November 5, 2020

Trump Lawyer Suing Over Georgia Votes Is Tied To Extremists & Controversies

Trump Lawyer Suing Over Georgia Votes Is Tied To Extremists & Controversies

Donald Trump’s desperate assault on the 2020 election includes new lawsuits in multiple states. The key lawyer for the Trump campaign’s lawsuit contesting votes in Georgia is Stefan Passantino, a former Trump administration White House lawyer. The Georgia case seems tiny — contesting at most 53 votes out of the 5 million cast in the state. But Passantino is a bigger deal: a well-paid legal Forrest Gump of the Trump right wing. 

As a White House attorney charged with overseeing ethics, he was embroiled in at least two scandals involving his own ethics, plus a dustup over Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka Trump. As a private lawyer, his firms have advised new QAnon congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene, COVID lockdown protestors, and an activist aiming a James O’Keefe-style sting on voting rights groups. Representing the Trump Organization, he’s resisted subpoenas to turn over Trump tax returns. Representing the Trump campaign, he’s joined Rudy Giuliani in peddling dirt on Joe Biden and his son, Hunter. 

In the new Georgia lawsuit, Passantino and the Trump campaign claimed there was a possibility, although they weren’t not sure, that 53 ballots arrived at a polling place after its 7:00 pm deadline. The campaign wanted a Georgia judge to order the Chatham County Board of Election to “collect, secure, and safely store all absentee ballots received by the CCBE after 7:00 P.M. on Election Day.” 

Today the judge, in Savannah, rejected the Trump legal team’s claim, after a Republican poll watcher could present no evidence that the ballots showed up late, and election officials testified they had been delivered before the deadline.

The man leading the Trump legal effort, Passantino, is a partner in the Washington DC and Atlanta offices of the corporate law firm Michael Best & Friedrich LLP, which is headed by former Trump White House chief of staff Reince Priebus. He also is a principal in Elections, LLC, which he co-founded with Justin Clark, who is Donald Trump’s 2020 deputy campaign manager. On his LinkedIn profile, Passantino describes Elections, LLC, as a “Political Law firm representing federal candidates, committees, and independent expenditure only entities with respect to campaign finance compliance and related legal services.”

Clients: QAnon congresswoman, COVID protestors, Trump businesses

One of Passantino’s Election LLC clients is Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new representative-elect from Georgia who is an adherent of the bizarre QAnon conspiracy theory. Greene’s campaign has made payments to the firm totalling almost $70,000, the largest total the firm has received from any congressional campaign. Greene has claimed, among other atrocities, that after the 2018 elections there was “an Islamic invasion into our government offices” and that perhaps no airplane struck the Pentagon on Sept. 11. Donald Trump, meanwhile, has called Greene “a future Republican star” and has refused to denounce QAnon, instead saying of the group during his debate with Joe Biden: “I know nothing about it. I do know they are very much against pedophilia. They fight it very hard.”

The Trump campaign is another client of Elections LLC.

The New York Times commented on Passantino’s firm, “The fact that a law firm with close ties to the White House is doing work for one of the most prominent proponents of QAnon shows how quickly the conspiracy theory has moved from the far-right fringe to the center of Republican politics.” 

Passantino’s clients at Michael Best include the Trump Organization, which he has assisted with congressional inquiries. In that role, he has represented Donald Trump’s business as it has resisted congressional requests for information, including Trump tax returns, and taken the matter all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Passantino also reportedly has advised Georgia-based Blue Sky Med Labs, a company that allegedly tried to infiltrate voting rights groups in North Carolina. Blue Sky is run by activist Jason Boles, who is connected to numerous organizations and political campaigns, including that of Marjorie Taylor Greene, the new QAnon congresswoman, and to a political action committee run by Passantino. 

Passantino’s firm Michael Best also has represented members of the anti-lockdown COVID protest group ReOpenNC.

Helping Trump 2020 and slinging dirt on Bidens

Passantino is one of the leaders of a Trump campaign operation called “Lawyers for Trump,” a coalition to “protect the integrity” of the election. Other Lawyers for Trump leaders are Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, and California Committeewoman Harmeet Dhillon. The group also includes former Florida Attorney General Pam Bondi, former US Attorney General Ed Meese, and Trump personal attorney Rudy Giuliani.

In October, according to a New York Times report, Passantino joined Giuliani, current White House lawyer Eric Herschmann, and New York public relations executive Arthur Schwartz, who is close to Donald Trump Jr., at a suburban Virginia house. They were there to pitch a Wall Street Journal reporter on negative allegations regarding Hunter Biden. The men had on speaker phone Tony Bobulinski, an ex-business partner of Hunter Biden’s, who was claiming that Joe Biden knew of and profited from Hunter’s business deals. President Trump reportedly told aides that the Journal piece was coming, just two weeks before the election. Bobulinski, though, got impatient and gave his own account to Breitbart News, which published immediately. Trump discussed the claims in the debate with Biden. But the Wall Street Journal followed with a short piece saying the newspaper found no evidence of Joe Biden involvement in his son’s business activities.

The Times account concluded the Giuliani-Passantino effort to push dirt on the Bidens showed “the chaotic, threadbare quality of the Trump operation.”  

Ethics problems as ethics overseer

Stefan Passantino served in the Trump administration from January 2017 to August 2018 as Deputy White House Counsel, in charge of ethics issues. In that role, his actions raised multiple questions regarding his own ethics.

In June 2017, the director of the federal Office of Government Ethics, Walter Schaub, responded to a query from Democratic members of Congress with a letter concluding that it was “concerning” that a news report indicated that Passantino spoke to the media on the White House employment status of financier Carl Icahn, who was a former legal client of Passantino. Passantino, critics charged, should have recused from the matter. Schaub referred the case to Passantino’s boss, White House counsel Don McGahn, for further investigation. Passantino then refused to answer congressional questions about the matter, and a White House spokeswoman accused Shaub and the members of Congress of “distorting facts and attempting to tarnish the White House for purposes of a partisan agenda.” 

In February 2019, a new dispute arose over Passantino’s conduct. Rep. Elijah Cummings, chairman of the House Committee on Oversight and Reform, charged that Passantino, while still a White House lawyer, and Sheri Dillon, a personal tax lawyer for Trump, might have provided “false information” to investigators from the Office of Government Ethics, who were looking into payments Trump made to his attorney Michael Cohen, in connection with sums paid during the 2016 election to Stormy Daniels, who claimed to have had a sexual liaison with Trump. Both Passantino and Dillon reportedly told OGE investigators that the payments Trump made to Cohen were part of a legal retainer agreement. The investigators appeared to be skeptical, with one calling the explanations “evolving stories.” Cohen pled guilty to criminal charges, including that he acted at the direction of Trump to secretly pay Daniels, in violation of federal campaign finance laws. 

Cummings wrote to the White House, “It now appears that President Trump’s other attorneys—at the White House and in private practice—may have provided false information about these payments to federal officials. This raised significant questions about why some of the President’s closest advisers made these false claims and the extent to which they too were acting at the direction of, or in coordination with, the President.”

Passantino, who had left the White House by the time Cummings raised the charge, denied making false statements. The White House blocked Cummings’ request for his committee to interview Passantino.

Another controversy during Passantino’s White House tenure involved Kellyanne Conway’s endorsement on a Fox News program of Ivanka Trump’s clothing line. Shaub, the Office of Government Ethics head, determined that there “strong reason to believe that Ms. Conway has violated the Standards of Conduct” by promoting a private business operated by the Trump family. He rejected an assertion from Passantino that “many regulations promulgated by the Office of Government Ethics (‘OGE’) do not apply to employees of the Executive Office of the President.” Shaub concluded that “disciplinary action is warranted” for Conway. 

Passantino responded by writing to senators that he had briefed Conway on ethics rules, but that she would not be disciplined. “We concluded that Ms. Conway acted inadvertently and is highly unlikely to do so again,” he wrote. 

Passantino also oversaw the troubling, legally dubious process of forcing White House employees to sign non-disclosure agreements pledging not to tell about their experiences working for Trump.

More corporate and conservative clients

On his disclosure forms for his White House jobs, Passantino listed a large number of private clients he had previously advised, including in his job at the law firm Denton’s. They included Delta Airlines, Huawei Technologies, numerous conservative organizations and Republican political committees, and various entities associated with former House Speaker (R-GA) Newt Gingrich. Passantino was general counsel for Gingrich’s 2012 presidential campaign.

According to his current law firm bio, Passantino in the 2015-2016 election cycle helped form, and served as counsel to, “some of the largest and most influential and innovative ‘SuperPACs’ and 501(c)(4) advocacy groups in the Presidential campaign, including the Trump Presidential Transition Team.” He also co-chaired the Republican National Lawyers Association Ballot Access Project, “which coordinated and disseminated guidance on Republican Party ballot access to counsel for all candidates for President.”

Another former Passantino client was The Moak Group, whose co-founder Donald Moak was confirmed to the US Postal Service board in June 2020.   

Since July 2019, Passantino also has chaired the State Department’s Cultural Property Advisory Committee

Passantino, who graduated from Emory University law school in 1991, spoke at a 2018 Atlanta meeting of the conservative lawyers group the Federalist Society, addressing the subject, “A Perspective on the White House Counsel’s Office.” 

His law firm bio adds that Passantino’s clients “have included major multi-national corporations, tax exempt advocacy groups, political parties, and politicians, including serving as national counsel to presidential candidate and former Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Newt Gingrich, former Speaker J. Dennis Hastert, former Governor (and now Secretary) Rick Perry, several U.S. Senators and House Members, as well as other prominent political figures and advocacy groups.” 

The bio also notes that Passantino “has provided Congressional and Executive Branch ethics and lobbying training to Members of Congress, their staff, the Administration, and private corporations for over fifteen years.”