Dark-money groups fighting Biden’s Supreme Court pick also funded Big Lie, Capitol riot

Groups that backed Amy Coney Barrett and are attacking Ketanji Brown Jackson pumped money into Trump's Big Lie

By Igor Derysh

Managing Editor

Published March 8, 2022 6:30AM (EST)

Ketanji Brown Jackson and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Ketanji Brown Jackson and Joe Biden (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Conservative dark money groups that are fighting President Joe Biden's nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court also helped fund conspiracy theories about the 2020 election and rallies leading to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot, according to a new report from the watchdog group Accountable.US.

The Judicial Crisis Network (JCN), which played a key role in shaping Trump's Supreme Court nominations, last month launched a preemptive $2.5 million strike before Biden even named his nominee, accusing Biden of caving in to leftists by promising a "Supreme Court nominee who will be a liberal activist." The organization is one of many linked to a network of dark-money groups around conservative activist Leonard Leo, the co-chairman of the Federalist Society who was dubbed Trump's "Supreme Court whisperer." Other groups affiliated with Leo, like the 85 Fund, have donated hundreds of thousands to the Independent Women's Forum, another group that has run ads attacking Democrats for picking judges to advance a "woke agenda."  

JCN, the 85 Fund and other affiliates have spent tens of millions to shape the Supreme Court — but have also funded groups that played a role in the Capitol riot, according to Accountable.US.

"It should worry us all that the groups leading the fight against Biden's historic nomination of Judge Jackson to the Supreme Court are tied to the Jan. 6 insurrection and efforts to undermine confidence in the 2020 election," Kyle Herrig, president of Accountable.US, said in a statement to Salon. "With American institutions and our democracy itself under constant attack from every direction, the importance of Judge Jackson's swift and successful confirmation cannot be overstated."

RELATED: Justice Alito complains, but the evidence is clear: This Supreme Court was built by dark money

JCN was the public face of a secretive network of dark money groups that spent millions to confirm Trump's Supreme Court picks. JCN spent tens of millions helping to confirm Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, according to Open Secrets, and launched a $25 million effort to confirm Justice Amy Coney Barrett just weeks before the 2020 election.

JCN is closely affiliated with Leo, who also founded the 85 Fund, which he uses to funnel money to other conservative groups, which all appear tightly connected to each other. Gary Marx, the president and treasurer of the 85 Fund, is also a senior adviser at JCN, according to CNBC. JCN president Carrie Severino is also involved with the Honest Elections Project, which is part of the 85 Fund.

These groups are also tied to other groups in the right-wing donor universe. Donors Trust, a dark-money group backed by the Koch network that gave more than $20 million to at least a dozen groups that questioned the election, donated more $48 million in 2020 to the 85 Fund, according to Accountable.US. The Rule of Law Trust, a little-known conservative group that appears to have no employees, gave nearly $22 million to JCN in 2020 and another $6 million to Donors Trust. The Bradley Foundation, whose board includes Cleta Mitchell, an attorney who helped Trump try to overturn the election, donated more than $3.5 million to Leo-connected groups in 2019 and 2020, including over $1 million to the Federalist Society. Donors Trust also donated more than $700,000 to the Federalist Society in 2020.

Members of the Federalist Society played key roles in Trump's attempts to overturn the election. Attorney John Eastman, who was a senior Federalist Society fellow, worked with Trump to draw up a six-point plan to convince Vice President Mike Pence to overturn the election, and later appeared at the Jan. 6 rally ahead of the Capitol riot to claim the election had been stolen.

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, another Federalist Society member, filed a lawsuit aimed at throwing out the election results in a number of key states, effectively overturning Biden's victory. Of the 17 other Republican attorneys general who joined Paxton's suit, 13 were members of the Federalist Society.

Sens. Josh Hawley, R-Mo., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, both Federalist Society members, led the objections to the certification of Trump's loss after the riot.

Donors Trust, which has been described as the "dark money ATM of the right," funnels money from anonymous wealthy donors to a variety of right-wing causes. The group gave nearly $8 million to the State Policy Network, which helped push voting restrictions in Georgia and other states in the wake of Trump's campaign of lies following the election, according to the New York Times.

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Donors Trust in 2020 also gave nearly $1.6 million to the Government Accountability Institute, a group co-founded by Trump ally Steve Bannon and backed by Trump megadonor Rebekah Mercer, which has repeatedly pushed false voter fraud claims. Since the Capitol riot, Bannon has urged his followers to seek local offices that could allow them to oversee future elections.

Also that year, Donors Trust gave over $1.45 million to the Wyoming Liberty Group, which pushed baseless claims of voter fraud while demanding a so-called election audit. It also gave $1.27 million to the Metric Media Foundation, which ran more than 1,000 partisan news sites that spread claims about voter fraud ahead of the election. Donors Trust gave over $1 million to the Thomas More Society and its Amistad Project, which filed election challenges in five states. Another $1 million went to Project Veritas, the conservative media group that publishes undercover "sting" videos which have frequently been accused of deceptive edited. Before the 2020 election, Project Veritas launched a campaign to discredit mail-in voting, which has been shown to be secure.

Donors Trust also gave $839,000 to the conservative Club for Growth, which doled out millions to 42 members of Congress who voted to overturn the 2020 election. Another $780,000 went to Turning Point USA, the conservative youth group that bragged about sending 80 buses to the rally ahead of the Capitol riot.

In all, Donors Trust has funneled more than $28 million to groups that pushed election lies or in some way funded the rally ahead of the Capitol riot, according to Accountable.US.

The Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation also helped fund groups that backed election lies or efforts to impose voting restrictions. Going back well before the Trump era, the Bradley Foundation spent millions to back voting restrictions, The New Yorker reported last year. Its affiliate, the Bradley Impact Fund, also fund groups that promoted election conspiracy theories, including Turning Point USA, Project Veritas and the Heritage Foundation, according to tax filings obtained by The Intercept. The Bradley Impact Fund also donated $2.5 million to the 85 Fund and over $1 million to the Federalist Society, as well as smaller donations to numerous other groups, according to Accountable.US. Cleta Mitchell, who serves on the board of the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, was the attorney who participated in Trump's infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, when Trump demanded he "find" enough votes to overturn the election. That effort is currently under investigation by the Fulton County district attorney's office.

A second report from Accountable.US raised questions about ties between Leo's network and Republican members of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is set to hold hearings on Jackson's nomination later this month.

Cruz, Hawley, Sen. Mike Lee of Utah and Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas, who all sit on the panel, all "grew up" in the Federalist Society, Law & Liberty reported in 2018, dubbing the group the "Federalist Society Caucus." Cruz, Hawley and Cotton were even on Trump's Supreme Court shortlist, which was shaped by Leo and the Federalist Society.

Cruz's nonprofit, the Conservative Action network, has received at least $500,000 from Leo's Freedom and Opportunity Fund, according to Open Secrets. Leo's Concord Fund also donated $200,000 to American One Policies, a group tied to Cotton, according to the Daily Poster.

Other Republicans on the committee have links to the group as well. Leo praised Sen. Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the top Republican on the committee, as a "long friend of the Federalist Society." Grassley, who previously chaired the committee during Trump's tenure, helped speed through confirmations for Federalist Society-approved judicial nominees, and Mike Davis, Grassley's former nominations counsel, oversaw a record number of circuit-court judicial confirmations during Trump's first two years in office, according to his online biography. Davis has since joined the Article III Project, another dark money group linked to Leo's network.

Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who replaced Grassley as the committee's chairman during Trump's last two years in office, oversaw Barrett's lightning-quick confirmation ahead of the 2020 election. Graham received a maximum donation from Federalist Society co-founder and board chairman Steve Calabresi during Barrett's confirmation process. Graham also headlined a Federalist Society event held at the Capitol building in 2019.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, another member of the committee, attended a Koch network summit in 2018 with Leo to discuss Trump's judicial nominations, according to CNBC. Sen. Ben Sasse, R-Neb., has been featured in at least four Federalist Society events since 2016, and has repeatedly defended and praised the group. Sen. Thom Tillis, R-N.C., received at least $7,800 from Federalist Society leadership last election cycle, including $1,500 from Leo on the day Gorsuch's confirmation proceeding began, according to Accountable.US. Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., has also appeared in at least four Federalist Society events since 2009 and defended the group when Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., criticized the influence of Leo, the Federalist Society and their related dark money groups during Barrett's confirmation hearing.

Last month, Whitehouse called out Leo's dark-money network for spending money to attack Biden's nominee before he had even selected one, and also for accusing liberal groups that support Biden's nominee of doing exactly what Leo's network has done for decades.

"When Supreme Court vacancies occur, a Republican dark-money operation swings into action. … Their accusations of dark-money corruption are a bizarre reimagining of the very strategy that they, themselves, hatched and executed," Whitehouse wrote in a Washington Post op-ed. "But that's not all. It takes the public eye off the Roberts Court's pattern of more than 80 partisan 5-to-4 and 6-to-3 decisions benefiting easily identified Republican donor interests. Those wins often come at the expense of regular Americans, stripping away protections for minority voters, reproductive rights, the environment, public health and workers. And they often degrade our democracy: greenlighting gerrymandering, protecting dark money and suppressing the vote."

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By Igor Derysh

Igor Derysh is Salon's managing editor. His work has also appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, Boston Herald and Baltimore Sun.

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