Robert F. Kennedy Jr. arrives in the lobby of Trump Tower in New York, Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2017.
Robert F. Kennedy Jr. has extensive ties to the Mellon family. Evan Vucci/AP

The Most Consequential Megadonor of 2024 Is Unlike Any Other

Timothy Mellon is the largest donor to both Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr. His motivations, across a life of unique interests, aren’t so simple to discern.

Philanthropist Bunny Mellon, who refashioned the White House Rose Garden for John F. Kennedy, used to say that when it comes to design, “nothing should be noticed.” Her stepson, Timothy, could have claimed this as his motto for much of his life — until recently when he became the 2024 election’s most-talked-about and consequential megadonor.

After storming onto the big-money political scene in 2020 when he poured over $70 million into Republican causes, Mellon, 81, now holds the distinction of being the largest single donor to PACs backing not one but two presidential candidates: Donald Trump and Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

Mellon stands apart in a donor world full of big spenders with explicit agendas. Democrats paint him as a puppet master behind Kennedy, propping up his campaign as a spoiler to aid Trump. But his yearslong connections to the Kennedy family, eclectic interests outside politics and atypical ways of giving his money suggest he is not that simple to pin down.

Mellon is now a sought-after megadonor — a strange turn for a reclusive octogenarian who has spent much of his adult life living on farms and ranches, aiding sleepier causes like a memorial to country singer Patsy Cline and a search for disappeared pilot Amelia Earhart and avoiding the fundraiser-and-benefit circuit beloved by many of his fellow billionaires.

NOTUS interviews with former allies, political figures who have received his donations and local officials in Wyoming, where he now lives, revealed a donor who is so uninterested in being buttered up by those seeking his money that he has cut million-dollar checks without so much as meeting the people he’s donating to in person. Mellon did not respond to an interview request or written questions from NOTUS.

One former super PAC operator said he had mostly communicated with Mellon via email. The head of a nonprofit devoted to finding Earhart said he cajoled Mellon into meeting him for lunch only after Mellon cut his organization a check for $1 million.

“He came out of the blue,” Ric Gillespie, the executive director of the International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery, which has spent years searching for Earhart’s plane, told NOTUS. “I never made the connection with the Mellon name until there’s a million dollars in our account.”

Mellon has more connections to Kennedy and the super PAC supporting him, American Values 2024, to which Mellon has donated $20 million. One of the super PAC’s co-founders, Tony Lyons, is president of a publishing house that will in May put out a hardcover re-release of Mellon’s autobiography, “panam.captain,” which Mellon first released as an e-book in 2015. The book recounts Mellon’s time as a pilot, computer programmer and railroad owner.

The cover of Mellon’s book now prominently features a quote from Kennedy: “Tim Mellon is a maverick entrepreneur who embodies the most admirable qualities of what FDR called ‘American industrial genius,’” the book cover says, according to the online preview.

Mellon has also been a “supporter” of Children’s Health Defense, the nonprofit run by Kennedy Jr. that has been critical of vaccines, said Mark Gorton, the other co-founder of the super PAC.

“I have some idea about the motivations of the people that gave to the super PAC. It has nothing to do with RFK being a spoiler,” said Gorton, who said he had not met Mellon. “There are a lot of people in this country who are justifiably upset with how our government is functioning at every level, and the endemic level of corruption that have just become the norms of the system.” In an email, Lyons pointed out that several of the super PAC’s donors have given to multiple candidates, including Trump, Joe Biden and Ron DeSantis.

Mellon’s varied connections to Kennedy contradicts the Democrats’ line of attack: that people like Mellon are supporting Kennedy to tank Biden’s chances at the presidency.

“It’s pretty clear that Trump and his megadonors are propping up RFK Jr. as a stalking horse,” DNC adviser Ramsey Reid said recently on a call with reporters.

Mellon made his first major donation to politics only four years ago to the super PAC that helps elect House Republicans. In the time since, he has poured tens of millions of dollars into helping Republicans keep the House and Senate. Occasionally, his money has gone to unorthodox politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to whom Mellon donated $2,700 during her first campaign in 2018. (Ocasio-Cortez has tried to return the donation, Mellon told Bloomberg in 2020, but Mellon refused to cash the check.)

His wife, Patricia, has favored more moderate candidates: She gave $2,000 to Sen. Joe Manchin in 2021 and $1,015 to a PAC supporting former Rep. Liz Cheney in 2021 and 2022, after Cheney had broken from much of the Republican Party over the Jan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol.

Mellon has spent much of his adult life living in rural areas. Property records and campaign finance disclosures indicate he resides in the south-central part of Wyoming, which is heavy on agriculture and cattle ranching, far from the tony ski mansions and tourism in northwest Wyoming’s Jackson Hole. A decade ago Mellon donated one of his properties, a 6,700-acre hunting-and-fishing ranch on the trout-filled Laramie River, to the University of Wyoming, which sold the property for over $8 million.

But Mellon hails from one of the best-known philanthropic families in the country, one that has had long-standing ties to the Kennedys. Heirs to a significant banking fortune, the Mellon family is worth $14.1 billion today, Forbes estimates.

Paul and Bunny Mellon
Bunny Mellon directing the placement of flowers Robert F. Kennedy’s gravesite on June 8, 1968. Anonymous/AP

Mellon’s grandfather served as Treasury secretary for more than a decade. His stepmother, Bunny, redesigned the White House Rose Garden and counted Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.’s aunt, as a close friend. His father, Paul Mellon, bred racehorses — including a Kentucky Derby winner — and built a storied art collection, eventually donating more than 1,000 works of art to the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.

Timothy Mellon sat on the board of the family’s Mellon foundation for more than two decades before leaving the board in 2002. Unlike his forefathers, he has not put his name on buildings across the East Coast. He has favored gifts of land and stock, transferred quietly to his preferred causes.

After Texas Gov. Greg Abbott announced plans for the state to build its border wall in 2021, Mellon transferred $53.1 million in stock to a fund set up by Abbott for the wall — a donation that made Mellon responsible for 98% of all the private money Abbott raised for the effort at the time.

In the small town of Winchester, Virginia, Mellon bought three properties neighboring Patsy Cline’s childhood home and has spent several years erecting a park dedicated to the deceased country singer that he plans to later donate to the city, according to local news reports.

Gillespie, who runs the nonprofit devoted to Amelia Earhart, had just held an event at the State Department in 2012 when he received an email directly from Mellon, sent to the general contact address on his organization’s website. Mellon had seen news coverage of the event and was interested in funding Gillespie’s next expedition in search of Earhart and coming along, Gillespie told NOTUS.

Mellon put up half the funding for the expedition and joined Gillespie and his crew, sailing out of Hawaii on a chartered oceanographic research vessel to the Republic of Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean, home to an island where Gillespie believes Earhart crashed in 1937.

“We didn’t find anything. But he wasn’t complaining at anything, he was just along for the ride and he didn’t involve himself very much. He spent most of his time sitting on the ship, reading,” Gillespie said.

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After their return to the United States, Mellon grew skeptical of Gillespie’s search for Earhart, saying on a chat forum run by Gillespie that he saw potential evidence of Earhart’s plane in images Gillespie had collected of the ocean floor on a previous expedition. Gillespie locked the thread, cutting Mellon off, Gillespie said. In 2013, Mellon sued Gillespie and his nonprofit on a slew of claims: fraud, negligent misrepresentation, negligence and racketeering, centered around the accusation that Gillespie had gathered evidence of Earhart’s plane and not publicized it before collecting Mellon’s donation, according to the complaint filed by Mellon.

Gillespie eventually got the lawsuit dismissed — after months of depositions, an appeal and hiring lawyers who racked up a six-figure legal tab.

“He is the most litigious, vicious, insert-your-own-expletive guy I’ve ever encountered,” Gillespie said.

Maggie Severns is a reporter at NOTUS. Calen Razor is a NOTUS reporter and an Allbritton Journalism Institute fellow.