Boycotting Trump’s funders

Josie Wexler and Merle Büter revisit Trump’s corporate connections.

In 2017, we investigated the companies who had donated to the Trump campaign or were visibly supporting his administration in some way, focusing on those which were consumer-facing in the UK.

Several years on, with another election approaching, we took another look.

Trump is not short of donor money. The coming US election is set to be easily the most expensive in history, and he has so far raised a lot more than Biden, although Biden is starting to catch up. He hasn’t spent a cent of his own money this time.

But there is a huge amount that we simply don’t know about who is funding Trump, due to the role of ‘dark money’ in US politics. ‘Dark money’ may sound like briefcases stuffed with cash being passed silently on park benches but, in reality, it is perfectly legal and parts of it are counted by the US Federal Election Commission.

Background on US campaign funding

The US refuses to regulate political spending like we do, on the basis that it would violate the first amendment right to free speech. Instead, it supposedly regulates at the other end – donations. It has a labyrinth of regulations about who may give what to whom, and one of the most notable is that corporations are forbidden from donating to political candidates or parties.

However, that is not the end of the story because corporates are allowed to give to groups that engage in what is called ‘outside spending’ – campaigning independently on politicians’ behalf. This includes ‘Super PACs’, which have to declare their donors, and ‘dark money’ groups, which are non-profits which can receive anonymous donations.

In reality, few companies give to Super PACs. There are exceptions, many of them energy companies – Koch has given $8.3 million to Super PACs in this round, and Chevron $2.9 million – all of it to Republicans. But still, in total, out of more than $1 billion raised by Super PACs (and a few other similar entities) in this election so far, only $45 million has come from corporations. The largest individual donor, Thomas Steyer, has donated more on his own (to Democrats) than all corporations put together

It could be that companies just don’t want to donate. But that isn’t the only possible explanation. Corporates have faced some very unwanted attention for giving to Super PACs, and why be bothered with that, when you can go the ‘dark money’ route? Sure, you might want politicians to know to whom they need to address their gratitude. But you also might just want them to win.

While dark money groups have reported spending nearly $1 billion on U.S. elections in the last decade, the Centre for Responsive Politics (CRP) (one of Ethical Consumer’s main sources of information in US campaign finance) argues that that figure is likely to be “the tip of the iceberg” because there are types of dark money that don’t need to be reported.

Individual donations

When it comes to individuals, there are, again, some limits on what can be donated to official campaigns, but when it comes to Super PACs, all limits are off.

Small donations do play a role. About 15% of the US population made some kind of political donation in 2016. But a New York Times analysis found that donations from fewer than 400 exceedingly rich families comprised nearly half of all publicly disclosed presidential campaign funding during the 2016 campaign cycle. On the Republican side, more than half of it was accounted for by just 130 families.

Some of these major donors inevitably have links to companies – they’re directors and chairmen and major shareholders. The CRP categorises individual donors according to the company that employs them, on the basis that major donations are likely to be from more senior staff.

But associating the donation with the company is made slightly more complicated by the fact that there can be conflicting donations from within the same company.

For example, one of Trump’s widely publicised biggest public donors during the 2016 campaign was Robert Mercer, co-chief executive officer of the hedge fund Renaissance Technologies. But at the same time, Renaissance’s founder James Simons is a prominent Democrat who supported Hillary Clinton. Overall, Renaissance staff gave about equally to both parties.

Major donors who have links with companies that are consumer-facing in the UK

Billionaires who gave significant amounts to Trump have been listed by various outlets such as Forbes. However, most are affiliated with US real estate, financial, health, and energy firms that do not operate in the UK, or they are effectively retired, having made their fortunes by selling their companies.

The names below, however, have some link with companies who are consumer-facing in the UK:

  • Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO of Blackstone, is often described as Trump’s biggest supporter on Wall Street. He has given $3.7 million to the 2020 campaign so far. Blackstone employees as a whole made $22 million in political donations in 2020, of which 58% went to Republicans, making it the company with the 2nd largest total staff donations to the GOP. 

    Blackstone is a private equity firm, which invests in other companies. It has sold some of the investments it had when we last reported on this in 2017, and no longer owns Jack Wolfskin or the SeaWorld centres that make whales perform tricks for entertainment. But it has bought Ancestry.com, the Bumble and Badoo dating apps, and Takeda Consumer Healthcare. It has also just bought a 10% stake in Oatly.
     

  • Isaac Perlmutter, chairman of Marvel Entertainment (the comic book division of Marvel), donated $360,000 to Trump in 2020 and $5 million to a Super PAC supporting Trump and other conservative candidates. Marvel Entertainment is a subsidiary of Walt Disney.
     
  • Oracle CEO Safra Catz and her husband Gal Tirosh gave $250,000 to Trump’s joint fundraising committees in June 2020.
     
  • Ronald Lauder, a director and shareholder in Estée Lauder, donated $100,000 to Trump’s Victory committee and more than $1.6 million to pro-Trump organisations.

    Over 100 employees signed a letter calling for him to be fired over these donations, putting particular emphasis on race issues. This hasn’t happened, but the company offered to donate $1 million to support the black community.
     

  • Linda McMahon, owner of World Wrestling Entertainment Inc (WWE), is the chairwoman of the Pro-Trump Super PAC America First Action to which she has herself given $360,600.
     
  • Darwin Deason, who owns 4% of Xerox, donated $405,000 to Republicans and $1 million to Republican Super PAC America First Action.
     
  • Peter Thiel was another donor we mentioned last time, who is close to Trump and has given $250,000 to Republican-aligned groups in this round. He runs an investment firm called the Founders Fund, which invests in tech platform companies such as AirBnB and Facebook.

Several who were previously involved have abandoned ship. Les Wexner, ex-CEO of L Brands, which owns Victoria's Secret, and was previously a big donor, left the Republican party after Trump’s comments regarding the far-right protest in Charlottesville (see below).

To complicate matters, he has since stepped down as CEO after he was revealed to have significant connections to Jeffrey Epstein.

The fossil fuel companies

Given that Trump continues to show total contempt for climate change, it would be surprising if the fossil fuel companies weren’t inclined to smile on him a little.

As described above, Chevron and Koch were two major corporate donors to pro-Trump Super PACs. Their staff have also made other big donations as individuals – Chevron employees have given $5 million in political donations this cycle, with 70% going to Republicans. Koch employees have given $11 million; 95% to Republicans.

Other international fossil fuel companies’ public donations are lower, although Shell did force its workers at a plant outside Pittsburgh to attend a political event featuring President Trump in August 2019, on pain of losing overtime pay. However, the bulk of Shell employees’ $200,000 in political donations in 2020 actually went to Democrats. ExxonMobil employees have given $1.7 million, with 60% going to Republicans.

Overall, Open Secrets reports the oil and gas industry as having given $75 million in public political contributions in 2020, with 85% of that going to Republicans.

Other business links – cabinet, councils

As we described last time, Trump filled his cabinet and inner circle with ex-corporate executives and lobbyists and suits stuffed with corporate cash. And despite the sky-high rate of turnover in his team, one thing that has remained consistent throughout is that most of the personnel have corporate rather than public administration backgrounds. Companies whose ex-executives have passed through include Goldman Sachs, Blackrock and Exxon.

Trump also convened high-profile Business Advisory Councils after his election which we reported on last time, with which he held televised summits in the Oval Office. However, these collapsed after the Charlottesville rally in late 2017, in which far-right protester James Fields drove his car into the crowd of counter-protesters, killing one of them.

Trump’s subsequent comments that “there’s blame on both sides” caused a huge outcry, and in the following days many CEOs resigned from the councils, led by the pharmaceutical company Merck. They finally decided to disband altogether, saying that his Charlottesville comments had “become a distraction”.

He has convened new CEO councils to advise on the management of COVID-19, but these are less of a political spectacle.

Conclusion

The true answer to which corporations are helping Trump is – although there are a few crumbs we can pick over – nobody really knows. While so much money is changing hands in the dark, everyone is being denied a proper understanding of the world; even Trump cannot know who is supporting him.

However, if you want to avoid companies that we know have some link to Trump, those which are public-facing in the UK which have the clearest links are:

We have published an article about the conundrum of Blackstone’s investment in the otherwise progressive brand Oatly.

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