Energy Secretary Rick Perry will headline an intimate gathering of high-powered business executives in Texas next week for the pro-Trump outside group America First Policies, the first in a series of “roundtable discussions” giving donors face time with top Trump officials.
The Houston event featuring Perry, detailed in an invitation sent to a Republican donor and obtained by POLITICO, will include roughly 30 people and cover topics from energy policy to the Trump administration’s broader agenda, America First spokeswoman Erin Montgomery said. Perry will not solicit donations from the attendees at the Monday event, which would be a violation of federal law — but America First officials plan to ask for contributions after Perry leaves the room.
The event highlights the cozy and growing ties between officials in President Donald Trump’s administration and outside allies spending millions of dollars pushing administration policies this year. America First is brandishing its relationships with government officials to establish itself as the White House’s preferred outside ally, among a mass of pro-Trump groups that have popped up this year.
In addition to holding more roundtable events, America First Policies recently held conference calls featuring White House Legislative Affairs Director Marc Short, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Rep. Erik Paulsen, all key players on tax reform. America First leaders also huddled with White House officials recently.
America First Policies and its affiliated super PAC, America First Action, plan to raise and spend $100 million supporting Trump’s agenda in the next year. Super PACs are not permitted to coordinate with candidates and there are strict rules governing Cabinet officials’ political activities. But there is a loophole: Perry and others can participate in events put on by America First’s nonprofit policy arm, which is legally separate from the super PAC even though the same officers run both groups.
“As long as the super PAC and the 501(c)(4) each stays in its own lane they can both operate under the same umbrella,” said Brett Kappel, a campaign finance lawyer and partner at Akerman LLP.
But campaign finance reform advocates said the arrangement crosses an ethical line.
“This is all part of the very close coordination we’re seeing between the campaign itself and what’s supposedly an outside group,” said Craig Holman, the government affairs lobbyist at the good-government group Public Citizen. The activities constitute “coordination in anyone’s definition except for the Federal Election Commission’s,” he said.
Perry is an ideal ambassador for America First Policies in Texas, where the former governor has deep ties to the energy industry and donors who fueled his state campaigns as well as two presidential bids.
An Energy Department spokesperson did not return a request for comment. Perry was in France this week meeting with energy leaders from other countries. He is slated to attend a similar meeting in Texas on Monday, prior to the America First event, with leaders from Canada and Mexico.
America First was silent for much of this year and went through multiple staff shakeups, but has recently been working to restore its original position as the central group backing Trump’s agenda.
But it has competition. Future45, which supported Trump during the 2016 elections with funding from casino billionaire Sheldon Adelson and the Ricketts family, announced a project that will spend in the tens of millions of dollars promoting tax reform earlier this month. Great America PAC, which is affiliated with former White House strategist Steve Bannon, began endorsing 2018 candidates in recent days.
Great America PAC’s support for Roy Moore broke from Trump’s support for Sen. Luther Strange in Alabama. America First plans to stay closely aligned with Trump and Trump’s agenda, which Texas businessman Roy Bailey said could be a differentiator.
“We’re not second-guessing anything; we’re totally confident in [Trump’s] ability to lead this nation and we’re supporting him and the vice president,” said Bailey, who is involved with America First.
That message has intrigued Texas-based energy executive Dan Eberhart, who said he hasn’t yet made a donation to America First but is “interested in what they have to say.”
“A lot of people who supported Republicans in 2016 are frustrated with the way things have turned out,” Eberhart said. “If the Republican establishment won’t support the president’s agenda, we need alternatives who will.”