Donald Trump's cabinet will be the richest in history—one estimate calculated that 16 of his picks for top posts have as much wealth as the poorest third of American households put together. These selections have something else in common: They have given a lot of money to the senators who will be charged with vetting and confirming them.
According to a new report from the Center for Responsive Politics and additional data from the center's website, cabinet-level appointees and their spouses have given nearly $1.7 million to confirming senators' campaigns, leadership PACs, and outside groups that poured money into their races. (This total does not include donations from prospective ambassadors, many of whom are often political donors and require Senate confirmation but are not considered part of the cabinet.)
"There have been donors in the cabinet before… but there hasn't been such a large number of them at one time before," Adam Smith, communications director of the campaign finance reform group Every Voice, told me. "Trump is literally putting big donors in charge of his administration, everything he accused Hillary Clinton of doing during the campaign."
From the beginning, Trump sold himself as a man who couldn't be bought by donors, unlike other politicians. And he's bragged about spending far less money on his campaign than Clinton. But selecting donors to his cabinet raises significant ethical and conflict-of-interest concerns, said Paul S. Ryan, vice president of policy and litigation at the nonpartisan good-government group Common Cause. "It's human nature to be disposed to liking the donor, taking their phone calls and doing something nice in return," he told me. "Access- and influence-buying that flows from contributions will likely lead senators to be perfectly comfortable to vote for a donor's confirmation."
Ryan thinks that while not required by law, senators should recuse themselves from votes on nominees with whom they have relationships, but he says recusals are unlikely.
The clearest example of a megadonor turned cabinet nominee is Betsy DeVos. In 1997, as the New Yorker reported, she wrote a defense of "soft money" political contributions: "I have decided to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence… They are right. We do expect something in return."
DeVos's family is worth billions and has contributed to a variety of conservative initiatives, especially charter schools and private school vouchers. DeVos herself was recently chairman of the American Federation for Children, a 501(c)(4) "social welfare" nonprofit that advocates these causes and spends large sums on state elections.
DeVos and her husband Dick, whose father co-founded the company Amway, have since 1990 donated over $265,000 to numerous senators who will consider DeVos' nomination; these include four members of the Senate education committee, which oversees the nomination process, and others including Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and former presidential candidate Marco Rubio.
Perhaps more significantly, the DeVoses have bankrolled numerous independent political spending groups that commit large amounts of money towards TV ads, mailers and other forms of support for Senate candidates. Betsy and Dick DeVos contributed more than $1.9 million to several super PACs in the 2016 election cycle alone, including $750,000 to the Koch brothers-funded Freedom Partners Action Fund—which spent over $21 million benefiting four successful Senate candidates—and $400,000 to the super PAC supporting Rubio's run for president.
It's not surprising that Trump would nominate people who are ideologically aligned with the conservative movement, and that those people would have financial ties to Republican politics. But given the president-elect's promises to "drain the swamp" of Washington, DC, it's striking how many of his cabinet picks have been bankrolling the GOP for years.
Former World Wresting Entertainment CEO Linda McMahon is Trump's pick to head the Small Business Administration. In addition to donating more than $7 million to outside groups supporting Trump's presidential bid, McMahon has spent $650,000 in support of confirming senators since 1990, including $183,000 directly to the campaigns of 26 senators.
Then there's John Bolton, the hawkish foreign policy specialist who is reportedly Trump's pick for deputy secretary of State. As Paul Blumenthal detailed last week in the Huffington Post, Bolton founded his own super PAC in 2013 that chipped in more than $3 million towards electing Republican senators Richard Burr, Thom Tillis, and Tom Cotton. (Most of this amount is not included in the total given to help elect confirming senators because Bolton did not personally contribute the bulk of the super PAC funds.)
Andy Puzder, CEO of the parent company of Hardee's and Carl's Jr. and Trump's nominee to head the Department of Labor, has spent over $151,000 to help elect 17 confirming senators, as well as hundreds of thousands to Republican Party groups. Puzder actually donated to Bolton's super PAC in October as well as a super PAC supporting Rubio.
Trump's pick for commerce secretary, billionaire investor and major Republican Party donor Wilbur Ross, has given $62,000 to eight confirming senators — including several Democrats — Rubio's leadership PAC and an outside group supporting McConnell.
As for ExxonMobil CEO and secretary of state nominee Rex Tillerson, Trump's most controversial pick, he's a big donor to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the Republican National Committee. He's also given over $26,000 to six senators who will vote on his confirmation, including McConnell. The ExxonMobil PAC, to which Tillerson donates, regularly gives to Senate campaigns.
Other cabinet nominees who have given to the campaigns of senators who will vote on their confirmation and outside groups supporting them include transportation secretary nominee and McConnell's wife Elaine Chao, deputy commerce secretary nominee Todd Ricketts, Treasury pick Steven Mnuchin, Office of Budget Management nominee Mick Mulvaney, and secretary of Health and Human Services nominee Tom Price.
These nominees are broadly expected to be confirmed by the Republican majority in the Senate. But Smith of Every Voice told me that the senators who received money from the nominees "should ask tough questions in confirmation hearings, provide real scrutiny to the nominations and their conflicts, listen to their constituents, and vote on what's best for their state, not just for their party.
Alex Kotch is an independent investigative journalist who specializes in money in politics. Follow him on Twitter.