Trump’s $1bn pitch to oil bosses ‘the definition of corruption’, top Democrat says

11 06 2024 | 07:57Peter Stone in Washington

Donald Trump’s brazen pitch to 20 fossil-fuel heads for $1bn to aid his presidential campaign in return for promises of lucrative tax and regulatory favors is the “definition of corruption”, a top Democrat investigating the issue has said.

“It certainly meets the definition of corruption as the founding fathers would have used the term,” Senator Sheldon Whitehouse said in an interview about Trump’s audacious $1bn request for big checks to top fossil-fuel executives that took place in April at his Mar-a-Lago club.

Whitehouse added: “The quid pro quo – so called – is so very evident … I can’t think of anything that matches this either in terms of the size of the bribe requested, or the brazenness of the linkages.”

Whitehouse and his fellow Democrat Ron Wyden have launched a joint inquiry, as chairs of the Senate budget and finance panels respectively, into Trump’s quid-pro-quo-style fundraising, which already seems to have helped spur tens of millions in checks for a Trump Super Pac from oil and gas leaders at a 22 May Houston event.

The two senators have written to eight big-oil chief executives and the head of the industry’s lobbying group seeking details about the Mar-a- Lago meeting, as has representative Jamie Raskin, the top Democrat on the oversight and accountability committee, who has begun a parallel investigation into the pay-to-play schemes that Trump touted to big oil leaders.

Amplifying those concerns, former Federal Election Commission general counsel Larry Noble said that Trump’s unusually aggressive money pitch “violates the letter and spirit” of campaign-finance laws, and a veteran Republican consultant called it “blatant pay to play”.

In a separate fossil-fuel inquiry, Raskin and Whitehouse released a joint report in April into long-running big-oil disinformation campaigns to undercut the enormous threats posed by global warming, which Trump has falsely labelled a “hoax”, and last week urged the justice department to investigate big-oil tactics to deceive the public.

Trump boasts a lengthy record of rejecting scientific evidence about the links between fossil-fuel usage and climate change: he has pushed a litany of bogus climate claims, including that windmills cause cancer and that electric cars are “bad” for the environment, while promising to end tax breaks for EVs if he wins this fall.

Further, in a major rebuke to environmental advocates and international efforts to curb global warming, Trump in 2017 announced the US was pulling out of the Paris agreement to limit climate change, a much-criticized move that Joe Biden reversed.

Trump’s “drill, baby, drill” mantra and his deep animosity toward alternative energy sources have been part of his fundraising pitches to oil and gas moguls, triggering alarm about the dangers of another Trump presidency.

“The totality of … Trump, the fossil-fuel industry and a [conservative thinktank] Heritage Foundation blueprint advocate will put a dagger through efforts to avoid catastrophic warming,” said Joe Romm, a senior research fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for Science, Sustainability and the Media.

“Trump promises to undo every constraint on global warming. Trump has pushed more lies and disinformation about climate change than anyone ever has.”

Other climate scholars say Trump’s climate denialism is the culmination of years of fossil-fuel propaganda.

“Trump is an apotheosis of decades of denial, not only on the part of the fossil-fuel industry, but also by other industry allies, including now-certain billionaires, to deny the reality of the harms of unregulated, or very poorly regulated, capitalism,” said Naomi Oreskes, the co-author of Merchants of Doubt and a Harvard historian of science. “Donald Trump is the reductio ad absurdum of this rewriting of history, culminating in the big lie that he won the 2020 election.”

Trump’s strong embrace of climate-change denialism and his pro-big-oil policies were underscored by his aggressive $1bn pitch at Mar-a-Lago, which drew CEOs from giants such as Chevron and ExxonMobil, and the fracking multibillionaire Harold Hamm, the founder of Continental Resources, as the Washington Post first reported.

Hamm, an early Trump backer in 2016 and 2020 who took months before helping Trump’s current presidential bid, joined with two other industry CEOs to host a Super Pac bash in Houston that reportedly raised $40m on 22 May from attendees who paid at least $250,000 each to hear Trump promise more fracking and more pipelines if he wins.

Trump’s full-court press for fossil-fuel funds and political backing was palpable at an industry conference in North Dakota earlier in May, where Hamm surprised attendees by announcing Trump would join them via a video which featured bogus claims about the health of energy companies and the economy.

“Under ‘Crooked Joe Biden’, the American energy industry is under siege, it’s under crisis. [Biden] has made clear that he wants to abolish your industry and, with it, destroy our economy and send us into a new dark age of blackouts, poverty and de-industrialization,” said Trump.

The spotlight on Trump’s ardent pursuit of oil and gas donations comes after Biden championed major new regulatory, tax and spending measures to reduce global warming in a sharp break with Trump policies past and present.

Ironically, even as Biden succeeded in accelerating spending for green energy, and imposed new regulations on fracking on US lands and a moratorium on natural gas exports, oil and gas production in the US reached new highs in 2023 and major companies notched healthy profits.

Still, the oil and gas industry has been ponying up funds for Trump’s campaign faster than it did in 2020, according to the nonpartisan OpenSecrets group, which tracks money in politics.

The oil and gas industry has donated $7.3m to Trump’s campaign thus far, or more than three times the amount it gave at this point in 2020, OpenSecrets data shows.

Further, some industry titans have donated six- and seven-figure checks to a Trump Super Pac. Texas oilman and multibillionaire Tim Dunn gave $5m to Trump’s Make America Great Again Pac this year, and Hamm kicked in at least $200,000 last fall.

Campaign-finance watchdogs and some Republican veterans are dismayed by Trump’s fundraising tactics.

“Trump views everything as a transaction, so I’m not surprised,” said ex-GOP representative Dave Trott. “Any other politician who made these statements would be deemed dead on arrival because they’d be viewed as corrupt.”

Campaign-finance experts see other dangers in Trump’s heavy-handed fundraising appeals, which he links to favors.

“When wealthy special interests, like the oil and gas industry, have special access to candidates, and mechanisms to give them enough money to control their policy choices, everyday voters suffer,” said Shanna Ports, the Campaign Legal Center’s senior legal counsel for campaign finance.

“Trump’s request to oil executives is a troubling illustration of the quid pro quo corruption and pay-to-play-style politics that federal campaign laws are meant to prevent. Federal law includes strict contribution limits and bans corporate contributions precisely so candidates do not trade policy favors for campaign cash.”

Ports stressed that “candidates are forbidden from soliciting contributions that would break these laws – a prohibition that Trump may have violated”.

Likewise, Noble, the former Federal Election Commission general counsel, said Trump’s appeals for massive donations from oil and gas bigwigs [are] “pretty blatantly offering policy favors in exchange for large contributions”.

Little wonder, then, that top Senate and House Democrats are inquiring into whether Trump’s bald $1bn ask of big oil moguls broke campaign finance laws, as well as big oil’s long track record of spreading disinformation about global warming.

In Whitehouse and Raskin’s joint letter to the US attorney general, Merrick Garland, urging the DoJ to investigate big oil’s history of climate change disinformation, they drew parallels with the tobacco industry’s years of disinformation about the dangers smoking poses to human health.

“The DoJ is well situated to pursue further investigation and take any appropriate legal action, as it has in similar cases involving the tobacco and pharmaceutical industries,” they wrote.

Looking ahead to the November election, climate change experts predict another Trump presidency would decimate efforts to curb global warming.

“If Trump is elected and does what he has been saying and the fossil fuel industry wants, that would be the ruin of the United States and the world,” Romm, of the University of Pennsylvania, warned.

“Trump wants to roll back” the ambitious climate change steps and spending that the Biden administration has initiated, Romm added, saying: “We have dawdled a very long time on climate change. We need very sharp reductions. We can’t afford four years focused on raising emissions.”