The Slatest

Coal Barons Who Donated $1 Million to Trump’s Increasingly Suspicious Inauguration Fund May Get Huge Favor

A wide shot of Donald and Melania Trump and several other couples dancing on a stage in a large hall with high ceilings.
The Salute to Our Armed Services Inaugural Ball on Jan. 20, 2017.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images

Bloomberg published an eyebrow-raising report Thursday night about a draft proposal being prepared by the Trump administration that would subsidize the coal industry in part by invoking a Cold War–era law intended for use in national security emergencies:

Trump administration officials are making plans to order grid operators to buy electricity from struggling coal and nuclear plants in an effort to extend their life, a move that could represent an unprecedented intervention into U.S. energy markets.

The Energy Department would exercise emergency authority under a pair of federal laws to direct the operators to purchase electricity or electric generation capacity from at-risk facilities, according to a memo obtained by Bloomberg News. 

This would be a controversial move on a number of levels—for one, it is literal socialism, the thing that the right wing spent 2009–16 accusing Barack Obama of imposing on America—but let’s look in particular at the Bloomberg report’s aside about one of the industry groups that is involved:

The issue is a priority for some of the president’s top supporters, including coal moguls Robert E. Murray and Joseph Craft of Alliance Resource Partners, who donated a million dollars to the president’s inauguration. The move would be one of the most direct efforts by Trump to make good on campaign promises to revive the nation’s shrinking coal industry.

“This action is essential in order to protect the resiliency and reliability of our nation’s electric power grids,” Murray said Friday in an email.

This inaugural fund, which until a few months ago was probably not even among the top 20 most alarmingly corrupt aspects of the Trump administration, keeps coming up recently.

• The CEO of Columbus Nova, the U.S.-based investment firm* which paid $500,000 to Trump lawyer Michael Cohen and has been described in a number of documents and public accounts as being a subsidiary of Russian billionaire Viktor Vekselberg’s Renova Group, turns out to have also donated $250,000 to the inaugural fund. (Columbus Nova maintains that it is and always has been “an investment management company solely owned and controlled by Americans.”)

• A $1 million inaugural donation made by an opaque shell company called the “BH Group” was traced to a group of wealthy conservative activists who have essentially been put in charge of deciding who the Trump administration will nominate for judicial openings.

• ABC reported that special counsel Robert Mueller is looking into inaugural donors who have “business or personal connections” to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar, three countries who have made other efforts to funnel money in Trump’s direction and who have benefited from administration decisions.

Lastly there’s this, which is not new (it’s from an April 2017 Forbes report), but is certainly suspect:

Kelcy Warren, who cofounded pipeline giant Energy Transfer Equity, donated $250,000. Warren had plenty of reason to celebrate the election: His company had been locked in a dispute with Sioux Native Americans over the construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. … The president issued an executive order calling for expedited approval of the Dakota Access Pipeline just four days after taking office.

The Trump inaugural committee raised $107 million in all, which was twice as much as was raised for any previous president. Here’s what the guy who ran George W. Bush’s second inaugural told ProPublica about the Trump committee:

Asked about how Trump’s team managed to spend so much more, Jenkins said, “It’s inexplicable to me. I literally don’t know.”

“They had a third of the staff and a quarter of the events and they raise at least twice as much as we did,” Jenkins said. “So there’s the obvious question: Where did it go? I don’t know.”

The question has been answered only in part by the Trump committee’s tax filing, which documented such enormous payments as $26 million to an event-planning firm run by one of Melania Trump’s friends. Whether any of that cash ended up making its way back to the Trump family in explicit exchange for policy favors—which would make it legal bribery rather than mere typical political sleaze—is no doubt something Mueller is looking at. In fact, the deputy chairman of the inaugural committee—Rick Gates—has already pleaded guilty to charges, brought by Mueller, of conspiring to commit financial fraud and lying to investigators. The existing charges against Gates were unrelated to the inauguration, but he could be providing information about it as part of his plea agreement. To be continued.

*Update, June 5: This paragraph was revised to include additional detail on the nature of Columbus Nova’s relationship to Viktor Vekselberg. (Click here for the evidence that suggests that Columbus Nova has long been considered a subsidiary of Vekselberg’s Renova Group.)