponent of President Donald Trump.

On the one hand, outside of organized legal defense funds, few individuals have been able to rally the public financial support that Cohen, Daniels, McCabe or Strzok have. On the other hand, mounting a legal defense against federal prosecutors or the president's personal lawyers comes at a high cost.

"No one wants to be looking down the barrel of a special counsel investigation or federal prosecutors trying to throw you in jail," O'Connell said. "Maybe it becomes profitable later on, but right now you don't want to be forking over money to save your own hide."

Stormy Daniels has not revealed the cost of hiring Michael Avenatti to represent her against Cohen and Trump. If she loses her case against Trump and Cohen, she could face up to $20 million in damages.

Before Cohen turned to Lanny Davis for help, the Trump campaign was reportedly helping to pay some of Cohen's legal costs. In April, after the FBI raided Cohen's office, ABC News reported that the campaign spent nearly $228,000 to help defend Cohen. By June, Cohen was complaining to associates that the legal fees were "bankrupting" him and he wanted President Trump to offer financial support, according to the Wall Street Journal.

There's no way of knowing how much each defendant may rack up in legal fees. Neither McCabe or Strzok have been indicted, so they may only be consulting with lawyers. Moreover, none of the fundraisers has officially gone to trial.

One element that stands out is the sheer amount of money being requested to stand up a criminal defense, Green noted. In most cases, the fundraisers asked the public for a half-million dollars or more to lawyer up, a cost very few Americans would be able to afford.

"I find it astonishing," Green said. "The gap between the representation for those with wealth and ordinary Americans is extraordinary."


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