By Mike Kaszuba
Three days after President Trump took the oath of office in 2017, the dean of the University of Minnesota law school was scrambling to find out what was happening with one of his faculty members, Richard Painter.
The dean, Garry Jenkins, had been sent computer links to stories in Reuters, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and the New York Times. Painter, the former chief ethics lawyer under President George W. Bush, a Republican, had just joined others in filing a lawsuit against Trump alleging that the new Republican president was violating the Constitution by allowing his hotels and other businesses to accept payments from foreign governments.
“I have not personally heard from Professor Painter on this, so I am just learning of this through the media,” Jenkins wrote in an e-mail on January 23, 2017. “To be clear, this is not a case handled by the Law School or its clinics, but rather, this is an individual faculty exercising his academic freedom.”
It would not be the last time Painter would create headlines, or cause school officials to track his actions. Documents obtained by Public Record Media (PRM), a non-profit based in Saint Paul, show how Painter became an increasingly sought-after media presence in the early days of the Trump administration. The more than 700 pages of documents obtained from the university cover the first two years of the Trump presidency, a time during which Painter engaged in a series of highly-public disputes over actions taken by the Trump administration and then launched his own unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid.
Documents sought after Painter’s 2018 primary run
PRM’s data request to the university was filed in November 2019, more than a year after Painter ran as a Democratic-Farmer-Labor candidate for the U.S. Senate seat currently occupied by DFLer Tina Smith. The documents provide a window into his emergence as a go-to Trump critic on cable television news shows and the reactions of ordinary Americans who cheered – and, in other instances, criticized – his commentary.
The documents, in addition, also show how Jenkins and others at the university kept track of Painter through regular Google computer alerts as his media profile ballooned.
One Google alert to Jenkins on the day after Christmas 2017 informed him that Painter had stated that Trump’s tweets about the FBI could amount to witness intimidation. The week before, school officials alerted the law school dean to a Newsweek magazine headline that read, “Trump could use military to launch his own coup, warns former White House ethics lawyer.” A Google alert in March 2018 told Jenkins of a new article in The Atlantic magazine with the title, “The Radicalization of Richard Painter.” Even Painter’s seemingly innocuous comings and goings were on Jenkins’ radar: A Google alert in October 2017 told of Painter’s upcoming appearance at the suburban Roseville library.
Painter’s public profile kept climbing, the documents showed. Now This News, a video news organization on social media, informed Painter in a November 2017 email that his interview on the show regarding Trump’s ethics had 4.8 million views.
“He’s so busy lately,” Jenkins wrote of Painter in a February 2017 email.
In an interview with PRM, Painter said that his media appearances dropped off after his U.S. Senate candidacy, partially because cable news outlets like CNN and MSNBC wanted to steer clear of him while he was running for office and partially because they sought out new faces. He said he turned down contracts offering as much as $100,000 to appear exclusively on a cable news outlet because he said he wanted to keep his independence.
“That was pretty crazy back then,” Painter said of the media requests in 2016 and 2017, as Trump was elected and then took office. “It was pretty non-stop.”
Painter also said that university officials never interfered with his increased media profile regarding Trump – and added that he was careful not to use school resources during that time.
“The University of Minnesota has been pretty good about it,” said Painter who said that he was “in pretty good communication” with Jenkins as his media interviews increased. “They never tried to get me to do anything different.”
The documents obtained by PRM show that, on at least one occasion, Painter tried to get the university to promote his actions. In September 2017, Painter and others publicly endorsed proposed legislation co-sponsored by Sen. Cory Booker, a U.S. Senator from New Jersey who would later become a Democratic presidential candidate. The legislation would give legal protections to Special Counsel Robert Mueller, who was appointed to investigate Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election and any links to the Trump campaign.
An email showed that Painter asked the university to promote the episode. “Probably not too partisan for a news item,” Painter wrote.
“If Garry [Jenkins] agrees, please submit a faculty news item so we can post it to the website,” Cynthia Huff, a law school official, wrote back.
“U” correspondence shows support, criticism
As Painter became a key critic of the new president, the university documents indicated that he now had a growing number of fans.
“You have become a rock star, which makes me very happy,” wrote Julie Meier Wright, a senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness in California. “We need more Republicans to call [Trump] out for his unethical behavior.”
The Reed family from Illinois wrote to Painter in October 2017. “We just have to write to let you know how much our family respects and admires you,” Susan Reed’s email stated. “Stopping what we’re doing to listen to your words, when you’re a guest on news shows, is a highlight.”
“You are one of the hidden gems of our democracy,” the email added.
Lisa Tiegel, a University of Minnesota law school graduate, added her support in a February 2017 email. “Thank you for your public interviews and clear analysis of the repeat[ed] unethical conduct of President Trump and members of his Administration,” she wrote.
Bill Brosmer, another admirer who said he did not know of Painter before seeing him commenting on Trump, echoed the praise. “I appreciate your straight forward delivery, not allowing this administration off the hook for unethical behavior,” he said in a February 2018 email.
“You and [others] are a calming [presence] on my anxious days caused by this less than forthcoming president and administration,” he added.
In a question-and-answer article for a public relations trade magazine, Painter was asked: “Are you worried about your safety or your career aspirations for being so vocal?”
But not everyone was a fan.
In a letter to the law school dean in June 2018, St. Paul attorney Daniel Hintz was blunt. “This isn’t about his politics or the fact he is running for office,” Hintz said in explaining his criticism to Jenkins. “It[‘s] his behavior on social media, which ranges from hysterical to outright abusive and misogynistic.
“I thought the U of M law school was better than this. Maybe not,” added Hintz, who described himself as a “lifelong Democrat.”
An email from John Hurabiell to Painter was likewise critical. “You lack ethics. Your lies about President Trump paint you as a leftist hack. You served the disreputable George W. Bush as his house lackey and continue to do so. Your lies will destroy any semblance of credibility that you possess,” Hurabiell , who said he was “ashamed” he voted for Bush, wrote in a December 2017 email.
Painter’s attacks on Trump however often found him in select, though politically left-leaning, company.
In the January 2017 lawsuit against Trump that caught Jenkins by surprise, Painter was joined by several leading legal luminaries. Among them were Laurence Tribe, a Harvard constitutional lawyer, Norman Eisen, an Obama administration ethics lawyer and Erwin Chemerinsky, the then-law school dean at the University of California-Irvine.
While Painter had a decade before served as an ethics lawyer for Bush, a Republican president, the lawsuit against Trump in early 2017 was filed by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. The New York Times, in writing about the lawsuit, said that the group had been controlled by David Brock, a Democratic operative and supporter of 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. Painter, at the time of the lawsuit filing, was the group’s vice chair, the newspaper said. (He is no longer listed as a board member for the organization, which was formed in 2003).
Painter’s Trump criticism drew media, public attention
With Trump making headlines daily, Painter found himself in demand. When Painter was finalizing an appearance at Duke University’s law school, a school official asked: “Any chance you would like to do a summer workshop at the law school?”
In his resume, which were part of the documents obtained by PRM, Painter stated that he had made eight appearances testifying before Congress, had written five books and published more than two dozen opinion articles – several of which he co-authored with Eisen, the Obama ethics lawyer.
In a one-month period after Trump was elected in 2016, Painter co-wrote one opinion article with the title “Trump Could Be in Violation of the Constitution His First Day in Office” in the Atlantic, another with the headline “Trump’s Ethical Disaster” in the New York Times and co-wrote a third with the title “Trump’s ‘Blind Trust’ is neither blind nor trustworthy” in the Washington Post. A fourth, with the title, “Is it Possible for Trump to be a Good President,” appeared in the New York Times just one day after Trump’s election.
The documents also showed that Painter at times suggested political strategy to try to thwart Trump.
In October 2017, Painter tried to convince colleagues in a group calling attention to Trump’s conflicts of interest that being critical of Republicans in the U.S. Senate for not going far enough in their criticisms of the president might not be a good strategy. “Rather than getting up on the high horse and calling people out for not acting, [let’s] give them the praise they deserve for now and then try to reach out,” he wrote.
“I recommend an attempt to set up meetings with offices of the following senators to see what can be done: [John] McCain, [Jeff] Flake, [Bob] Corker, [Susan] Collins, and perhaps [Ben] Sasse. If three of them will join Democrats in demanding investigations, subpoenas etc, we are over the top,” Painter wrote in an email.
University documents obtained by PRM show that Painter became more strident as he stepped up his attacks on the Trump administration.
After Wright, the senior fellow at the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, praised him in her February 2017 email, Painter replied by telling her that “you are someone I want to hear from, as opposed to the flood of nut cases who email me every time I go on TV to talk about Trump.”
He expressed similar views eight months later, according to the documents. When Sara Courtney of The Opposition, a late night, TV talk and satire show, thanked him in October 2017 for appearing on a telecast, Painter was equally blunt. “[I] hope you will ask me on your show again -that was so much fun!” he replied. “You and your colleagues are wonderful –and I miss you all after dealing with Tucker Carlson [of Fox News] last night on his show. The topic was guns, and he wouldn’t let me get a word in. Then my email in box filled up with hate mail from gun nuts all over the Country.”
Painter was similarly direct when three men were arrested for firing at protesters at the University of Florida. The protesters had marched in October 2017 against the speaking appearance of white nationalist Richard Spencer at the school.
“If these three thugs had been Mexicans or Muslims POTUS [the President of the United States] would have been tweeting all day about it,” Painter said in a social media post.
Painter’s matter-of-fact comments continued. When Trump’s former campaign chair Paul Manafort and others were indicted in October 2017, Painter told a NBC Universal official: “It’s only the beginning – but this shows deep ties with the Russians and lying about it.”
In July 2017, Painter again did not mince words. In a MSNBC interview at the time, Painter said it “borders on treason” for Donald Trump Jr. to have met with a Russian lawyer who claimed to have compromising information on Clinton, Trump’s 2016 presidential opponent.
He was encouraging – but also did not hold back words – after Tanya Chavis emailed Painter in October 2017 to compliment him on a television appearance on MSNBC. “You said everything I am feeling and sensing,” she wrote from North Carolina.
Replied Painter: “You are out where the Trump voters are – you need to get out there and convince them that he is a fake!”
Painter’s legal actions and frank speaking style quickly made him a media favorite – and he found himself increasingly having to juggle his media appearances and his teaching commitments at the University of Minnesota.
One instance came in November 2017 when NBC Universal wanted him for an interview at 3 in the afternoon. “I have a class to teach today that ends at 3:20 EST but I could end the class early if you put me on the latter part of the show and send a car over to the U of Minnesota Law School,” he wrote in an email.
Soon Painter was being asked by media outlets to offer instant comments on a wide variety of Trump-related topics – from whether Trump-branded wine should be sold in National Parks to whether Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway faced ethical trouble for criticizing a Democratic U.S. Senate candidate in Alabama.
“Was [Republican Sen. Lindsey] Graham’s recent tweet proclaiming Trump’s golf club ‘spectacular’ a legal violation in any way?” journalist Sarah Kendzior asked Painter in December 2017.
Newsweek magazine’s Chris Riotta emailed Painter in November 2017 about Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, Trump’s daughter and son-in-law, using a Trump organization helicopter to fly to Vermont. (Trump’s daughter and son-in-law serve as advisors to the president). “I’m wondering whether their use of a family business helicopter raises any red flags for you?” Riotta asked.
In May 2017, the Larry King Show wanted to know if Painter was available to comment on Trump’s firing of FBI director James Comey. A person with the show emailed the university law school professor to say that King, the longtime talk show personality, “really enjoys having you on.”
In December 2017, NBC Universal wanted Painter to appear on a show – and told Painter the topic would cover a variety of Trump-related topics. “You need a ride over to the studio[?]” Justin Oliver of NBC Universal wrote in an email. “Topic will be Trump vs ethics. (‘Drain the swamp’, Trump cabinet, Trump properties, conflicts of interest).”
The media requests for Painter kept coming. In just one 12-day period in November 2017, the law school professor jumped into the fray concerning reports that U.S. Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross invested in a shipping company that had ties to members of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s family and political inner circle. (“That would be a criminal offense,” Painter told NBC News, referring to whether Ross should participate in talks about the U.S. imposing sanctions on Russia while he held a stake in a company with ties to Russian officials).
Three days later, Painter was contacted by Now This News. “If you happen to be in NY, DC or SF and are interested in shooting something quickly on the latest AT&T/TimeWarner deal news, let me know!” Nico Pitney of Now This emailed Painter on Nov. 8.
Eight days after that, MSNBC’s Marina Di Marzo prepared Painter on another upcoming interview. “We’ll be very much in your wheelhouse this evening,” Di Marzo assured him, “as we’ll be focusing on Trump’s many ethical dilemmas, particularly involving his private businesses.”
The next day, Steven Abel called Painter’s attention to another topic. The email was titled, “Most obvious conflict of interest yet.” Abel wanted to make sure Painter knew that Trump was reportedly attempting to subvert a law so that one of Trump’s sons “could bring big game trophies into the country.”
As Trump’s first year in office drew to a close, Unjilli Malik emailed to offer his appreciation of Painter – and joined others in portraying the law school professor as an important voice in a difficult time.
“I am so proud that America has on its side an intelligent person with common sense which is a rare quality. I salute you!” Malik wrote in December 2017. “Trump leans toward authoritarianism [so it’s] no wonder that [he] holds Putin in such high esteem. This is just my point of view. I personally think the Russians have paid off Trump’s [financial] debt.
”I hope I am not being too dramatic with my views,” Malik continued, “but this whole situation has left me with a sense of hopelessness for America.”
Flurry of attention ended in Senate primary run
Painter’s high public profile eventually led to a bid for public office, when he ran in a special election for the U.S. Senate seat vacated by DFLer Al Franken. Painter ran in the Democratic primary against former Lt. Gov. Tina Smith, who had been appointed to the position by then-Gov. Mark Dayton.
When Painter announced his Senate run in March of 2018 – saying “I’m going to do it my way” – the university’s law school dean moved quickly to alert university officials. “We did get a heads up and were able to inform key university officials in advance,” Jenkins wrote in an e-mail.
The documents also showed that the dean received another Google alert in June of 2018. The Google alert highlighted a new political ad with Painter standing in front of a burning garbage dumpster. In the 40-second ad, complete with police sirens in the background, Painter said “some people see a dumpster fire and do nothing but watch the spectacle, [others] shrug and say, ‘Oh, all this talk about dumpster fire – it’s just fake news.’ [But] there is an inferno raging in Washington.”
Painter eventually lost the primary bid to Smith, who is the incumbent in the 2020 Senate race in Minnesota.