Liberal Dark Money Network Behind Trump Ethics Complaints

Documents reveal role of Brock-backed ethics group in effort to impeach Trump

David Brock

David Brock / AP

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Lawsuits filed against President Donald Trump over his alleged violation of a constitutional conflict-of-interest provision are part of a well-funded legal campaign orchestrated by leading Democratic operatives, internal documents show.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a left-wing legal advocacy group, filed two legal complaints against Trump over the weekend. The complaints allege violations of the Constitution's Emoluments Clause, which bars foreign government payments to U.S. officials, and the lease on Trump's new hotel in Washington, D.C., which prohibits ownership by such officials.

Though presented as efforts to ensure integrity in government, the complaints are part of a broader strategy to impeach the president by a network of political groups run by a leading Democratic operative.

"We do not yet know just to what extent this violation goes," said CREW executive director Noah Bookbinder in a statement on the complaints. "But we do know that there must be accountability for anyone, including the president, for violating the Constitution."

When CREW filed those complaints, Bookbinder was in Florida for an exclusive retreat for donors to CREW and other groups founded and run by David Brock, a Hillary Clinton loyalist and Democratic operative who has pledged to "kick Donald Trump's ass."

Documents obtained by the Washington Free Beacon at that conference show that CREW's complaints are just one part of a larger strategy to take down Trump using opposition research, media pressure, and the court system.

Those documents spell out efforts to defeat Trump if he runs for reelection in 2020. But they also state that Brock's network will seek impeachment in addition to its political efforts.

Brock took charge of CREW, once a respected left-leaning ethics watchdog, in the summer of 2014. The group is now integral to his plan to take down the president. The documents handed out to donors at the weekend's conference detail the group's expected legal avenues for doing so.

"CREW will relentlessly probe [Trump's] global conflicts of interest and administration ethics problems through aggressive use of research, open records requests, legal action, and [Freedom of Information Act] litigation," the documents state.

The group "will bring about legal accountability for executive branch ethical and legal violations through complaints and litigation."

Brock's network is redirecting significantly more resources into CREW's legal strategy. It will double the group's budget to $5.8 million this year, documents state, and increase its staff to 38, more than doubling the size of its legal team while adding staffers to its communications and research divisions.

CREW's expansion will afford it "expanded capacity in all aspects of the office, crucially including litigation."

The group maintains that its work is entirely nonpartisan, but leading up to the weekend's conference Brock presented his efforts as just the opposite, contrasting it with the Democracy Alliance, a left-wing donor club.

"The DA has veered away from politics," he told BuzzFeed. "This conference is openly political."

At that openly political event, CREW chief Bookbinder was one of just a handful of attendees authorized to charge his room to the conference's "master account," according to hotel documents obtained by the Free Beacon.

Brock's acquisition of CREW placed the group, which had previously gone after ethical lapses in both political parties, in an awkward position during the 2016 campaign.

It was CREW that filed one of the FOIA requests for emails that, it was later revealed, were improperly housed on Hillary Clinton's private email server. Brock led the charge against investigations into Clinton's private email setup, and routinely dismissed the scandal as a partisan witch hunt.

CREW was almost entirely silent after the State Department's inspector general ruled that the group's FOIA request had been improperly denied.

Its strategy in the Trump era continues to dovetail with Brock's larger political project. In internal documents, it notes that its work exposing "dark money" political groups, for example, will focus on "key states," a subtle allusion to important electoral contests.

Lachlan Markay   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Lachlan Markay is a staff writer for the Washington Free Beacon. He comes to the Beacon from the Heritage Foundation, where he was the conservative think tank's first investigative reporter. He graduated from Hamilton College in 2009, and currently lives in Washington, D.C. His Twitter handle is @lachlan. His email address is markay@freebeacon.com.