This BBC article quotes Trump suggesting he could quickly raise large amounts of campaign funds by offering things to CEOs.

President Trump went on to describe a hypothetical conversation: "How are you doing? How's energy coming? When are you doing the exploration? Oh, you need a couple of permits?"

"When I call the head of Exxon I say, 'You know, I'd love [for you] to send me $25m [£19m] for the campaign.' 'Absolutely sir,'" he added.

A video of the part of the speech with Trump's statement is available on YouTube.
Full transcript: Exxon part starts at 29:27.

I am of course aware these conversations haven't happened, but the article does not cover the legality of such actions.

Would offering permits or other business benefits in exchange for campaign funds be illegal?

  • 16
    Note that he is implying Joe Biden and the Democrats already do this and that if he also did it he would get more money (ie beat them).
    – Brian
    Oct 20, 2020 at 19:27
  • 1
    You might be interested in the Teapot Dome Scandal. This was for personal enrichment rather than campaign funding but otherwise is surprisingly similar. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Teapot_Dome_scandal
    – Dan
    Oct 23, 2020 at 16:48

4 Answers 4


Yes, this would be illegal.

If you're a public official, you can't offer an official act (like permits) in exchange for anything of value (like campaign donations). See 18 U.S. Code § 201. Bribery of public officials and witnesses:

Whoever [...] being a public official, former public official, or person selected to be a public official, otherwise than as provided by law for the proper discharge of official duty, directly or indirectly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally for or because of any official act performed or to be performed by such official or person [...] shall be fined under this title or imprisoned for not more than two years, or both.

The Constitution is also clear that bribery is grounds for impeachment of the President. See U.S. Constitution Article Two, Section Four:

The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other High crimes and Misdemeanors.

Bolding mine.

  • 8
    While illegal to donate in exchange for permits, there's a very common grey area of "Yes, I support xyz permit for xyz purpose" and company abc says "hey, that's exactly the permit we need!" and when company abc donates 25m to their campaign fund of their own volition that politician continues to fight for that legislation/to provide those permits and when company abc doesn't donate anything and company def shows up looking for a different permit and does donate, suddenly the politicians views change drastically on which permits are valid/they will fight for.
    – TCooper
    Oct 21, 2020 at 21:58
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    @TCooper: I agree that a grey area exists here, but for the purposes of OP's question, the hypothetical described by President Trump seems pretty clearly outside that area, since it concerns the offer of permits contingent on donations.
    – ASGM
    Oct 21, 2020 at 22:14
  • certainly, for OP's exact question's phrasing in the question, less certainly for the phrasing of the quotes/the title. Although I haven't seen the YouTube video yet, so I may eat these words. It's just sad to me that a sitting president can so openly discuss the corruption (that's very real in our political system) in a half-mocking way and it's "okay" from a legal perspective because the exchange can't be proven, even whilst obvious. Knowing full well politicians on both sides of the aisle do exactly what he's described every term.
    – TCooper
    Oct 21, 2020 at 22:20
  • 1
    .... But when I started calling, I would be the greatest fundraiser in history. Don’t forget. I’m not bad at that stuff anyway, and I’m president. So I call some guy at the head of Exxon, I called ahead of Exxon, I don’t know, I’ll use a company. “Hi, how you doing? How’s the energy coming? When are you doing the exploration? Oh, you need a couple of permits. Huh? Okay.” Originally, I thought permits were not actually mentioned, but they are. Oct 22, 2020 at 17:45
  • 1
    Its funny that Impeachment is the only way of dealing with that, when congress has already demonstrated how dull that sword is.
    – Polygnome
    Oct 23, 2020 at 8:02

Trump is, as he often is, speaking in a manner that conveys no clear meaning. Taking his phrasing literally, he is discussing Exxon sending $25m to him personally, for the purpose of him spending it in his campaign. But it can also be taken as an imprecisely worded description of Exxon sending $25m to his campaign. A politician's campaign and the politician themselves are separate entities, and there are very different rules about money going to them. However, any money given to a person for the intent of it going to a candidate's campaign is required to follow at least as many conditions as money given directly to a campaign. Since corporations are prohibited from giving money to candidates' campaigns, either interpretations describe a wildly illegal situation:

Campaigns are prohibited from accepting contributions from certain types of organizations and individuals. These prohibited sources are:

Corporations, including nonprofit corporations (although funds from a corporate separate segregated fund are permissible)


But corporations are often described as giving to a candidate's campaign when in fact they are engaging in independent expenditures, so Trump may be following this habit. A corporation is allowed to spend money advocating a particular candidate, as long as they do not coordinate with that candidate. If Trump asks a corporation to spend money, that counts as coordination, so again, wildly illegal.

Coordinated means made in cooperation, consultation or concert with, or at the request or suggestion of, a candidate, a candidate’s authorized committee, or their agents, or a political party committee or its agents.


nick012000 brings up in the comments the fact that sometimes when a corporation is said to be contributing to a campaign, it is actually employees that are doing so. I think it would be a stretch to interpret this hypothetical as referring to that, but then with Trump, who knows. He certainly couldn't be (legally) asking for the particular Exxon executive he is speaking to to contribute $25m.

During the current two-year election cycle the limit for contributions by individuals to federal candidates for President, the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives has increased to $2,800 per election.


Thus, it would take nearly ten thousand Exxon employees to legally contribute $25m to Trump. There's complications such as soft money versus hard money, etc., that could reduce the number of people needed to get to $25m, if not all the money is going directly to Trump's campaign, but there's no way a single person can legally give $25m. Getting 10,000 people to contribute $2800 each is technically legal, but could easily get one in hot water if one is found to have improperly induced them to do so, and it's difficult to imagine getting that level of participation without some sort of incentive.

There is also the fact that this would be bribery, and that charge would remain even if Trump were to dispense with the whole campaign thing, and just ask Exxon to send $25m to his personal bank account.

(2)being a public official or person selected to be a public official, directly or indirectly, corruptly demands, seeks, receives, accepts, or agrees to receive or accept anything of value personally or for any other person or entity, in return for: (A)being influenced in the performance of any official act;
shall be fined under this title or not more than three times the monetary equivalent of the thing of value, whichever is greater, or imprisoned for not more than fifteen years, or both, and may be disqualified from holding any office of honor, trust, or profit under the United States.


As a side note tangential to the central question of election law, Trump has limited ability to hand out permits. If Exxon faces state or local permit requirements, the federal government can't help with that (although it can apply pressure). If Exxon wants to drill on federal land or offshore, then there may be federal permits required. Those would not be handed out by Trump personally, but by officials of the appropriate department. It would be highly irregular for the president to order an agency to issue a permit, but with this president, that would not be out of the question.

  • 8
    The issue isn't if Trump has the ability to grant the permits but that he is requesting money for a promise of them and if exxon follows through or not.
    – Joe W
    Oct 21, 2020 at 1:34
  • 5
    "it being highly irregular" has never stopped Trump before. Oct 21, 2020 at 12:23
  • 5
    @StianYttervik what if the carnage includes you getting arrested? Oct 21, 2020 at 12:24
  • 2
    While POTUS can't hand out federal permits directly, he can issue executive orders regarding the criteria that the appropriate agencies use when issuing permits. Isn't that what goes on when he does something like opening up previously protected lands for oil drilling?
    – Barmar
    Oct 21, 2020 at 14:32
  • 3
    "Since corporations are prohibited from giving money to candidates' campaigns, either interpretations describe a wildly illegal situation." - pjc50's answer below (as of this comment writing) suggests, with linked sources, that not only is this statement questionable but it is indeed demonstrably happening, even with Exxon in particular. So is Exxon demonstrably violating the law or is this statement false?
    – Ertai87
    Oct 21, 2020 at 19:15

ExxonMobil does in fact make political donations. Mostly, but not exclusively, to Republicans. They have a PAC for this purpose.

They also make contributions directly rather than through the PAC.

Here's their own web page describing the process.

The only thing that would seem to be illegal is a direct exchange of money for favours. Indirect exchange of money for legislation is the normal course of American politics.

It is routine for senators to call donors and ask for money.

There appear to be only a few small gotchas; apparently it's illegal for Lindsay Graham to call for donations from inside a Federal building. However, he's not been prosecuted, so maybe it isn't really illegal.

  • 4
    Thanks for including the Lindsay Graham issue. It makes the whole thing very suspect. So the only thing wrong or unusual in the Trump hypothetical is directly mentioning permits? Everything would be above board if that wasn't mentioned explicitly?
    – Jontia
    Oct 21, 2020 at 15:01
  • I'm not sure - someone should find an actual bribery conviction to establish where the legality line really is. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/… looks like a start. (What the hell happened in Pennsylvania? Lot of bribery convictions)
    – pjc50
    Oct 22, 2020 at 9:07

Legitimate advocacy is a slippery slope to bribery

All politicans have support from some people and not others. It's not illegal for supporters to support you. In fact, courts have recognized that the First Amendment protects political donations, because giving money to a cause is a way of expressing an idea - I support this cause - and is in fact one of the most powerful ways of expressing said idea.

Let's take Hypothetical Smith as an example. H. Smith was motivated to get into politics when his mother told him she almost aborted him, but decided against it. He has fervently opposed abortion ever since, and his political career reflects this.

How much money does he get from Planned Parenthood? They probably don't like him very much, but he wouldn't take their money even if offered. But he probably finds it easy to get donations from abortion opponents. He has a compelling story about an issue very important to them.

Nobody seriously questions that this is okay.

Slipping down the slope a little

Now suppose H. Smith is in a tight race. It turns out Atlanteans are mired deeply in a pollution scandal involving illegal dumping. H. Smith's name came up, he denies any involvement. He claims the investigation will ultimately exonerate him, but it won't wrap up before the election.

So he decides to pander to his base. He knows he has very strong support on the abortion issue, so he authors a bill to tighten restrictions. He then goes stumping and uses his 'strong record on abortion' to raise funds.

Is this okay? He hasn't compromised his core values - he still opposes abortion. Yet (because this is a hypothetical we know) one of the reasons he did it was to help raise money in a difficult election cycle.

The answer is still more or less yes - this is okay. Politicians are supposed to do what people want. He is presenting a vision of the world in which the law looks a certain way, and telling people 'If you like this vision, support me'. Fundamentally, that's all this is, and this is basically how politics is supposed to work.

The bottom of the slope is bribery

Suppose one of Smith's colleagues, Ambiguously Moral, decides he doesn't really care all that much about the issue. He sees he's likely to have the deciding vote on H. Smith's bill, and he says to himself I've got this thing and it's effing golden.

A. Moral sets up a meeting with prominent donors from one side. And another meeting with prominent donors from the other side. At the same time. When they both arrive, he tells them bidding is now open and conducts an auction for his vote.

Pretty much everyone agrees this would be obvious bribery and most definitely illegal. Yet if you look at it, the mechanics aren't that different from other steps along this slope.

If H. Smith is in a very tight race, because Atlantean public opinion is now 80-to-20 in favor of abortion, and he announces 'soul searching' has led him to reconsider his stance - shortly after he takes a huge campaign contribution from a pro-abortion group ... How honest is that? Really?

What this means for the hypothetical Exxon call

It means it's complicated, in general, but the specific way Trump worded it, is probably as close to cut and dried as it gets. Asking 'what do you need', then clarifying 'Oh, some permits?' and then pivoting to how many tens of millions of dollars a donor is going to give you? That's basically what put Rod Blagojevich behind bars.

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