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.