A major coal company wrote a seven-figure check to President Donald Trump’s leading super PAC as it sought a major federal energy policy intervention that would save the company billions.
Murray Energy donated $1 million to America First Action on August 8, according to newly released Federal Election Commission records. That was four days after its CEO, Robert Murray, personally appealed to the White House to prop up a struggling utility that buys coal from his company. The administration ultimately did not intervene.
Though officially independent from campaigns, super PACs can accept unlimited contributions from corporations and labor unions, whereas political candidates are generally limited to accepting just $5,400 per election cycle and cannot take corporate money (Murray has not yet donated to Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign). Critics say that makes the groups ideal vehicles for donors and private companies looking to buy access with elected officials or grease the wheels of the federal bureaucracy.
But while many donors are simply seeking general political good will, the timing of Murray Energy’s donation to America First suggests that it had a very specific policy measure in mind. America First and its “dark money” nonprofit arm work closely with the White House. And at the time of Murray Energy’s donation, utility FirstEnergy, one of its biggest coal customers, was “on the verge of bankruptcy,” Murray told the White House in an August 4 letter. If the administration didn’t issue an emergency order keeping its power plants open, Murray Energy would soon suffer the same fate, the letter said. “Their bankruptcy will force Murray Energy Corporation into immediate bankruptcy, promptly terminating our 6,500 coal mining jobs,” he wrote.
Two weeks after that letter, and ten days after its America First contribution, Murray wrote to Energy Secretary Rick Perry. He estimated that a failure to prop up FirstEnergy would cost his company more than $4 billion. In fact, he said, “no other viable alternative…will stop the certain collapse of much of the thermal coal industry.”
The Trump administration rebuked the company, and declined to issue the order that Murray sought. But Murray ended up finding a lifeline elsewhere. This week, FirstEnergy announced a “transformational” $2.5 billion investment from Elliot Management, the hedge fund run by Republican megadonor Paul Singer.