Heather Cox Richardson | Letters from an American
August 23, 2022
Today’s big news is an eye-popping $1.6 billion donation to a right-wing nonprofit organized in May 2020. This is the largest known single donation made to a political influence organization.
The money came from Barre Seid, a 90-year-old electronics company executive, and the new organization, Marble Freedom Trust, is controlled by Leonard A. Leo, the co-chair of the Federalist Society, who has been behind the right-wing takeover of the Supreme Court. Leo has also been prominent in challenges to abortion rights, voting rights, climate change action, and so on. He announced in early 2020 that he was stepping back from the Federalist Society to remake politics at every level, but information about the massive grant and the new organization was broken today by Kenneth P. Vogel and Shane Goldmacher of the New York Times.
Marble is organized as a nonprofit, so when Seid gave it 100% of the stock in Tripp Lite, a privately held company that makes surge protectors and other electronic equipment, it could sell the stock without paying taxes. The arrangement also likely enabled Seid to avoid paying as much as $400 million in capital gains taxes on the stock. Law professor Ray Madoff of Boston College Law School, who specializes in philanthropic policy, told the New York Times: “These actions by the super wealthy are actually costing the American taxpayers to support the political spending of the wealthiest Americans.”
This massive donation is an example of so-called “dark money”: funds donated for political advocacy to nonprofits that do not have to disclose their donors. In the 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (FEC) decision, the Supreme Court said that limiting the ability of corporations and other entities to advertise their political preferences violates their First Amendment right to free speech. This was a new interpretation: until the 1970s, the Supreme Court did not agree that companies had free speech protections.
Now, nonprofit organizations can receive unlimited donations from people, corporations, or other entities for political speech. They cannot collaborate directly with candidates or campaigns, but they can promote a candidate’s policies and attack opponents, all without identifying their donors.
“I’ve never seen a group of this magnitude before,” Robert Maguire of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) told Casey Tolan, Curt Devine, and Drew Griffin of CNN. “This is the kind of money that can help these political operatives and their allies start to move the needle on issues like reshaping the federal judiciary, making it more difficult to vote, a state-by-state campaign to remake election laws and lay the groundwork for undermining future elections.” Our campaign finance system, he said, gives “wealthy donors, whether they be corporations or individuals, access and influence over the system far greater than any regular American can ever imagine.”
It’s an interesting revelation at this particular juncture, when the Republican Party is splitting over former president Donald Trump. Today, a Colorado state senator switched from the Republican to the Democratic Party because he refuses to support the lie that Trump won the 2020 election. “I cannot continue to be a part of a political party that is okay with a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election and continues to peddle claims that the 2020 election was stolen,” Kevin Priola wrote. “We need Democrats in charge because our planet and our democracy depend on it.” Priola has thrown in his lot with those Republicans like Representatives Liz Cheney (R-WY) and Adam Kinzinger (R-IL).
Priola has voted with Democrats in the past, although he voted with the Republicans 90% of the time. His switch will make it more difficult for Republicans to retake control of the Colorado Senate. Governor Jared Polis, a Democrat, tweeted that he was proud to welcome Priola to the Democratic Party. “We are a broad tent party, always seeking good ideas from the left and right to move CO forward. Senator Priola is a strong leader on climate issues & will hopefully be even more effective on the Democratic side of the aisle.”
In contrast, Sean Paige, former spokesperson for the Colorado Republican Party, tweeted: “Kevin Priola a Democrat? Who knew, LOL? That’s been an open ‘secret’ at the Statehouse since I worked there. He’s beyond just a big phony; he’s a squirrely and calculating opportunist. But I’m glad, for his conscience, that he finally came out of the closet.”
The new extremist Republican Party is driving away voters in part by this very sort of chaos. This afternoon, Trump’s lawyers asked a federal judge to stop the FBI from looking at the documents recovered from Mar-a-Lago until a special master reviews them. But the filing appeared to have been less about the law than about asserting power over the Republican Party. While legal analyst Bradley Moss called it “just garbage” legally, it stated its political principle at the start: “President Donald J. Trump is the clear frontrunner in the 2024 Republican Presidential Primary and in the 2024 General Election, should he decide to run.”
The motion reiterated the arguments he has made since the search warrant was carried out; Moss mused, “[t]he more I read Trump’s motion, the more I am completely confused and shocked he got three lawyers to risk their law licenses by filing this thing.”
Then, this evening, it turned out that the motion was likely intended to distract attention from a new story dropping from Maggie Haberman, Jodi Kantor, Adam Goldman and Ben Protess of the New York Times, who reported that Trump took more than 300 classified documents with him to Mar-a-Lago and that he went through the boxes himself in late 2021, meaning he was aware that he had taken classified documents out of the White House.
The National Archives and Records Administration recovered more than 150 classified documents in January 2022, including intelligence from the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the National Security Agency (NSA), and the FBI. Worried by the sheer number of those documents, the Department of Justice moved to get the rest. In June, Trump’s aides turned over a few dozen more, and Trump lawyer Christina Bobb signed a document asserting that, to the best of her knowledge, all the classified materials had been returned. They had not, of course, and on June 22 the Justice Department subpoenaed the security video tapes from the area, which showed people moving the documents. Hence the search warrant, which the FBI executed two weeks ago, finding yet more documents, including some in a closet in Trump’s office. Some had the highest possible level of classification. It remains unclear whether any U.S. documents remain at Mar-a-Lago.
Meanwhile, according to Andrew Desiderio of Politico, members of the Gang of Eight—the leaders of the House and Senate from each party, and the chairs and ranking members of the intelligence committees from both houses—want to know what was in those recovered files.
Finally, today, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced that he will be retiring from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which he has led since 1984, in December. Fauci has served seven presidents, and after his work on HIV/AIDS, President George W. Bush awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Nonetheless, today’s Republicans have tried to deflect blame for the nation’s poor response to the coronavirus pandemic from Trump to Fauci. After the announcement of the 81-year-old’s retirement, Representative Steve Scalise (R-LA) said: “It’s good to know that with his retirement, Dr. Fauci will have ample time to appear before Congress and share under oath what he knew about the Wuhan lab, as well as the ever-changing guidance under his watch that resulted in wrongful mandates being imposed on Americans.”