Photograph by Scott Gries (PictureGroup)
In our July issue—on stands now—we told you about Washington lawyer Trevor Potter, who has been shepherding Comedy Central star Stephen Colbert through the process of forming a super PAC. Check out our piece below on how Potter, a longtime counsel to clients such as Sen. John McCain, became Colbert’s lawyer.
Potter has earned those legal fees. As of Thursday, he, along with the help of Matthew Sanderson, an associate at his law firm, achieved success when the Federal Election Commission approved Colbert’s Super PAC. For the second time, Colbert visited the FEC, bringing throngs of screaming fans and reporters to the typically quiet agency.
During remarks to the crowd, Colbert thanked his legal team: “We owe a debt to my lawyers Trevor Potter and Matt Sanderson of the heroic law firm Caplin & Drysdale. Two names that will go down with the great American duos—Lewis and Clark, Sacco and Vanzetti, Harold and Kumar.”
It’s a safe bet that two DC lawyers have never before been compared to Harold and Kumar.
What do Republican senator John McCain and Comedy Central’s faux pundit Stephen Colbert have in common? Their lawyer, Trevor Potter.
Fans of The Colbert Report have seen Potter—head of Caplin & Drysdale’s political-law practice and a lawyer in its Washington office—make four appearances on the show as he counsels Colbert on how to set up his super PAC, a new type of political-fundraising apparatus that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money.
Though the legal work is playing out before a TV audience and, in usual Colbert fashion, is meant to highlight the absurdities of campaign-finance rules, it’s not just entertainment. Colbert is a real client; Potter says he got the legal work the same way lawyers get much of their work—by referral. When Colbert decided to tackle federal-election-law issues, the show asked a New York attorney and former guest for recommendations. The attorney suggested Potter.
After conversations with Colbert and the program’s producers, Potter was invited on. Though he admits he doesn’t usually stay up late enough to watch the show, he had seen a few episodes. At the end of the taping, Colbert asked him to be his lawyer. “I essentially had the interview with the client on the air,” says Potter, whose prior TV experience was limited mostly to PBS and C-SPAN.
Potter is one of the nation’s top election-and-campaign-law experts, and he served as a commissioner and chair of the Federal Election Commission during the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations. So he was on familiar territory when he went with Colbert on a trip to the FEC to file paperwork for the Colbert Super PAC. The hundreds of waiting fans and reporters weren’t so typical. Potter notes that “five minutes of legal work” on The Colbert Report has become the most noticed thing he’s ever done.
Aside from the fact that one is a TV star and the other a DC lawyer, Colbert and Potter make an unusual duo for another reason. Colbert plays a staunchly conservative commentator on his show, but it’s an act meant to poke fun at the right. Potter, on the other hand, is a Republican and was general counsel to McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns.
But Potter says he and Colbert don’t talk personal politics. He says the comic is a good client and “has the mind” to be a good lawyer himself.
This article appears in the July 2011 issue of The Washingtonian.