A Q&A With Trevor Potter, Stephen Colbert’s Lawyer
The DC-based lawyer talks super PACs, TV appearances, and those Mitt Romney serial killer ads.
It’s been a while since we last caught up with Trevor Potter, the Washington lawyer hired by Comedy Central’s Stephen Colbert to help the star form his super PAC. Since Potter’s first appearance on The Colbert Report last spring, what the former Federal Election Commission (FEC) chairman assumed would be a one-time thing has turned into a regular TV gig. And thanks to Colbert, Potter has landed another celebrity client: the host of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show, Jon Stewart. When Colbert decided to run for “President of the United States of South Carolina” leading up to the Republican primary in the state earlier this month, he had to give up control of his super PAC. Colbert handed the reins to Stewart, who then asked Potter to also represent him.
There is now a Facebook fan page dedicated to Potter—a Republican who has also advised Senator John McCain and former president George H.W. Bush. Potter even admits to occasionally getting recognized in public. He chats with us here about what the experience has been like. The interview has been edited for length.
How many times have you been on The Colbert Report and The Daily Show at this point?
I’ve lost track, but I think it’s seven or eight times.
When you were first retained by Colbert in April, did you have any idea it would turn into such a big deal?
I can say I had absolutely no idea whatsoever. I thought I was going on one time for one show, and then when he asked me if I could become his lawyer and help him with the super PAC, I assumed it was primarily a legal assignment. While I knew it might involve doing something else, it did not occur to me this would be an ongoing production. Obviously, the reason it is an ongoing production is that Mr. Colbert is committed to making sure everything he does is visible to the public so they can understand how this process works.
Has it gotten to the point where you’re getting recognized in public?
Fortunately, not too often. Every once in a while, yes. I was at a reception for the opening of a new restaurant in Washington, and a nice guy in his twenties came up and said, “Mr. Potter, I just want to thank you for everything you’re doing.” And I thought to myself, What am I doing? He said, “I mean, on the show.” That was very nice of him.
What restaurant opening was it?
Rogue 24. It was a pre-opening reception, to be precise.
What do your partners and coworkers at your law firm, Caplin & Drysdale, think of all this?
I think in today’s world any law firm is happy to be known for its high-quality legal services. Not only does Mr. Colbert talk about Caplin & Drysdale on the show, but when he came to the Federal Election Commission, he said he was represented by the best law firm he could find. Beyond that, more seriously, I think my partners feel it’s a good thing for the firm for people to understand that we do a range of work, and that we have a sense of humor.
What about reactions from your other clients?
Actually a number of them seem to be following the show and the progression. The interesting reaction I’ve had is, “You know, for the first time, I think I really understand how all this works.” There are an awful lot of people who follow this stuff but find, as I do, that Colbert has a real genius for taking a complicated subject, really understanding it, and turning it into a four-and-a-half-minute explanation that people can grasp. He distills it to the essence.
You’ve long been an advocate for campaign finance reform. What are your personal thoughts on the rise of super PACs and the role they’re playing in this election cycle?
I’m a believer that in order for this country to work as a functioning democracy that citizens have to have faith in their elections system, and in their legislative system. They have to think that when they vote, it counts. The risks with huge sums of money given to candidates or the super PACs affiliated with the candidates is that people come to feel like that money is buying elections, or worse, buying legislative outcomes. That’s not a democratic form of government. That’s an oligarchy. That’s not what this country should be. If the perception grows that somebody is buying the election, or buying legislation, the government loses legitimacy and the voters lose faith that they ultimately are the ones who control the system.
I think there is a risk of corruption and of the perception of corruption when you have huge sums being given or spent in elections. People are going to feel indebted to whoever spent that huge sum and got them into office. People are going to feel cowed and afraid at the prospect that someone with huge sums of money can spend them out of office if they don’t do what that person is asking them to do. It’s the flip side of the legislative process—if you don’t vote my way, I can defeat you by funding your opponent. The problem with the super PACs, particularly these so-called candidate super PACs, is they get very close to what I’m describing. They get very close to corruption or the appearance of corruption. We read in the press that someone gave $5 million to Newt Gingrich and that’s what allowed him to win South Carolina. If Mr. Gingrich becomes president, he’s going to owe Mr. Adelson his election, perhaps.
Leading up to the South Carolina primary, Colbert and Jon Stewart made a big to-do about not coordinating with each other over the super PAC. Were they exaggerating that issue, or was their portrayal of it realistic?
The Supreme Court said [in the Citizens United decision] that these independent expenditures would not be corrupting because they would be wholly independent of the candidate. What Colbert and Stewart did was say we can be business partners and still not coordinate. That’s true. The FEC regulations have holes you can drive trucks through, and people are driving trucks through them all the time. You can have the business partner of the campaign manager running the super PAC, and that is still considered not coordinated under the FEC regulations. The FEC has even said the candidate can go out and raise money for the super PAC to a certain limit, and that the candidate can thank the donors for giving to the super PAC, which Romney has done. He went to an event and thanked the donors. Everyone blames the Supreme Court and Citizens United, but the mess we’re in right now is not solely the result of Citizens United. The Supreme Court said these things would be wholly independent, and they’re not. Their defenders say we’re complying with the FEC regulations, and that shows how bad the regulations are.
Did you consult on the ads the Colbert super PAC ran in South Carolina?
Yes. One of the things election lawyers do is review ads, make sure they have the correct disclaimer, make sure they specify who the organization is that’s paying for them. You review the ad to make sure they don’t libel anyone, and for whatever else the legal compliance issues are. So yes, Caplin & Drysdale reviewed those ads.
Did you hear any feedback from your Republican friends in Washington about the ad that called Mitt Romney a serial killer?
Oh, I was asked by several people when the super PAC was going to start running ads about Obama, which I thought indicated those ads cut pretty close to the bone. But I think what Stephen Colbert is doing here is one, being very funny, and two, explaining how all this works. I don’t view it as anti-Republican.
What’s next? Any upcoming appearances?
The nice thing about this particular client is that I never have any idea what’s next. I just wait for the phone to ring.