As Donald Trump hustles to close the cash gap with Hillary Clinton, he is embarking on his most aggressive fundraising push yet — but his team is refusing to name the bundlers across the country who are helping grease an operation that raised a stronger-than-expected $80 million in July.
Trump has scheduled a blitz of fundraisers across the country in the coming weeks, such as the two high-dollar soirees he attended in Nantucket and Cape Cod over the weekend, including one at the home of billionaire Bill Koch, the lesser-known brother of Charles and David. There, co-hosts had to raise at least $100,000 for six tickets to a VIP reception and a photo with the Manhattan mogul.
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It is a sharp departure from the primary, when Trump claimed he couldn’t be bought and his decision to pour tens of millions of his own money into the race was central to his image as a selfless billionaire sacrificing for the betterment of the nation. But now that both he and Clinton are leaning on big donors to fund their fall campaigns, it is Clinton who is more open about her own finances and where the money is coming from.
“The fact that he has not released his bundlers is very upsetting,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics. “This is a basic piece of information that the voters need: Who is bankrolling the campaign? And who are the bag men who are holding out the bags collecting the contributions?”
Clinton has voluntarily released the names of nearly 500 bundlers who raised at least $100,000 for her, and her campaign shares with the press the location of all fundraisers that she or vice-presidential nominee Tim Kaine attends, including whose home it is, the price of admission and the approximate number of attendees. She has released decades of her tax returns.
Trump, in contrast, has so far refused to release any of his taxes, justifying the break with historic precedent by claiming he is under audit. Trump’s campaign has also not disclosed the names of his bundlers, and it didn’t respond to multiple inquiries about whether it intends to do so. Nor does the Trump campaign systematically disclose when he attends fundraisers, who is hosting, or the price of admission.
“Trump spent his entire primary campaign calling his opponents puppets of big donors and now some of those same big donors are raising money for his campaign,” said Adam Smith, a spokesman for Every Voice, a group dedicated to lessening the influence of money. “He’s been all talk and no action on money on politics.”
Trump continues to hammer Hillary Clinton for her pursuit of campaign cash, even as he has joined in the hunt. “She’s got to do right for her donors,” he said last Monday at a rally in Ohio “I’m going to do right for you.”
Trump’s move to keep his bundlers secret is just one element of a dramatic campaign-finance flip, from attacking donors to soliciting them, from bashing super PACS to embracing them, from promising to release his taxes to refusing. Some of the very donors he demonized by name Trump has since gone back to seek support from, hat-in-hand.
The reversals threaten to rob Trump of credibility on what had been one of his most effective outsider themes and signature lines of attack.
Trump once said billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson was backing Marco Rubio “because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet.” But days after he became the presumptive nominee in May, Trump shared a Manhattan meal with Adelson and his wife, Miriam. And during the Republican convention, Trump made sure to visit with the Adelsons at a private suite of Quicken Loans Arena as the couple contemplate spending as much as $100 million to elect him.
Trump began courting major GOP donors almost immediately after he sealed the nomination in May. A veritable parade of Republican billionaires and financiers traipsed through Trump Tower that month, among them coal magnate Joe Craft and his wife Kelly Knight, fellow energy executive Robert Murray and New York Jets owner Woody Johnson.
“We never talked about money. Not one word was talked about money and financing his campaign,” Murray said of his May meeting with Trump. “I came away from there with an understanding that he will surround himself, and I think this is important, with the very best people available in the United States on all sorts of policies.”
Still, the schmoozing paid off. Fundraisers soon followed. In June, Murray hosted Trump for a fundraising dinner in West Virginia and his company donated $100,000 to a Trump super PAC. In July, Craft and Knight held a Trump fundraiser in Kentucky. And later this month, Johnson will open up his Hamptons home for a Trump money-raising soiree.
One billionaire donor, energy magnate Harold Hamm, was given a plum speaking slot at the Republican convention and has been floated as a possible appointment as secretary of energy. At the same time, Trump’s political team and his supportive super PACs have been trying to ply Hamm for big checks. Hamm attended a super PAC event in Cleveland days before his speech.
While Trump has said repeatedly donors would have no impact on his, his 13-member new economic advisory council is filled with contributors who have given his joint fundraising account with the Republican Party more than $2 million.
Trump once shunned super PACs, but now his chief strategist Paul Manafort has called into help raise money and they plan to dispatch his running mate, Mike Pence, to attend super PAC events.
All donors to Trump’s campaign and the joint fundraising accounts he has established with the Republican Party must be publicly disclosed. But bundlers, who typically tap their own political networks to gather checks on a candidate’s behalf, can remain unnamed.
With direct campaign contributions limited to $2,700 in the general election, bundlers are crucial, especially for a political newcomer like Trump who lacks a lifetime with of connections to the thousands of mid-level contributors need to fund a campaign. (Contribution limits to state and national parties, which both Trump and Clinton are soliciting, can climb into the hundreds of thousands of dollars; some bundlers gather those outsize checks, too.)
So far, Clinton’s political operation has outraised Trump, announcing a $90 million haul in July between her campaign and the Democratic Party. But Trump said last week that he had raised about $80 million between his campaign and various GOP committees, boasting, in particular, about the $64 million in smaller digital and direct-mail donations.
But despite Trump’s rhetorical focus on small-dollar contributors, he is still dependent on bundlers and six-figure political donors. In his Trump Victory joint fundraising account, which raised $25 million from late May through the end of June, roughly half the funds came from only 25 families.
Only federally-registered lobbyists who bundle campaign donations must be disclosed. Clinton has disclosed millions in such lobbyists bundling; Trump, through the end of June, reported none, though that total could rise in July as his campaign began trying to tap K Street for cash. One Trump campaign source said Trump likely would reveal only what is legally required.
“It seems like the right thing to do but he’s under no legal compulsion,” said Kenneth Gross, a veteran campaign finance attorney in Washington D.C. “And the doesn’t appear to be moved by custom.”
Clinton has voluntarily disclosed 499 bundlers, individuals and couples including the required lobbyists, that have raised at least $100,000 for her campaign. It includes governors (Andrew Cuomo), senators (Cory Booker), congressmen (Joaquin Castro), billionaires (Fred Eychaner), and Hollywood-types (Jeffrey Katzenberg).
During the 2016 Republican primaries, Jeb Bush voluntarily disclosed his bundlers. Romney did not do so four years ago, but John McCain and George W. Bush, as well as Barack Obama, did before that.
None of that has stopped Trump and his allies from mocking Clinton and her dependence on Wall Street. “She’s totally controlled by the special interests,” he said last week.
Clinton’s campaign hopes to use Trump’s refusal to release bundlers, coupled with his taxes, against him.
“Voters deserve to know who is funding the election and we hope all candidates follow Hillary Clinton’s lead and bring some more transparency to the process,” said Josh Schwerin, a Clinton spokesman.