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Trump Shows That Money in Politics Still Counts

Given the relatively small sum spent by his campaign, some concluded that the era of big money politics is over. However, a look at Trump’s cabinet picks shows that’s not the case

January 6, 2017

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

In 1846, there was an advert­ise­ment in the Spring­field, Illinois Gazette that said, “West­ward ho. Who wants to go to Cali­for­nia without cost­ing them anything?” The ad was signed G. Donner. Respond­ing to the appeal, a group of trav­el­ers, includ­ing several famil­ies, got snowed in by a bliz­zard on the way to the West Coast. They were trying to take a “short cut” to Cali­for­ni­a—the land of milk and honey—but they ended up eating each other (liter­ally). They are typic­ally remembered as the Donner Party.  Donald Trump’s cabinet is shap­ing up to be the Donors Party.

One common refrain during the 2016 campaign was that Trump’s success both in the primary season and the general elec­tion proved that money in polit­ics does­n’t matter. And while Trump did beat better-funded candid­ates such as Jeb Bush and Hillary Clin­ton, Trump always had his personal wealth to tap into at a moment’s notice. In the end, he supplied 22 percent of the $247 million his campaign spent.

"I want people that made a fortune.” Trump has said of his cabinet picks.  The idea that these indi­vidu­als will work for the public good instead of their own narrow self- interest is as seduct­ive as Donner’s 1846 advert­ise­ment purport­ing to give some­thing of value for noth­ing.

What the Trump cabinet choices show is that money in polit­ics is still a large determ­in­ate of who gets posi­tions of power.  After the Supreme Court’s twin decisions in McCutcheon and Citizens United, donors don’t have be choosy about where they spend their largesse in polit­ics. Citizens United allows donors to put money in an unlim­ited set of Super PACs to fund inde­pend­ent ads and McCutcheon allows donors to give hard money dona­tions to all federal candid­ates simul­tan­eously.  And add onto that the grow­ing dark money prob­lem which allows big donors to hide their role if they wish.

And that’s just spend­ing in federal elec­tions. Big donors have been bank­rolling the Repub­lican Governors Asso­ci­ation (RGA) for years.  A couple years back I did a study of the donors to the RGA between 2002 and 2010.  Those in the million-dollar donor RGA club were: Paul Singer (a legendary hedge fund manager), Richard DeVos (co-founder of Amway), Shel­don Adel­son (owner of the Sands Casino), and David Koch (part owner of Koch Indus­tries).

Big donors like these often give as members of a family (fath­ers and sons, husbands and wives, or broth­ers). In the 2016 cycle the RGAs donors include multiple members of the DeVos family, Paul Singer ($500,000), Shel­don Adel­son ($500,000) and Koch Indus­tries –-the privately held corpor­a­tion owned by the Koch Broth­er­s—which gave the RGA $2 million.

Of this group, Trump picked Betsy DeVos as his nominee for Secret­ary of Educa­tion. (She’s the daugh­ter-in-law of Richard DeVos.) Besides their long-term fund­ing of the RGA, the DeVos family gave to the RNC and Trump’s campaign.  I’m wait­ing for the other shoe to drop on other histor­ical big donors being named to posi­tions of power.

But newer big donors are already getting the nod. Linda McMa­hon and her husband Vincent (of World Wrest­ling Enter­tain­ment) gave millions to support Trump and the Repub­lican Super PAC support­ing Senate Repub­lican candid­ates, among other conser­vat­ive causes.  Ms. McMa­hon is now Trump’s nominee to run the Small Busi­ness Admin­is­tra­tion.

Todd Rick­etts is the son of billion­aire Joe Rick­etts. Before this elec­tion, the two were best known as owners of the no-longer-cursed-by-a-goat team known as the Chicago Cubs. Todd is now Trump’s pick to be Deputy Commerce Secret­ary. Todd Rick­etts followed an unusual traject­ory to land his job. He began the 2016 cycle as fundrais­ing co-chair for Wiscon­sin Gov. Scott Walker. After Walker left the race, the Rick­etts family, whose polit­ical contri­bu­tions Todd manages, gave $5.5 million to a super PAC oppos­ing Trump. But then, late in the general elec­tion campaign, Todd helped raise $66 million for two pro-Trump super PACs. Although Trump is notori­ous for never forget­ting a slight, money has a remark­able way of indu­cing amne­sia.

Mean­while, Steven Mnuchin who is Trump’s pick for Treas­ury secret­ary, gave over $300,000 to conser­vat­ives in 2016, accord­ing to Open Secrets. By the stand­ards of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, Mnuch­in’s polit­ical dona­tions are trivial. Perhaps that’s because, relat­ively speak­ing, Mnuchin is a pauper. His net worth is roughly estim­ated at a paltry $40 million

And Trump’s pick for Secret­ary State, Exxon­Mobil CEO and Putin Pal, Rex Tiller­son, gave more than $70,000 to Repub­lic­ans in 2016 and over $400,000 over the past 24 years. Yet, these contri­bu­tions obscure Tiller­son’s real polit­ical finan­cial power. At least from what’s publicly avail­able, Exxon­Mobil has contrib­uted $7.1 million to Repub­lican candid­ates since 2010, repres­ent­ing 87 percent of its total candid­ate contri­bu­tions. Mean­while, the company gave another $5.8 million to PACs during this period, and it’s a safe bet most of them suppor­ted Repub­lic­ans.

Given Exxon­Mobil’s size, it’s perhaps not surpris­ing that nearly 8 percent of members of the House and Senate repor­ted owning stock in the energy behemoth. Yet Exxon’s stock­hold­ers include Rep. James Sensen­bren­ner (R-Wisc.), who sits on the House Subcom­mit­tee on Envir­on­ment, which over­sees envir­on­mental stand­ards set by the Envir­on­mental Protec­tion Agency. And in the Senate, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) is a member of the Subcom­mit­tee on Surface Trans­port­a­tion, which over­sees the Pipelines and Hazard­ous Mater­i­als Safety Admin­is­tra­tion.

So lecture me again about how money in polit­ics has noth­ing to do with power. Please. The Donors Party is about to move into the admin­is­tra­tion. We’ll see what short cuts they make and what fate befalls them. But just as the Donner Party’s cost to get to Cali­for­nia was not “noth­ing,” the cost for having a cabinet of billion­aires likely won’t be zero either.  

(Photo: Think­Stock)