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Just What Was Lara Trump Up To?

Was her call to a fired White House aide an innocent effort to help, a campaign finance violation, or obstruction of justice?

August 22, 2018

Lost amid the Paul Mana­fort verdict and Michael Cohen’s guilty plea is the release of a recor­ded phone call allegedly made last Decem­ber by Lara Trump to recently fired White House aide Omarosa Manigault Newman (pictured above).

Without know­ing the full context, the call repres­ents anything from an innoc­u­ous effort to help a friend to a campaign finance law viol­a­tion to obstruc­tion of justice. All of which raises the ques­tion: Just what was Lara Trump up to?  

Newman released the record­ing exactly nine months to the day after it allegedly took place. Only days after her dismissal last Decem­ber, Newman went on Good Morn­ing Amer­ica to vent her frus­tra­tion as the highest-rank­ing African-Amer­ican White House staffer. 

“I have seen things that have made me uncom­fort­able, that have upset me, that have affected me deeply and emotion­ally, that has affected my community and my people,” she said. The New York Times ran a front-page story about Newman and her alleg­a­tions the next day. 

The follow­ing day, Lara Trump — who is married to Eric Trump, Donald’s third child and second son — allegedly called Newman to offer her a job on the 2020 campaign. Lara Trump refer­ences the Times story and notes, “It sounds a little like, obvi­ously, that there are some things you’ve got in the back pocket to pull out. Clearly, if you come on board the campaign, like, we can’t have, we got to,” and then Newman inter­jects, “Oh, God, no.”

Then Lara Trump asks, “Everything, every­body, posit­ive, right?”

Newman does­n’t reply, and Lara Trump goes on to say that the campaign would match her White House salary of about $180,000 per year. Although it’s not clear how the call ended, Newman did receive a proposed nondis­clos­ure agree­ment, which was reviewed by The Wash­ing­ton Post. The agree­ment called for Newman to not say anything that could damage Pres­id­ent Trump, Vice Pres­id­ent Mike Pence, or their famil­ies. 

“I saw this as an attempt to buy my silence,” Newman told MSNBC. She never took the offer.

But can a federal candid­ate use campaign funds for hush money? Like many elements of Trump’s campaigns, this is new legal territ­ory. From a campaign finance law point of view, the key ques­tion is whether the offer was a personal use of campaign funds. If the answer is yes, then it’s illegal. 

The rule of thumb with a federal campaign is that, unsur­pris­ingly, campaign money must be spent on legit­im­ate expenses. For example, paying for the bunt­ing on the stage where the candid­ate holds a rally? Legit. Paying for creepy black-and-white TV ads accus­ing an oppon­ent of being against mom and apple pie? Legit. Paying for child­care so that the candid­ate can attend a campaign event? Legit. Paying for a fash­ion consult­ant to choose which shade of red tie the candid­ate should wear? Legit. 

But paying for the candid­ate’s red tie? Not legit. Why is a tie or suit or dress out of bounds? Because that would be a clas­sic personal use of campaign funds, which is verboten. The candid­ate would buy clothes anyway. Thus, the candid­ate can’t use campaign money to buy a slam­ming new ward­robe that they get to keep after the campaign ends.

The most char­it­able inter­pret­a­tion of the tape is that Lara Trump was making a genu­ine offer to Newman to do minor­ity outreach for her father-in-law’s reelec­tion campaign. And if that was the true intent of the $15,000-per-month salary, then all would be fine.   

But a less char­it­able inter­pret­a­tion is that — like the payments to former Donald Trump para­mours Stephanie Clif­ford and Karen McDou­gal —  this is really hush money. How should we consider hush money dressed up as a “salary” in a pres­id­en­tial campaign? If the payment is really for the personal bene­fit of the candid­ate, that’s prob­ably on the wrong side of the legal line. Luck­ily for Ms. Trump, the agency in charge of enfor­cing campaign finance laws, the Federal Elec­tion Commis­sion, is lack­a­dais­ical in the extreme when it comes to enforce­ment. 

It’s not a stretch to conclude that the job offer was a clumsy attempt to shut up Newman and was likely illegal. At least one wealthy and prom­in­ent Trump supporter believes this is the case. Dan Eber­hart, an oil-and-gas exec­ut­ive who was pres­id­ent of the local chapter of the Feder­al­ist Soci­ety when he was at Tulane Law School, told The New York Times“It’s an elong­ated hush payment.” 

A separ­ate ques­tion is whether the effort to silence Newman was also an attempt to inter­fere with the ongo­ing invest­ig­a­tion of Trump’s 2016 campaign, on which Newman worked as director of African-Amer­ican outreach. Newman, who had known Donald Trump since the early years of The Appren­tice, initially “enjoyed relat­ively easy access to the Oval Office.”

So, it’s entirely possible that Special Coun­sel Robert Mueller wants to talk to Newman, if he hasn’t already. And it’s entirely possible the White House would prefer that Newman not tell Mueller what she knows. And no money would have to change hands for the over­ture to be considered obstruc­tion of justice. The soli­cit­a­tion itself is suffi­cient. 

What we don’t know is who, if anyone, told Lara Trump to make the call in the first place and why. The intent motiv­at­ing that person could make all the legal differ­ence in the world. If that person inten­ded the payment scheme to silence Newman to thwart Mueller, then a purportedly inno­cent effort to help a down-on-her-luck loyal­ist assumes a much more sinis­ter dimen­sion. 

The views expressed are the author’s own and not neces­sar­ily those of the Bren­nan Center for Justice.

(Photo: Shut­ter­stock.com)