(Reuters) - President Trump told Fox News’ Chris Wallace that he is a strong proponent of an effort by Senate Republicans to immunize businesses from liability to workers and consumers in Congress’ next COVID-19 relief bill. Otherwise, the president said in an interview that aired Sunday, businesses “are going to get sued just because somebody walked in.”
Democrats oppose immunity, Trump said, because they’re in the back pocket of trial lawyers. “They’re totally captured by the lobby of lawyers,” the president told Wallace. “The lawyers’ lobby is probably the most powerful in the country.”
Statistics from OpenSecrets.org, the website for the Center for Responsive Politics, cast doubt on the proposition that the trial lawyers’ bar is the most powerful lobbying group in the country and that Democrats are beholden to trial lawyers for campaign contributions.
In 2019, the latest year for which Open Secrets provides data on lobbying expenditures, the national trial lawyers’ group American Association for Justice spent about $5.3 million on lobbying – which, according to Open Secrets, ranked the group 83rd on Open Secrets’ list of top lobbyists. (AAJ’s spending in recently years has focused on prospective legislation to roll back corporate mandatory arbitration provisions.) The U.S. Chamber, which frequently decries the influence of the trial lawyers’ lobby, spent nearly $22 million on lobbying efforts. The National Association of Realtors spent $13.7 million, the leading trade group for pharmaceutical companies spent $9.1 million and the American Hospital Association spent $7.2 million, according to Open Secrets rankings.
What about campaign contributions? AAJ’s political action committee aims to raise $6 million in every two-year federal campaign cycle, according to AAJ’s website. In the 2018 elections, Open Secrets reported, AAJ’s PAC contributed about $2.7 million to other PACs, with Democratic groups garnering all of the biggest donations. Individual candidates received $2.4 million from the AAJ political action committee. Only $115,000 of that $2.4 million went to Republican candidates.
But to put the AAJ money in context, lawyers and law firms contributed a total of $174.5 million to individual candidates in the 2018 election cycle, according to Open Secrets. Contributions from members of the legal industry skew heavily toward Democrats, who received $138 million in the cycle, compared to $36.5 million for Republican candidates.
So far in the 2020 campaign cycle, AAJ has contributed $1.7 million, of which less than $50,000 has gone to Republicans. Lawyers from Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison – a defense firm that represents oil and pharmaceutical companies — have meanwhile donated $1.8 million to Democratic candidates in this campaign cycle, according to Open Secrets. Lawyers from another defense firm, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, has shelled out $1.5 million to Democrats. Kirkland & Ellis lawyers have given $1.4 million to Democratic candidates and $580,000 to Republicans. (Open Secrets’ data on the 2020 election is as of June 22.)
There are only two individual plaintiffs’ firms on Open Secrets’ list of top 2020 campaign contributors in the legal industry – Morgan & Morgan and Lieff Cabraser Heimann & Bernstein – and they’re both in the bottom half of the ranks. Morgan & Morgan lawyers have given $700,000, almost all of it to Democratic candidates, and Lieff Cabraser lawyers have donated $670,000. Otherwise, according to Open Secrets, the top contributors in the legal industry are all big defense firms – including frequent Trump campaign counsel Jones Day, whose lawyers donated more than half a million dollars to Democratic candidates and about $155,000 to Republicans. (Jones Day declined to comment.)
It’s important to note that the law firms on the Open Secrets list do not generally contribute as firms, although some have political action committees. The organization tabulates the total contributions by donors affiliated with the firms, typically individual lawyers.
The Democratic National Committee did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The AAJ didn’t directly address the issue of its campaign contributions and lobbying expenditures in an email statement responding to my query about President Trump’s claim that Democratic lawmakers are controlled by trial lawyers. The real story, the group said, is the “unconscionable” attempt by the president and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) to refuse to advance legislation providing relief to workers unless corporations receive broad immunity from liability for allowing consumers and employees to be exposed to the coronavirus.
“We are proud to serve as a voice for workers and consumers who now more than ever need powerful advocates fighting on their behalf,” AAJ said. President Trump even admitted in the Chris Wallace interview that it’s very difficult to pinpoint the source of anyone’s exposure to COVID-19, AAJ said, which means it will be difficult for plaintiffs to win personal injury suits blaming defendants for their illnesses. AAJ’s analysis of COVID-19 lawsuits in the Hunton Andrews Kurth database of coronavirus complaints found that fewer than 100 of the 3,500 COVID-19 cases in the data base were claims for personal injury or wrongful death. Employees have brought about 500 suits. “There has been no wave of COVOD-19 litigation,” AAJ said.
There’s no doubt that trial lawyers wield influence among Democratic politicians, said Robert Weissman of Public Citizen, which is allied with AAJ in opposition to COVID-19 liability immunization for corporations. (Public Citizen, unlike AAJ, does not contribute as a group to individual candidates though it did spend $390,000 on lobbying in 2019, according to Open Secrets.) But for the president, Weissman said, attacking trial lawyers is just a diversion to help Senator McConnell protect corporations.
“This is a no-brainer on the merits,” Weissman said. “There’s no intellectual, policy or public health case to be made.”
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