New talk of creating a Hunter Biden legal defense fund as main benefactor retreats

The financing crunch comes at a precarious time for the president’s son, whose two criminal trials are set to begin in June.

WASHINGTON — Hunter Biden’s allies are again exploring whether to set up a legal defense fund to help pay for his legal fees after a similar effort was considered near the end of last year, when two people close to President Joe Biden received a briefing on how a defense fund would operate, according to multiple sources familiar with the current and previous efforts.

The current interest in a fund to help pay for Biden’s mounting legal fees comes as the president’s son faces two criminal trials starting next month and diminished support from his chief financial backer.

One approach that allies have discussed recently is the creation of a public small-donation fund, four sources close to Hunter Biden told NBC News. They described such a move as a last resort if efforts to seek larger financial support fail, and emphasized that no decision has been made to move forward.

Hollywood lawyer Kevin Morris, who until recently funded Biden’s legal defense, said his inability to continue as the main financier comes at a precarious moment. “It is a very difficult situation,” Morris told NBC News. “The timing couldn’t be worse.”

“I’ve made it clear for many months that I’ve exhausted all of my ability to be the sole resource to fund the legal defense and anything else,” he added.

Biden is estimated to have over $10 million in legal fees. Both of his criminal trials, stemming from Special Counsel David Weiss’ investigation, are scheduled to begin in June. In Delaware, he is facing three charges related to falsely filling out a form while purchasing a gun in 2018, and in California he is facing nine charges related to his taxes. Biden faces significant jail time if convicted.

The Briefing

David Jolly, a lawyer and former Republican congressman from Florida, said that in early December he received an urgent phone call from a person close to the Biden family. Since early 2023, after he was approached by Morris and spoke with members of Biden’s legal team, Jolly had quietly been exploring what a legal defense fund for the president’s son would look like.

During the phone call he was asked to brief two people close to the president on the plan he had come up with, Jolly told NBC News. His briefing outlined how a legal defense fund would work — essentially as a blind trust — and estimated costs for setting it up. He also explained how a trust would ensure the defense fund could raise money for legal expenses and withstand expected scrutiny from the Justice Department, congressional investigators and the media.

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“I briefed on what the legal architecture would be,” Jolly said.

Jolly is an MSNBC contributor, a role he also held in early December.

The early December briefing involved detailing past practices and recommended rules for legal defense funds, such as no foreign money, no contributions from registered lobbyists or federal employees, and an affirmation from donors that they had no business pending with the federal government.

Jolly’s proposal included a recommendation that all donations remain completely private to ensure the president could not be made aware of who had contributed. It also stipulated that any money the defense fund received could only be used for legal bills, not any other type of expenses.

Jolly said the briefing never included a role or compensation for himself, but said he would have been available to serve as counsel to the defense fund and vet potential donors. The plan also recommended the inclusion of a separate ethics adviser.

“To protect everyone involved, if there was a prospective supporter, just let them call me,” he said, describing the proposal. He said he recommended that approach “so that [the] White House didn’t know about it, Hunter didn’t know about it.”

The president and first lady were later informed about Jolly’s presentation about how a legal defense fund would operate, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

Jolly said he never communicated with the White House counsel’s office about the matter. He said he doesn’t know if the president or first lady were briefed on his plan but that the two people he presented it to “have the president’s ear.”

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He said his proposed defense fund never got off the ground and that he wasn’t paid for his work on it. Jolly also said he stopped working on the effort this spring when it became clear there was a lack of donor support.

A White House official told NBC News on Friday night that the White House has had no involvement in any legal defense fund efforts for the president’s son.

“Since he took office, the President made a commitment not to be involved in Hunter’s legal cases, and consistent with that, the White House is not involved in Hunter’s legal strategy or financing. Hunter is a private citizen who has a strong team handling his legal affairs, and any decisions are made by them,” the official said.

Failure to launch

No official legal defense fund has been opened, and there is no formal leadership of any such effort, though a few close friends have made small private donations toward the legal fees, in aggregate less than $300,000, according to a source familiar with the efforts.

Biden’s allies have various theories about why that’s the case. Part of the reason, they say, is some potential donors were worried their names would become public if they contributed, and that they would then face harassment from the public or subpoenas from the Justice Department or Congress if there were investigations into the fund. House Republicans already have conducted lengthy probes related to Biden’s business dealings.

Jolly said he believes the president’s political advisers also tried to impede any effort to establish a legal defense fund.

“It’s appalling,” he said.

“I believe they’ve told willing donors to stay away and not to do it,” Jolly said, citing patterns of having a conversation with someone willing to consider contributing to a legal defense fund for Biden, only for the leads to later “evaporate.”

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Jolly said that one senior Democratic operative had once referred to Biden as “expendable.” Two sources said that they once heard senior operatives describe the president’s son as “collateral”, and not a priority.

Three sources familiar with efforts to raise money to support Biden said that they believed pressure from the president’s advisers — either directly or indirectly — ultimately prevented the creation of a legal defense fund.

Jolly’s effort to help raise money to pay for Hunter Biden’s legal fees hasn’t been the only one. According to three sources familiar with the matter, there have been other efforts — some of them more informal — over the past year. Democratic operatives who’ve been involved in fundraising efforts and advocacy for Biden said they encountered resistance from the president’s top political advisers.

“There was a dissuasion effort, mainly by communicating with Democratic donors,” said one of the operatives, who requested anonymity to speak candidly.

Those close to Hunter Biden have privately said they would like to see more public support for him coming from the White House or Democratic surrogates. The president and first lady have rallied around their son and expressed pride in his recovery from addiction, and both have said publicly they don’t believe he’s guilty of any wrongdoing.

The White House has been active in responding to attacks on the first family, including Hunter Biden, as part of House Republicans’ ongoing impeachment inquiry.

White House aides have been reticent about having the president or other high-profile Democrats lean too heavily into defending him, lest it appear that the commander in chief is interfering with his son’s legal issues, people familiar with the matter said.

Other allies of the president argue that his support for his son is critical to him personally and is part of his appeal to voters as a demonstration of his values.

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