Top US ethics watchdog investigating Trump over dinner with oil bosses

<span>Trump in New York in March.</span><span>Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Trump in New York in March.Photograph: Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images

A powerful watchdog group that has been at the forefront of efforts to hold Donald Trump accountable for constitutional violations is investigating whether his Mar-a-Lago meeting with oil company executives last month merits legal action.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (Crew) has told the Guardian that it is investigating the dinner at Trump’s club with more than 20 oil and gas company executives. Trump asked them for a $1bn presidential campaign contribution, while at the same time vowing to undo Joe Biden’s restrictions on natural gas export permits, oil drilling and car pollution, the Washington Post reported.

Related: House Democrats launch investigation into Trump’s alleged offers to oil executives

Virginia Canter, Crew’s chief ethics counsel, said the group’s lawyers were investigating what she called a matter of considerable concern. “We’re taking a very serious look at whether Trump’s fundraising pitch to the oil executives for $1bn would merit some further action,” she said.

Canter added that details of the discussion between the former president and the oil companies were troubling. “This was a very focused small group directed at a particular industry, there was an amount put out there of $1bn, which he described as a deal, which all raises questions about the transactional nature of the meeting.”

News of Crew’s investigation came as House Democrats announced their own inquiry into the Mar-a-Lago dinner. Letters were sent from the House oversight committee on Monday to nine oil executives asking for details of their companies’ participation.

Sheldon Whitehouse, the senator from Rhode Island who chairs the Senate budget committee, which has subpoena powers, is also considering an investigation. In a statement, he told the Guardian that Trump’s reported pledge to tear up fossil-fuel restrictions on day one of a second Trump administration, combined with the request for campaign money, was an “offer of a blatant quid pro quo”.

Whitehouse said it was “practically an invitation to ask questions about big oil’s political corruption and manipulation”. He added that his budget committee was looking at “how to ensure the industry cannot simply buy off politicians in order to saddle taxpayers with the bill”.

Crew has a substantial track record of dragging Trump and his inner circle through the courts and in front of ethics bodies. The group led the recent attempt to force Trump off the presidential ballot in Colorado on grounds that he had violated the 14th amendment sanctions against those who engage in insurrection, a move which the US supreme court blocked.

On Trump’s first day in the White House in 2017, Crew sued him for violating the emoluments clauses of the US constitution which forbid federal officeholders from receiving gifts from foreign states. The case, which arose because Trump had refused to divest his business interests, was still open when his presidency ended.

Crew ethics complaints also led to reprimands for more than a dozen officials in the Trump administration.

Under the bribery statute, 18 USC 201(b), public officials are forbidden from seeking or receiving anything of value in return for carrying out an official act. Presidential candidates are allowed to solicit donations within the constraints of campaign finance laws, and they are also free to lay out their policy objectives to companies that might benefit from them.

They are not, however, allowed to ask for money directly in return for carrying out beneficial acts once in office.

For the bribery statute to be invoked, there would have to be evidence that Trump promised to dismantle regulations in exchange for donations, said Professor Deborah Hellman of the University of Virginia law school. “For him to say ‘I’m doing it because you’re giving me the money’ is a quid pro quo, but to say ‘I’m going to do it, so you should want me to get elected’ is not.”

While inquiries into the Mar-a-Lago meeting have so far focused on Trump’s conduct, fossil fuel companies are also under scrutiny. Last week Politico reported that the US oil industry is preparing for a possible Trump second term by drafting executive orders for him to sign.

The orders would unleash offshore oil drilling and boost natural gas exports.

The fossil fuel industry has already donated $7.3m this election cycle to Trump’s campaign and groups backing his candidacy, according to Federal Election Commission data compiled by the non-profit watchdog OpenSecrets.