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Follow the Money Behind the Capitol Riot

Super PACs contributed to the officials who objected to certifying the 2020 election results, writes Brennan Center Fellow Ciara Torres-Spelliscy.

January 25, 2021

Donald Trump is the first president to be impeached twice. He currently faces an article of impeachment from the House for inciting an insurrection and for encouraging rioters who stormed the Capitol on January 6. Two senators who contributed the chaos by raising objections to electoral college votes from key swing states now face Ethics Committee investigations. And some members of Congress stand accused of leading reconnaissance tours on January 5 for the would-be rioters. But who funded these elected officials and their campaigns?

Let’s start at the top with President Trump, who egged on a crowd to go to the Capitol and “fight,” moments before they did just that. During the 2020 election, he was supported by two super PACs, America First Action and Preserve America PAC, according to Open SecretsPreserve America PAC was primarily bankrolled by the late Sheldon Adelson — perhaps best known as the founder, chairman, and CEO of Las Vegas Sands Casino — who contributed $90 million.

Meanwhile, American First Action received significant donations from three related Florida sugar companies: $725,000 from Fanjul Corp (which sells the Florida Crystals brand of sugar), $450,000 from New Hope Sugar Co., and $450,000 from Osceola Farms. Vital Pharmaceuticals, which produces the Bang brand of energy drinks, gave American First Action $250,000 during the 2020 election cycle. Three other Florida agricultural firms — Agro-Industrial Management, Americas Export Corp, and Sem-Chi Rice Products — gave the super PAC $350,000, $350,000, and $250,000, respectively. America First Action also received a mysterious $1 million donation from “Deuterium Electron LLC,” which seems to have no other online presence. 

During the 2018 election cycle, corporate-backed super PACs have also supported Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Josh Hawley (R-MO), who led objections in the Senate to the 2020 presidential election results. In a video of the insurrection released by the New Yorker, rioters invoked Cruz as wanting “us to do this.” Previously, Cruz was supported by the Texans Are super PAC. Contributions to this group included $250,000 from TRT Holdings, which owns Omni Hotels and Origins Behavioral Healthcare; $150,000 from Valero Energy; $90,000 from Jennmar, a coal mining supply company; and $50,000 from Holly Frontier, an oil refiner.

Hawley was infamously pictured giving a power salute to the rioters in real time on January 6. In 2018, he was supported by a small super PAC called CFG Action Missouri, which was bankrolled by Richard Uihlein, son of one of the founders of Schlitz beer, and who was once labeled by the New York Times as one-half of “the most powerful couple you’ve never heard of.” Additionally, Hawley was the beneficiary of huge Republican super PACs that supported multiple candidates.

In 2018, Hawley was also supported by the Senate Leadership Fund, which spent $196,842 in independent expenditures to support his campaign, and he was the beneficiary of $915,743 in coordinated expenditures from the National Republican Senatorial Committee. And the dark money group Americans for Prosperity spent nearly $4 million on ads attacking Hawley’s opponent, incumbent Claire McCaskill. 

The Electoral College objectors on the House side were so numerous that they cannot all be listed here. But Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) stands out because she allegedly gave a Capitol tour to a large group the day before the insurrection. During her first campaign for a federal office, Boebert was supported by PACs including Woodforest Financial Group, AIMCO, and Uline Inc., the latter of which is owned by aforementioned Richard Uihlein.

I do not mean to imply that any of these donors, corporate or otherwise, knew that the insurrection on the Capitol would occur. After January 6, many corporate PACs are rightly having a moment of reflection and are deciding to pull back their corporate donations to the officials who objected to the election results. 

But there are bigger questions raised by these campaign donations and political expenditures. For example, is this how we want our democracy to work? Do we want big donors to have the megaphone in our politics and to have such a big role in determining who is electable? Is risking money in politics a good use of shareholders’ investments? Should we allow dark money to be spent in federal elections at all? The For the People Act (H.R. 1/S.1) may be able to fix some of these problems, especially in terms of providing more transparency when it comes to money in politics. But other pieces of this puzzle — like discouraging corporations from bankrolling political ads in our elections — rely on the behavior of private, wealthy individuals.

There is another open question once the second impeachment is resolved. If Donald Trump can still run for another office of public trust, will his corporate backers line up in 2024 to fund his political ambitions again?

The views expressed are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Brennan Center.