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Politics

The Oil Money Funding Trump’s Legal Defense

Some of the industry’s biggest boosters and beneficiaries really, really want to keep Trump out of jail.

Donald Trump.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

With $6.4 million, you could pay to remove 4,923 tons of carbon from the atmosphere. You could buy 533 used Chevy Bolts — far more than enough to give one to every incoming freshman at Swarthmore College — or supply an entire county with low- and no-emissions buses.

Or, if you’re the oil and gas industry, you could donate it to the former president of the United States to help cover his mounting legal fees.

According to new analysis by the strategic communications group Climate Power, allies of Big Oil pumped more than $6.4 million into Donald Trump’s joint fundraising committee in just the first three months of 2024 — on pace to surpass the $6.9 million the industry contributed in all of 2023. “From the private equity firm execs to investors to anti-climate activists like Linda McMahon, Trump’s Small Business administrator — they all want Trump to undo our climate and clean energy progress,” Alex Witt, Climate Power’s senior advisor on oil and gas, told me. “And they want their jobs back.”

It’s no secret that the oil and gas industry has bolstered Trump’s money-strapped campaign. The recent slate of donations to a fundraising vehicle called the Trump 47 Committee, has allowed the former president to accept large checks from individuals and prioritize the allotment of those funds. In this way, the Trump 47 Committee works like a one-stop shop for well-heeled supporters like Linda McMahon, formerly Trump’s Small Business Administration head and a vocal proponent and investor in the Keystone XL pipeline and promoter of offshore drilling, and Kelcy Warren, the billionaire CEO of the pipeline operator Energy Transfer Partners. Both maxed out the committee’s $814,600 allowed contribution.

Trump 47 is technically a joint fundraising committee, a type of entity allowed by the Federal Election Commission to bundle donations going to multiple channels. This is nice for donors, who can cut a single check that then gets divided among various buckets — in this case, the Trump campaign, the Save America PAC, the RNC, and 39 different state committees, in that sequence. Critics say this form of fundraising is a way around election laws that aim to limit how much a wealthy individual can donate to a given candidate. Importantly, super PACs can’t donate to candidates or their campaigns, or coordinate things like messaging with them; the money raised by a joint fundraising committee is directed by a candidate (including into PACs), giving them fuller influence over the donations. (Joe Biden uses joint fundraising committees, too.)

The Trump 47 Committee has prioritized funneling these donations toward a PAC that covers the president’s legal fees, rather than toward the Republican National Committee, which is also struggling financially. While this strategy does not allow donors to get around the individual contribution limit of $5,000 per year to a political action committee, it does mean that after the first $6,600 of a donation made to the Trump 47 Committee (which goes toward Trump’s primary and general election accounts), the subsequent $5,000 of each donation is earmarked for the Save America PAC.

As a “leadership PAC,” Save America can’t be used on Trump’s campaign activities; instead, it is structured to cover administrative expenses. That has kept it plenty busy: The PAC has covered fees for 70 different lawyers and law firms, USA Today reports, with legal spending making up about 85% of its overall use. Between January and the end of March, Save America put a total of $8.5 million toward Trump’s legal woes, including $5.5 million in March alone. (Fossil fuel allies have also donated large amounts to MAGA Inc., a PAC that has refunded millions to Save America.)

The higher donation limits of a JFC make it more appealing for supporters who want to cut big checks, and most individuals quickly pass the $6,600 threshold. In my review of the 30 oil and gas industry executives, investors, and allies who donated to the Trump 47 Committee, according to Climate Power, I found none who donated less than $100,000.

The Trump campaign has been quick to defend itself against allegations that it is prioritizing ex-president over party by pointing out that “out of an individual donor’s maximum contribution of $824,600, less than 1% goes to Save America.”(The Trump campaign had not replied to Heatmap’s request for comment by press time.) It’s true that of the $6.4 million Big Oil allies donated to the Trump 47 Committee this year, roughly 2% has ended up in Save America’s coffers, per my own back of the envelope math.

What’s shocking isn’t how much money this amounts to in the grand scheme of the obscene amounts of capital going toward defending Trump, however. Rather, it’s that oil and gas allies — including Ray Washburn, on Sunoco’s board of directors; Peter Leidel, an oil and coal company director; and Robert Mercer, who’s funded climate misinformation — have given gobs of money to help defeat criminal charges against a former holder of, and candidate for, the presidency of the United States. For this there is no precedent. Fossil fuel interests “have made it super clear that they are willing to help pay Trump’s legal defense to help keep him out of jail,” Witt told me.

As an especially ironic footnote, Biden has in certain senses been better for the oil and gas industry than his predecessor. A more unpredictable leader, Trump was evidently a second or third choice among for many of the fossil fuel industry’s biggest donors among the crowded field of Republican candidates, both in 2016 and this time around. Oil and gas magnate Harold Hamm, for example, initially avoided committing to a Trump second term — only to come around to such an extent that he was even rumored to have helped the former president meet his recent $454 million bond.

It’s, frankly, a canny move. Plenty has already been written about Big Oil effectively buying influence over policy. Just yesterday, Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who has received $750,000 from the fossil fuel industry since his election in 2010, pulled the Senate’s Big Oil disinformation hearing off track by ranting about “climate change alarmism.”

It doesn’t take much creativity to imagine what Trump might do for his friends if he retakes the highest office.

“There’s absolutely no doubt that he would deliver Big Oil’s wish list wrapped up in a bow,” Witt said.

Jeva Lange profile image

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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