Bush-Era Ethics Lawyer Rips 'Scam Artists' Trump, Powell for Fundraising Off Election Lies

Attorney Richard W. Painter, who served as the chief White House ethics lawyer in the George W. Bush administration, suggested that criminal fraud charges should be filed against former President Donald Trump and lawyer Sidney Powell—calling them "scam artists" for fundraising off of lies about the 2020 election.

Trump and his former attorney Powell claim that the last presidential election was "rigged" or "stolen" in favor of President Joe Biden. Although the former president and many of his allies continue to promote the conspiracy theory, they have not provided any evidence. Meanwhile, Trump and Powell have raised millions of dollars as they claim to be fighting against "election fraud."

"Let's be clear about something: Spreading fake news alone may be protected speech under the First Amendment. But spreading fake news to ask for money is commercial speech, and courts enforce laws criminalizing fraud," Painter, now a law professor at the University of Minnesota, wrote in an opinion article published by MSNBC on Sunday.

"There is no First Amendment right to lie to people to get their money," Painter asserted.

Sidney Powell and Donald Trump
Attorney Sidney Powell and former President Donald Trump have raised millions of dollars from spreading misinformation about the 2020 presidential election. In the photo on the left, Powell speaks during a press conference at the Republican National Committee headquarters in Washington, D.C. on November 19, 2020. In the photo on the right, Trump speaks at a rally on September 25, 2021, in Perry, Georgia. MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Sean Rayford/Getty Images

The Washington Post reported last Monday that Powell's nonprofit group, Defending the Republic, raised more than $14 million in the months after the 2020 presidential election. Those funds were raised largely by promoting misinformation about the election, spreading the conspiracy theory that it was "stolen" from Trump.

In March, The New York Times reported that Trump raised more than $250 million as he baselessly challenged the 2020 election results. The former president raised the money largely by claiming that there was "massive fraud" in the election results.

"But what about a candidate who loses an election by a wide margin, ought to know he has no possible legal way of changing the election result, but still solicits money from the public to pay lawyers to file frivolous lawsuits challenging the election?" Painter asks in his opinion column. "That presumably is a fraud too, unless the people who send their money are told that there is little or no chance that the lawsuits will succeed or that the election results will change. As we know, that has not been the case with Trump's missives."

The former Bush White House attorney went on to point out that there was never a chance that Trump could legally overturn the 2020 election results. "Short of sedition, insurrection and a military coup, the result was not going to change. Raising money for the purpose of changing the election result was fraud," he wrote.

Painter goes on to argue that fundraising off of election misinformation, as Trump and his allies have done, should make them criminally liable.

"Lying about demonstrable facts concerning an election that is already over to get people to send you money which cannot possibly be used to change the election result should be prosecuted as fraud," he wrote.

"After the 2020 election, the Trump political operation turned from its habitual distortion of facts for political purposes to outright fraud to raise money, some of which is unaccounted for. The Department of Justice and state attorneys general need to investigate and, if criminal fraud can in fact be shown, press charges against these political scam artists," the lawyer concluded.

Newsweek reached out to Powell and Trump for comment but did not immediately receive responses.

While Trump and his allies, like Powell, continue to spread misinformation about the last presidential election, no evidence has emerged corroborating their extraordinary allegations. More than 60 election challenge lawsuits filed by the former president and his supporters have failed in state and federal courts. Even judges appointed by Trump and other Republicans have dismissed the lawsuits.

Audits and recounts in states across the country—including in areas where the election was overseen by pro-Trump Republicans—have consistently reaffirmed Biden's victory. Former Attorney General William Barr, who was widely viewed as one of Trump's most loyal Cabinet members, asserted in December 2020 that there was "no evidence" of fraud that would change the election's outcome. That conclusion came after Barr instructed the Justice Department to probe the claims of fraud.

Nonetheless, Trump's and Powell's lies about the election have resonated with many Republican voters. Polls have repeatedly shown that a majority of GOP voters believe the election was fraudulent and that Biden is not the legitimate president.