Trump pressed oil executives to give $1 billion for his campaign, people in industry say

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Former President Donald Trump asked oil industry executives last month to donate $1 billion to aid his campaign to retake the White House, three people familiar with the conversation told POLITICO — a request that campaign finance experts said appeared troubling but is probably legal.

The request, first reported Thursday by The Washington Post, occurred during a meeting of industry executives at the former president’s home in Palm Beach, Florida.

The oil industry has a long list of policy actions it would want Trump to take, including dismantling parts of President Joe Biden’s green agenda and rolling back pollution regulations that threaten to crimp their profits. As POLITICO reported Wednesday, oil executives are also preparing some highly specific requests for Trump, including executive orders they hope he would sign if reelected.

At the very least, the $1 billion ask points to problems with laws governing money in politics, said Erin Chlopak, senior campaign finance director at the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center.

"At a high level, it perfectly captures so much of what’s wrong with our big money campaign finance system,” said Chlopak, who was a senior lawyer at the Federal Elections Commission, which monitors campaign contributions and spending.

Trump, who is occupying most of his days in a Manhattan courtroom fighting allegations of falsifying business records, has lagged Biden in fundraising.

The April dinner at Trump's Mar-a-Lago Club was described as a roundtable discussion on energy security, according to one person familiar with the event who was granted anonymity to discuss the private gathering. It included executives from oil companies Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Continental Resources as well as from natural gas producer EQT and gas exporter Cheniere Energy, and the trade association American Petroleum Institute.

One person not at the dinner — Dan Eberhart, chief executive of the Denver-based oil company Canary LLC — said participants told him that Trump asked the attendees to contribute a combined $1 billion for his campaign. Two industry representatives whose companies attended the meeting confirmed the amount to POLITICO.

Trump’s request is “shocking,” but it would almost certainly not break the law, said Meredith McGehee, an independent expert on government ethics and campaign finance. Unless Trump wrote on a napkin during the meeting an exact amount of money he wanted deposited in a specific campaign vehicle in exchange for a specific policy goal, there’s little chance it would violate bribery laws as currently interpreted by the Supreme Court, McGehee said.

“The state of the law and the state of the enforcement agency is abysmal,” McGehee said in an interview. “But this is a scandal, and the notion that our government works where candidates go to industry and promise government action in exchange for large amounts of money is an indictment of the system.”

Another campaign finance expert expressed doubts that Trump's behavior violated the law.

“Isn’t that what campaigning is?” Bradley Smith, chair of the Institute for Free Speech and former chair of the Federal Election Commission, said of Trump’s ask to the oil executives.

“Certainly if one is an office holder and one promises a specific federal action like, ‘You'll get this permit,' or something like that, you have an issue. But to make a sort of general pledge, ‘You’ve got to give me lots of money because I'm really going to help out your business,’ it's fine,” he said.

Smith added: “It’s a minor difference of degree from Joe Biden saying, ‘Hey, young people, vote for me, I’m going to forgive your student loans.’”

Trump could be liable for violating rules against candidates asking individuals to contribute more than the federal limit on campaign contributions, Chlopak said.

Campaign finance laws limit individual contributions to $3,300 per election to individual campaigns and $5,000 to political action committees. Super PACs can take unlimited donations, but candidates aren't allowed to solicit funds for them.

“To the extent that there is this suggestion that these executives raise a $1 billion on Trump’s behalf, that would potentially violate federal law,” Chlopak said. “A billion dollars is far above the limits. A candidate can’t make that request.”

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen, said violating the law would have to involve a clear quid pro quo in which Trump offered to take an action because of the donation.

“Usually candidates don't really tie their policy positions together with campaign contributions," Holman said. "Usually they just talk about their policy and then encourage people to contribute to their campaigns. But here, it's particularly egregious, because Trump is calling for a certain figure of money from the oil industry. And it's a huge figure. That makes it unusual.”

Oil executives want Trump to end the Biden administration's pause on new natural gas export permits and expand the number of offshore drilling lease sales in the Gulf of Mexico made available by Biden's Interior Department.

At the April dinner, Trump also promised to slash the Biden administration’s tax credits for electric vehicles and spend less government money developing wind power, according to The Washington Post. Those are both major themes he's sounded repeatedly in his public rallies and stump speeches.

Trump said the $1 billion contribution would fuel his presidential campaign, but at least some executives present believed the money would also be used to pay the lawyers defending him in various court cases, Eberhart added.

“I think everyone knows part of it is going to his legal expenses,” Eberhart said in an interview.

One political action committee Trump controls, Save America PAC, has spent tens of millions of dollars on legal bills for the former president and his allies, but he hasn't been directing donations to that channel for several months. One of his joint fundraising committees with the Republican National Committee does send a portion of its money to Save America, but those contributions are limited to $5,000 for each donor. And his super PAC can send only $2.75 million more to Save America as of the end of March.

In response to questions, Trump campaign spokesperson Karoline Leavitt issued a statement to POLITICO but did not answer questions about the Mar-a-Lago event.

“Joe Biden is controlled by environmental extremists who are trying to implement the most radical energy agenda in history and force Americans to purchase electric vehicles they can’t afford,” Leavitt said in the statement. “President Trump is supported by people who share his vision of American energy dominance to protect our national security and bring down the cost of living for all Americans.”

Chlopak, from the Campaign Legal Center, said getting so much money from the oil executives would make him essentially indebted to them if he wins.

“There are certainly high concerns about the implications of who controls the people who are looking to gain office when those candidates are so indebted to particular people or entities or interest when they’re supposed to be representing the people,” she said.

Robin Bravender and Jessica Piper contributed to this report.