‘Devin Nunes’ Winery, Kushner Family Business Raked In Coronavirus Relief Money
Mom-and-pop shops struggled to obtain PPP money, but Kanye West, Grover Norquist’s anti-spending group, and a number of Trump allies didn’t seem to have any trouble obtaining taxpayer funds.
BY ERIC LUTZ
JULY 7, 2020
Jared Kushner appears at a White House coronavirus press conference in April.PHOTO BY MANDEL NGAN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES
Last month, the Trump administration backtracked on its earlier vow to disclose the recipients of taxpayer-funded Paycheck Protection Program loans meant to help small businesses weather the economic fallout from the coronavirus crisis. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin claimed at the time that reporting the names of beneficiaries, and amounts received, would risk revealing “confidential information.” But under pressure from congressional committees, the administration reversed again, releasing its PPP records Monday.
It turns out, the White House may have had good reason to want to keep the data under wraps. While much of the nearly $660 billion went to the small businesses it was designed to help prop up, a sizable slice of the pie went to large corporations, organizations with connections to political elites, and—predictably—companies linked to Donald Trump and his associates and allies.
According to the Associated Press, up to $273 million in PPP funding went to the companies of major Trump donors—including Newsmax, the right-wing website whose CEO, Christopher Ruddy, is a longtime friend of the president and a big contributor to PACs that support him. Allies of the president on Capitol Hill and the media also cashed in. The Daily Caller, the conservative news organization co-founded by Tucker Carlson, one of Trump’s favorite Fox News personalities, secured up to a million dollars in taxpayer funds; its sketchy nonprofit arm, the Daily Caller News Foundation, accepted between $150,000 and $300,000. A winery partly owned by Representative Devin Nunes, the Trump ally who recently lost a legal case to a fictional cow, received at least $1 million in PPP funding. So did the companies of several other members of Congress on both sides of the aisle, including that of Republican Representative Kevin Hern—the owner of a company that operates fast food franchises who, in March, pressed Mitch McConnell and Chuck Schumer to boost the loan sizes available to franchisees, as the Washington Post reported.
Companies associated with top Trump officials also reaped benefits of the program. Multiple businesses, including two hotels, owned by the family of Jared Kushner, the president’s son-in-law and senior adviser, benefitted from PPP money. (The Joseph Kushner Hebrew Academy in New Jersey, named after the powerful Trump adviser’s grandfather and supported by his parents’ family foundation, received up to $2 million.) The family business of Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao—who is married to McConnell, the Senate Majority Leader—received as much as $1 million in taxpayer dollars, as well. The trucking company founded by Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and bearing his name got between $150,000 and $300,000. Trump’s own companies did not apparently receive any funding, but several organizations that operate out of properties owned by his real estate company did, as did the law firm headed by his longtime lawyer Marc Kasowitz, who helped defend the president during Robert Mueller’s Russia probe.
The distribution of PPP money was often as absurd as it was maddening. Americans for Tax Reform, the conservative nonprofit founded and operated by insufferable anti-tax zealot Grover Norquist, raked in relief funding —even as Norquist himself publicly lambasted the size and financial cost of the government’s coronavirus rescue efforts. The conservative Ayn Rand Institute and Citizens Against Government Waste similarly accepted PPP dollars, despite their public opposition to federal spending.
The administration defended its handling of PPP money, noting that companies affiliated with Democratic politicians and Obama administration figures Jon Favreau and Tommy Vietor also received taxpayer funding. “The PPP was a huge success and saved 51 million American jobs, including at Joe Biden’s old law firm and many companies associated with Obama Administration alums,” Trump campaign spokeswoman Samantha Zager told the AP. “When the rent or mortgage was due, tens of millions of Americans kept receiving paychecks thanks to President Trump’s leadership.” But Trump officials and allies cashing in on the lifeline meant for small businesses raised significant conflict of interest concerns—especially given the difficulty many small businesses have had receiving government relief. “When you don’t have proper safeguards, such as timely disclosure and effective inspectors general, then all these things look more suspicious and raise more questions,” Larry Noble, a former general counsel at the Federal Election Commission, told the outlet. “When you see these people getting assistance quickly and they have contributed to the campaign, then it is going to raise questions.”
Possible self-dealing among lawmakers who helped influence the legislation, like Hern, or political favoritism by Trump and other administration officials underscores longstanding concerns about a lack of oversight over the massive coronavirus relief package the government enacted in the early days of the pandemic. Democrats had already worried that the potential for abuse was high, but those fears were compounded when Trump abruptly sacked Glenn Fine, the inspector general who had been tasked with overseeing the historic $2 trillion rescue bill, as part of his broader watchdog purge. “I’ll be the oversight,” Trump said in March, insisting that he could provide a check on his own administration’s handling of the funds.
But the PPP debacle makes clear that’s not adequate. Not only did small business loans get distributed to companies owned or operated by Trump officials and allies—they also went to companies whose need for such relief is highly dubious, like billionaire and supposed presidential candidate Kanye West’s Yeezy brand, which received more than $2 million in PPP money. That taxpayer money meant to help Main Street wound up in the pockets of companies backed by Wall Street would be galling enough. But it’s made all the more frustrating by the difficulty actual small businesses—particularly Black-owned companies—have had accessing funding. “PPP was sold to the American people as a program to help Mom-and-Pop shops keep their lights on during the pandemic,” Kyle Herring, president of the government watchdog group Accountable.US, told NBC News. “The reality is that the Trump administration created a program that helped the well-connected cut to the front of the line to get these loans.”
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