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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
Follow the Money Behind the Capitol Riot
Mykola Sosiukin/EyeEm

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.