Tobacco company Reynolds American gave $1.5 million to pro-Trump dark money nonprofit America First Policies in 2017, according to a disclosure report recently released by the company. The grant makes Reynolds the fourth and largest known corporate donor to the group. Last month, MapLight reported that Southern Company, CVS Health, and Dow Chemical had together donated $1.6 million to America First Policies. After the spending was revealed, all three companies announced they would not donate in the future, citing controversial remarks by America First Policies officials.
America First Policies, which was formed by veterans of the Trump campaign, has worked closely with the Trump White House to promote the president and his agenda. The group’s president, Brian O. Walsh, once told the New York Times that “America First Policies exists for one reason: to support the president of the United States and his agenda.” Since the group does not disclose its donors, the public is generally kept in the dark about which interests are financing this support. But that doesn’t mean President Trump and his aides don’t know who is supporting America First Policies.
Administration officials, including President Trump himself, have attended exclusive gatherings for America First Policies’ donors. In 2017, the year of Reynolds’ contribution, the group raised $26 million and spent nearly $2 million on independent expenditures in federal races.
One of America First Policies’ major focuses in 2017 was the passage of tax cut legislation championed by President Trump and Republicans in Congress. In October 2017, according to Politico, officials involved with America First Policies told the White House that the group was planning to spend millions to sell the tax plan. Reynolds American lobbied on corporate tax reform around the same time. After its passage, Reynolds American’s parent company announced that the tax cuts boosted its earnings by an estimated $541 million.
In March 2018, after President Trump signed the tax cut legislation, Reynolds American announced a one-time round of bonuses for most of its employees that represented less than 1 percent of the earnings benefit it gained from the legislation. The company accompanied the bonus announcement with a statement praising “Congress and the president for bringing corporate income tax reform to a reality” and crediting the legislation for the bonuses.
Reynolds American also gave grants to several other nonprofits known for secret political spending. The disclosure shows a $125,000 grant to American Policy Coalition, a nonprofit that gave more than half a million dollars to super PACs that spent in Georgia and South Carolina special congressional elections in 2017. Reynolds American also gave $40,000 to Citizens for a Working America, which contributed $192,500 to super PACs that spent on non-federal races in 2017, and $50,000 to Right Way Initiative, a non-disclosing group that spent more than $700,000 on independent expenditures in the 2016 election.
The tobacco company also revealed that it contributed to two nonprofits recently highlighted in CREW’s Shadow Governors report, which examined nonprofit groups that influence politics and policy in the states while being closely-aligned with sitting governors. Reynolds gave $50,000 to Moving NC Forward, which has held events with North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper (D) and members of his administration. The company also gave $25,000 to Next Level Indiana, Inc., now known as Imagine Indiana, Inc., a nonprofit formed to manage Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb’s (R) transition and inaugural activities.
Funding politically active nonprofits isn’t a new venture for the tobacco giant. In 2014, for instance, the company contributed $30,000 to a single-candidate dark money group called Oklahomans for a Conservative Future that spent nearly $1.3 million backing a candidate in a Senate primary. In 2016, Reynolds disclosed giving a $75,000 grant to “Freedom Frontier,” apparently the same nonprofit that funded a super PAC backing now-former Missouri Gov. Eric Greitens’ campaign. Over the years, the company also has given small sums to Americans for Prosperity, the central advocacy organization of the Koch brothers’ political network.
Reynolds American’s contributions to groups like the Trump-affiliated America First Policies are only known because the company voluntarily discloses contributions to social welfare nonprofits organized under section 501(c)(4) of the tax code and trade associations organized under section 501(c)(6). These groups, which are allowed to spend money to influence elections, are not required to publicly disclose their donors. Self-disclosure like Reynolds’ is the exception, not the rule, meaning that voters are often left in the dark about who is spending money to shape politics and policy.