Progressive Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., and MSNBC host Rachel Maddow are outspoken critics of the bloated defense budget and the MAGA wing of the Republican Party. Next month, though, both Raskin and Maddow will headline an event sponsored by defense industry giant Lockheed Martin and Palantir, a $26 billion defense contractor founded and chaired by Peter Thiel, the polarizing billionaire and megadonor to Donald Trump.
The appearances by Raskin and Maddow will come as part of TruCon, the conference of the Democratic Party-aligned Truman Center, which runs from June 1 to 4 in Washington, D.C. TruCon’s website describes the conference as an opportunity to see “[t]hought leaders across government, policy, and national security fields speak on the most pressing issues facing America today.”
“Obviously, the real test of integrity is to argue with folks you disagree with, not to cover your eyes and ears and look away.”
For Mark Thompson, a national security analyst at the Project on Government Oversight, the big question for Raskin and Maddow at the conference will be whether they hold their tough positions against defense contractors. If they don’t speak out, Thompson said, it would indicate that sponsors can buy the silence of their outspoken critics.
“If I were Jamie Raskin or I were Rachel Maddow — what a great opportunity to name these companies and say where they’re coming up short,” said Thompson. “Do you, a company, buy my silence or tacit silence by sponsoring this event? Obviously, the real test of integrity is to argue with folks you disagree with, not to cover your eyes and ears and look away.”
According to a source close to Raskin, the conference sponsors were announced after the member of Congress accepted the invitation. Maddow, Palantir, Lockheed, and Truman did not respond to requests for comment.
At TruCon, sponsors are promised access to influential conference participants, according to promotional materials. “Elevate your brand, connect with your customers, feed your employee pipeline in meaningful, exciting ways,” reads a Truman brochure marketing sponsorship opportunities for the event. The brochure repeatedly references the advantages of aligning a company’s “brand” with the Truman Center and TruCon.
For Palantir and Lockheed, which are listed as the two top sponsors on the event website, that means enjoying high-level recognition and association with prominent progressive and other Democratic Party-aligned figures.
Raskin and Maddow — an honoree and keynote speaker, respectively, at the conference — have both been harshly critical of the defense industry at large and specifically Lockheed and Palantir.
Raskin co-sponsored a House resolution in 2020 denouncing “wasteful Pentagon spending and supporting cuts to the bloated defense budget.” The bill, which did not make it to the floor for a vote, highlighted that “the Pentagon had no way to track replacement parts for the $1,400,000,000,000 F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Program” — a Lockheed project widely considered to be the biggest military procurement boondoggle in history.
For Lockheed Martin, the F-35 is only one of the many upsides the company sees thanks to the Pentagon’s enormous expenditures on contractors. Over half of the nearly trillion-dollar defense budget goes to contractors, and Lockheed Martin is the top recipient of Pentagon dollars, receiving about $75 billion in the 2020 fiscal year. That figure amounts to over one and a half times the entire combined State Department and Agency for International Development budget for the same year, according to Brown University’s Costs of War project. Lockheed derived 73 percent of its net sales from the U.S. government in 2022.
When Lockheed CEO James Taiclet was asked last year about whether his company’s government contracts — as compared to the State Department’s budget — represented a reasonable balance, he deflected, saying simply that “it’s only up to us to step to what we’ve been asked to do and we’re just trying to do that in a more effective way.” It was, he said, “up to the U.S. government.”
The company, however, pours staggering sums of money into influencing the government: Lockheed spent $13 million lobbying the federal government last year. Its biggest area of focus was the defense budget, according to OpenSecrets.
For her part, Maddow has been an even more outspoken critic of Pentagon contractors than Raskin. In March 2011, she told her MSNBC viewers, “Defense spending is untouchable because civilian lawmakers defer so deeply to the military, and to the former military officers laced through the contractor world, that if you squint, you would swear that Congress is some lackey puppet parliament in a country where the government has taken over by a junta.”
Maddow has also denounced Thiel, whom she lit into during MSNBC’s coverage of the 2016 Republican National Convention, where Thiel spoke.
Referencing Thiel’s company Palantir, Maddow said, “He also runs one of the biggest surveillance companies in the world that does lots of business with the CIA and the NSA and lots of other government agencies, and mass surveillance is a controversial thing in Republican politics.”
Palantir provided software used by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in support of the Trump administration’s controversial detention, deportation, and family separation policies — policies denounced by both Raskin and Maddow.
Truman doesn’t seem to have concerns about associating with Palantir and Lockheed. Two Palantir employees are on Truman’s advisory council — Mehdi Alhassani and company Vice President Wendy Anderson — and both of them, alongside Lockheed, are listed as funders in Truman’s most recent annual report. Truman President and CEO Jenna Ben-Yehuda hosted Taiclet, Lockheed’s CEO, for a “fireside chat” last September. The following month, Truman hosted a panel featuring Anderson, the Palantir executive.
The embrace of prominent defense contractors might seem out of step for a group whose website claims it supports “international engagement through diplomacy first and foremost, and by force only when necessary.” Thompson, though, offered a simple explanation for the turn to weapons money.
“It’s typically tawdry but it’s the way business is done in this town,” he said. “If Truman wants to be a player, they have to do events, they need money for events, and they need to barter away their sense of themselves in order to sponsor these events.”