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.