Policy for a Billion Bucks

Terry Schwadron
5 min readMay 13, 2024

Terry H. Schwadron

May 13, 2024

Even in this ethically torqued presidential campaign, the pitch by Donald Trump to oil barons may be barely legal, but it sure stinks.

Word leaked to The Washington Post last week of an April dinner at Mar-a-Lago where Trump asked oil industry executives to pony up $1 billion for his campaign in return for a list of industry desires to roll back climate change laws and pollution regulations.

Obviously, it would not be the first time in history that a presidential campaign of any slant suggested pursuing a policy direction to potential donors that might meet with a positive reaction, but the specificity and the amounts here have drawn strong reaction from both those concerned with money in politics and those who think about law and ethics.

As Politico reported last week, oil executives are compiling lists of specific legislative or regulatory moves they want to see, as well as moves to dismantle support to accelerate alternative energy sources and electric cars.

Policy question aside, the issue raises anew the dominating role and size of campaign money. By any standards, tossing a billion-dollar donation request on the table from parties who would benefit should ring a few concerns about the selling of the presidency to highest bidders.

Messy Campaign Finance Rules

It also should be a concern that we have so mucked up campaign finance rules and reinterpreted what is legal trade-offs of policy for cash that election money issues have become very difficult to enforce.

It’s why the criminal hush money case against Trump going on in New York is such a thorny legal matter, for example, because it is the campaign finance aspects that make alleged falsification of business records into a more serious crime. The reversals of bribery cases involving the former Virginia governor and his wife, the decisions allowing heavy corporate spending in elections, the morass of regulation in declaring what is and is not a campaign financing requirement are tying the system in knots, too often open to partisan interpretation.

Under the current interpretations from the U.S. Supreme Court, for example, it is doubtful that even a billion-dollar price-tag for oil-friendly policy would constitute bribery, unless the candidate wrote down an exact dollar amount in exchange for a specific policy goal.

The April dinner included executives from Exxon Mobil, Chevron, ConocoPhillips and Continental Resources, natural gas producer EQT and gas exporter Cheniere Energy, and the trade association American Petroleum Institute, according to people who attended. Trump was clear that these executives and their companies could afford a billion dollars for him, but that he would make it a worthwhile investment on Day One of a new presidency.

Erin Chlopak of the watchdog group Campaign Legal Center told Politico that “at a high level, it perfectly captures so much of what’s wrong with our big money campaign finance system.”

Nary a day passes without emails from presidential and congressional candidates reaching out for money, and the contest for funds all by itself is seen by the news media to measure who’s winning or falling behind.

Bradley Smith, chair of the Institute for Free Speech and former chair of the Federal Election Commission, said, “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.

Indeed, in this case, Trump might only be liable for violating rules against candidates asking individuals to contribute more than the federal limit on campaign contributions that limit individuals to $3,300 per election to campaigns and $5,000 to political action committees. Super PACs can take unlimited donations, but candidates aren’t allowed to solicit funds for them.

The Energy Issue

Last, which probably should otherwise be first, the incident reflects the wild divide between the parties over the policy questions behind energy policy and the climate dangers we are just beginning to taste.

Trump and top Republicans view climate change concerns as a hoax and subject for ridicule, and they add a layer of American isolation thinking to resist globally set rules for consuming nations. Trump wants more ocean oil drilling and rollback of electric vehicle supports.

Joe Biden and Democrats, backed by most environmental scientists, not only take climate as deadly serious, but have lined up for practical investments in solar, wind and biothermal projects and in rule changes to accelerate adoption of electric vehicles. Biden calls global warming an “existential threat,” and over three years, his administration has finalized more than 100 new environmental regulations aimed at cutting air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions.

Meanwhile, California is seeing a glut of solar-produced energy which is going to waste while research goes on about big batteries in which to store and distribute it. The beautiful solar displays we saw this weekend from a radiation spike from the sun belie the dangers projected by scientists about massive solar flares that will endanger the Earth, prompting fanciful projects like spreading some kind of theoretical sun umbrella in space. The warmer waters are not only rising, but fueling fiercer storms across the world, changes in agriculture and water availability. And if Republican critics are unhappy about immigration now, you can project what will happen as whole swaths of the planet become uninhabitable and climate migration soars.

Really, Mr. Trump, is the most important concern here maintaining oil company profits?

Fossil fuel industries have said they are investing in alternative energies but continue to spend upwards of $400 million a year to fight environmental regulations.

At the dinner, Trump vowed to immediately reverse dozens of environmental rules, including Biden’s freeze on liquefied natural gas exports, and to stop new ones from being enacted. Donating a billion dollars would be a “deal,” because of the taxation and regulation they would avoid thanks to him, according to the people at the event.

Of course, repealing new EPA gas caps that pushing automakers toward electric cars will annoy the automakers, who have invested heavily in an electric future.

We find ourselves in a time of rising and warming ocean waters, limits on fossil fuels, and rising needs for electric power. What doesn’t help the thinking about any of this is a billion-dollar campaign demand from executives whose profits depend on ignoring the effects of their immediate policy desires.