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House Jan. 6 panel says Trump raised millions for a nonexistent election defense fund

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The House committee investigating the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol says former President Donald Trump knowingly peddled lies about the 2020 election outcome in order to raise millions of dollars from his supporters. The committee says Trump took in $250 million that he promised would go to an official election defense fund, a fund that did not exist. Instead, the lawmakers say the money went to a political action committee that passed along millions to pro-Trump organizations. They call it the big rip-off, but was it illegal?

University of Minnesota law professor Richard Painter served as the chief ethics lawyer in the White House of President George W. Bush. He recently ran as a Democrat for a U.S. House race in Minnesota. Mr. Painter, thanks for being here. Welcome back to the show.

RICHARD PAINTER: Well, thank you very much for having me.

MARTIN: It may be unethical for a former president, twice-impeached, to lie to supporters to raise money, but has the January 6 committee demonstrated that Donald Trump broke the law?

PAINTER: Well, at some point, political fundraising, just like every other form of fundraising, can become a mail fraud and wire fraud. If you lie to people to get their money, whether for an investment or for a charity or for political cause, then you do have a mail fraud and wire fraud. That's a criminal offense. So the first question is whether Donald Trump knowingly lied. And everyone was telling him that he lost the election - his attorney general, his family members. It was very clear that he had lost that election. And it is becoming increasingly clear that he knew it and that he just simply refused to admit it.

And then the second thing he did was he asked people for money to challenge the election, knowing full well that there was no way he could challenge the election legally and prevail. And then the third thing that's been uncovered by the committee is the money wasn't even used to challenge the election. A lot of it was used for political candidates. And that's something completely different than what he solicited the money for.

MARTIN: Is there a problem with that? I mean, what does the law require him to disclose about the money that he's fundraising? I mean, don't campaigns often just say, hey, we need money, generally speaking, for our political efforts?

PAINTER: Well, if a campaign for a particular office says we need money for this campaign, then that's really for that campaign. Now, campaigns do transition some of their money - transfer some money to other campaigns when money's left over. You know, it's not a large percentage of it usually. But there needs to be some connection between what they say they are using the money for and what they're actually doing. Now, I will say that there is a free speech issue - there are First Amendment issues with respect to political fundraising. And there - so there would be more latitude there than there would be, for example, on a securities offering, where you're raising capital for a company.

Politicians, of course, often misrepresent their stands on issues and misrepresent other things when they're running for office and they're raising money. And if we held them to the highest standards that were applicable for the private sector - when you're raising money in the private sector - we'd be putting a lot of politicians in jail. But that being said, there's not a carte blanche here to say you're raising money to challenge an election result, saying there's fraud when there actually is no fraud - you know there is no fraud - and then you're turning around and using the money for something else.

MARTIN: So intent - knowledge is the key here. I mean, we should just mention the former president released a big statement calling the committee's legitimacy - or calling into question the committee's legitimacy, and he repeated lies about election fraud. He did not, however, directly address the fundraising. But you're saying that he can't claim, on any firm ground, that he truly believed the election was stolen?

PAINTER: Well, I think there's increasing evidence - that's what we're hearing - that he knew he lost. He just refused to admit it. Now, in order to prove a criminal charge, yes, you would need to prove that he knew or was extremely reckless in the statements he made. And fraud cases have been brought against people who are extremely reckless. But it is a high standard of culpability - it's not mere negligence - necessary to prosecute a fraud claim. But I will emphasize that there is increasing evidence that the president knew he had lost - just wouldn't admit it.

MARTIN: Richard Painter, former chief ethics lawyer for President George W. Bush, thank you so much.

PAINTER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.