Charles Harder fell in love with the University of California, Santa Cruz, the first time he visited in the fall of 1986. He remembers the wispy clouds, bright blue sky and wet-glistening dew of the forest around him. The scene reminded him of the trips that his best friend’s mom would take him and his buddy on to National Parks like Yosemite.
“I was over the moon; I just loved it,” Harder, 48, recalls. “It was like we were simpatico.”
The following year, Harder moved from the San Fernando Valley to Santa Cruz, where he began his freshman year at UCSC as a biology major, but soon switched to politics. He embedded himself in the local Democratic scene, leading the UCSC College Democrats. “No one else wanted to do it,” he says.
In addition to working for several local left-leaning politicians, Harder remembers winning awards from U.S. Sen. Dianne Feinstein and future Obama-appointee Leon Panetta, among others.
Those who knew Harder, a 1991 graduate of the university’s Merrill College, and have followed his post-college career have been surprised to see where it has led him. Now an attorney, he’s defending Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, as his personal attorney.
“If you told any of us back in 1990 that he’d be working for Trump, we’d say you’re fucking crazy, because he was a liberal guy,” says a former staffer at the Santa Cruz Independent, a campus newspaper where Harder once worked, who asked to remain anonymous.
Harder has been working for Trump on a few cases, including the lawsuit brought by porn star Stormy Daniels over a dispute about hush money stemming from an alleged affair she had with the president. Harder’s also defending him against former aide and fellow reality television star Omarosa Manigault. Trump may be one of the most polarizing presidents in American history, but Harder says representing him has nothing to do with politics.
“The things where I’ve represented the president, they really have nothing to do with public policy,” Harder says, his shoes kicked off in his Beverly Hills office, revealing socks with a pattern of dancing hula girls. “I’m not representing him on immigration or the environment or the economy or foreign policy. I have nothing to do with any of that. So people should not look to me as if I have any role to play on that, because I don’t.”
He says he has no “litmus test” for potential clients. Rather, he takes on cases he likes and that he thinks have merit. About two-thirds of potential cases don’t make the cut.
Harder is also representing the Trump campaign and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner. He represented Melania Trump in a defamation suit against the Daily Mail that settled for $2.9 million. Last year, he wrote the New York Times a letter on behalf of Harvey Weinstein, threatening to sue if the paper ran its months-long investigative report into sexual assault allegations against the movie mogul. Harder resigned from Weinstein’s legal team days after the story, which would win a Pulitzer Prize, was published.
Harder’s big break was representing Hulk Hogan against Gawker Media in a case reportedly funded to the tune of $10 million by Silicon Valley venture capitalist Peter Thiel, who had a vendetta against the website, at least in part, because it outed him as gay. (Thiel, coincidentally, later served as an adviser to Trump, most notably on his transition team to the presidency.) The lawsuit culminated in a $140 million judgment and raised concerns among free press advocates that other billionaires might use the courts to take down news outlets they don’t like.
Conn Hallinan, a longtime journalist who served as UCSC’s print media adviser and remembers the Independent, paints Harder’s media work as a “dangerous” piece in a changing landscape of threats to news organizations.
“If someone sues you, you may be able to win the case, but the average decision for one of those suits is $45,000,” Hallinan says. “If small publications get charged with defamation, it may put them out of business. Anything that encourages these cases is very dangerous to the press.”
But Harder argues that Gawker’s blatant refusal to take down the video amounted to a “horrific privacy violation”—and that, were it not for outside help, Hogan would have never been able to afford the legal fees.
Politically, Harder says he strongly supports the environment and civil rights, but also believes that government spending and taxes are out of control. He has a vision that government should work more like a smartphone app, like Uber. Disillusioned by the news media, he sees CNN and the New York Times as being as far to the left as Fox News is to the right. His views, he says, have evolved slowly over time.
Say what you will about Harder—you might find his politics confusing or perhaps believe that he’s protecting a president who shows dangerously authoritarian tendencies. In conversation, though, even a total novice could plainly see that Harder is a no-nonsense lawyer. I knew, even in the midst of my discussion with him, that this was a bizarre revelation to come to. Considering that he is an attorney involved in one of the news cycle’s highest-profile lawsuits, it should go without saying.
But I only had to follow the antics of prosecuting attorney Michael Avenatti, who seems to be using the legal system to run for the Democratic nomination for president—and whose skill for trolling the American public nearly matches that of the sitting president himself—to know that Daniels, sympathetic as many Americans might find her, might not have an easy day in court.
“Lawyers run the gamut,” Harder says. “You could have a lawyer that barely passed the bar and is unethical. You could have lawyers that are super geniuses, but they’re evil geniuses. You could have lawyers who are super by-the-book. The approach that I take is that I have fun, but I’m very serious.”
This is an abridged version of an article that originally appeared in our sister publication, the Santa Cruz Good Times.