Just eight months into Donald Trump's term, the public learned that the Republican National Committee was helping pay the then-president's legal bills as part of the investigation into the Russia scandal. As Rachel noted on the show at the time, no other American president had ever used donor money this way.
As regular readers may recall, however, the party had a plausible defense for the arrangement: RNC leaders said they felt the need to support their own party's president. The Russia scandal was clearly part of Trump's presidency — it's not as if Republican donors were paying for legal expenses wholly unrelated to political developments — which in turn made the arrangement at least somewhat justifiable.
It was last month, however, when the story took a surprising turn. The Washington Post reported that the RNC had agreed to pay some of Trump's personal legal bills as part of investigations into his financial practices in New York — practices that predated his political career. Even some in the party weren't pleased in response to the reporting.
One RNC official told CNN the relationship between Trump and the national party is effectively "a hostage situation": The RNC simply can't afford to make the former president unhappy, so it pays these bills to prevent Trump from retaliating against the party.
At the time, the controversy stemmed from over $120,000 in RNC spending. As the Post reported overnight, it now appears the party is spending far more on Trump's lawyers than we previously realized.
The Republican Party has agreed to pay up to $1.6 million in legal bills for former president Donald Trump to help him fight investigations into his business practices in New York, according to Republican National Committee members and others briefed on the decision. The party's executive committee overwhelmingly approved the payments at a meeting this summer in Nashville, according to four members and others with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe a private meeting of the executive committee.
The article added, "That means the GOP's commitment to pay Trump's personal legal expenses could be more than 10 times higher than previously known."
There's no suggestion that such an arrangement is illegal. If this is how the Republican National Committee wants to spend its money, it's free to do so.
But that doesn't make the dynamic any less bizarre.
Paul Seamus Ryan, a campaign-law expert at Common Cause, told the Post, "This is an abuse of donor trust," Ryan said. "I've been following money in politics closely for more than two decades, and I'm unaware of any similar past abuse of donor trust and donor money to pay personal legal bills of private citizens."
Circling back to our earlier coverage, part of what makes revelations like these notable is the root cause of the former president's legal expenses: In this instance, Trump is dealing with investigations into alleged financial misdeeds that occurred before he went down the escalator in June 2015.
Those alleged transgressions are now being scrutinized by law enforcement; the former president feels the need to hire lawyers; and the RNC has effectively told Trump, "Don't worry, we'll help pay these bills for you."
Making matters even more amazing, the former president — who, again, claims to have vast wealth — has spent the last year aggressively raising as much money as humanly possible from his committed followers. As Rachel noted on last night's show, Trump's political operation has more than $100 million in the bank.
And yet, there's the Republican National Committee, writing checks for Trump anyway.
The former president does not work for the RNC. He's not a nominee or a candidate for any public office. But this private citizen nevertheless sees the party as something he controls — and Republican officials are clearly willing to follow his lead.