One of the most pro-war members of the Republican foreign policy establishment, Bolton has served in numerous roles, including acting U.N. ambassador and an assistant attorney general in the Department of Justice, under the last three Republican presidents. He’s also been raising millions of dollars to elect some of the senators who would now get to vote to approve his new position.
Bolton launched the John Bolton Super PAC in 2013, which some speculated was a way to promote himself ahead of a potential 2016 president run. That run never materialized, but the PAC, which could raise an unlimited amount of money, enabled Bolton to bring in huge contributions from wealthy benefactors while lending his hawkish credentials to congressional candidates. In the 2014 and 2016 election cycles, Bolton raised $11.3 million and spent $5.6 million on independent expenditures in support of Republican candidates.
Three of the candidates whom Bolton’s super PAC boosted ― Sens. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.), Tom Cotton (R-Ark.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.) ― could now be in a position to vote for his confirmation as deputy secretary of State. That would create an unprecedented situation: The director of a super PAC would be seeking votes to secure a prominent government position from the very same senators he helped elect.
It’s unclear whether those senators would recuse themselves from voting on his nomination. Tillis got the most support of any candidate in the past two elections from Bolton’s super PAC with $1.4 million to boost his 2014 election. Tillis defeated incumbent Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) in the 2014 election by 1.7%. The Hagan-Tillis Senate race was the first Senate race to top the $100 million mark, largely on the back of spending by super PACs and nonprofit groups.
Bolton’s super PAC also boosted Cotton in his first Senate election campaign in 2014. The group spent $825,687 to support Cotton’s campaign, which he won easily.
The only successful race that Bolton’s super PAC spent money on in 2016 was incumbent Burr’s. The John Bolton Super PAC spent $740,675 to support Burr and oppose his challenger, Democrat Deborah Ross. Burr won his election by 6 percentage points.
“Donald Trump’s creating trickle-down conflicts of interest,” Adam Smith, communications director for the campaign finance reform group Every Voice, said in an email. “Whether it’s John Bolton and his super PAC or a mega-donor like Betsy DeVos, there will be several Senators who have received financial support from nominees they’ll be voting on and it’s fair to ask whether those donations will play a role in their votes.”
The offices of Burr, Cotton and Tillis did not respond to requests for comment.
Bolton’s super PAC has largely been financed by the same wealthy benefactors over the two years it has been active. The largest donor is billionaire hedge fund manager Robert Mercer, who gave $4 million over the past four years. Mercer is perhaps the most influential big donor in Trump World. After backing Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) during the primary, Mercer and his daughter Rebecca Mercer threw their weight heavily behind Trump. They were behind the mid-campaign revamp that brought on KellyAnne Conway as campaign manager and Steve Bannon as campaign chief executive. Conway was previously paid by the Mercers through a pro-Cruz super PAC. Bannon’s Breitbart is partially financed by contributions from Mercer.
Other major Trump backers supporting Bolton’s super PAC include Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus and Los Angeles real estate magnate Geoff Palmer.
Bolton will need every vote he can get from Republicans if he is nominated. Republicans hold a slim 52-48 majority in the Senate. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) has already stated that he will oppose Bolton’s nomination. When Paul was running for the Republican presidential nomination, Bolton’s nonprofit group the Foundation for American Security & Freedom ran an advertisement attacking Paul for questioning the fear-mongering about Iran’s nuclear program. The ad showed an American family being evaporated by a nuclear bomb.
Bolton’s 2005 nomination to be U.N. ambassador was highly controversial. Bolton was a known opponent of the U.N. with a stated view that “it wouldn’t make a bit of difference” if the U.N. building in Manhattan lost 10 of its 38 floors. During his confirmation hearings he was faced with accusations of harassment from a former USAID employee. He could not clear a Democratic filibuster and was recess-appointed by President George W. Bush. Numerous Senate Republicans stated at the time that they would not vote for his confirmation.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story said Bolton was an assistant director in the Justice Department. He was an assistant attorney general.