‘Self-Funded’ Trump Now Propped Up by Super PAC Megadonors

By Alan Zibel

Dozens of megadonors have contributed $54.4 million to six groups backing President Donald Trump’s agenda, his reelection and Republican candidates for office, an analysis by Public Citizen has found.

Public Citizen analyzed [PDF here] contributions by large donors to six groups supporting Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The analysis reveals a large political operation backing Trump as well as Republican candidates. These six groups are fueled with contributions from corporate CEOs and other large donors as well as from dark money groups that do not disclose their donors.

The gusher of contributions to pro-Trump groups is a sharp contrast with the early days of Trump’s political career three years ago. Trump, who famously ran his primary campaign with a tiny staff, initially claimed to be self-funding his candidacy and avoiding big-money donors. This assertion, while not entirely accurate, was part of his appeal to voters.

Public Citizen’s analysis of Federal Election Commission data found that since the start of 2017 through mid-October 2018, the six pro-Trump groups have:

  • Raised $54.4 million from contributors who donated at least $100,000, with an average contribution of nearly $400,000.
  • Received contributions of at least $100,000 from 136 people and organizations.
  • Relied upon donations from the gambling, finance, real estate and energy sectors, largely from CEOs, senior executives, retired CEOs and spouses of CEOs.

Under federal law, political groups may participate in U.S. elections as long as they don’t coordinate their efforts with a candidate’s campaign. These groups have proliferated in recent years after the Supreme Court allowed unlimited contributions from corporations and wealthy individuals. Separately, another Supreme Court decision has led to the expansion of “joint fundraising committees” that allow donors to write six-figure checks, which then can be parceled out to other campaigns. Trump and his allies have made use of all of these strategies.

For the report, Public Citizen analyzed contributions by the six largest groups used by big-money donors to support Trump and Vice President Mike Pence. The analysis excludes Trump’s official campaign committee, which is subject to the federal $2,700 cap on individual donations.

The six groups studied by Public Citizen have raised more than $153 million to date, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics. Most of that money has already been spent, with roughly $145 million in expenditures so far.

Pro-Trump groups are on track to far exceed what major donors spent to reelect President Barack Obama in 2012. That year, Priorities USA Action, the super PAC endorsed by Obama, raised $79.1 million. Of that money, $73 million came from 125 donors contributing at least $100,000. Since then, super PACs and other forms of big-money politics have mushroomed.

The Public Citizen analysis illustrates how giant fundraising committees, many of which have been able to accept unlimited contributions since the 2010 Citizens United decision, are become an essential piece of Trump’s round-the-clock political fundraising operation. Several Trump organizations have parallel “dark money” operations, which are structured as nonprofit “social welfare” organizations under the tax code and are not required to disclose their donors. These dark money groups often turn around and make contributions to super PACs.

GroupTotal contributions over $100KTotal ContributionsSpentDescription
AMERICA FIRST ACTION INC.$31,537,911 $38,801,172$35,994,963Pro-Trump super PAC, led by Republican operative Brian Walsh
TRUMP VICTORY$14,512,652 $30,450,763$27,274,789Joint Fundraising Committee between Trump campaign, RNC, several state parties
FUTURE45$5,242,555 $6,269,614$6,233,204Republican super PAC supported by Charles Schwab, Joe Ricketts and Paul Singer. Associated with the 45Committee, a dark money group.
GREAT AMERICA COMMITTEE$2,142,278 $4,052,421$3,795,185Leadership PAC set up by Vice President Mike Pence.
GREAT AMERICA PAC$650,000$8,082,744$8,582,778Pro-Trump hybrid PAC/super PAC led by GOP Strategist Ed Rollins. Affiliated with dark money group Great America Alliance.
TRUMP MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN COMMITTEE$310,553$65,466,544$63,162,636Joint Fundraising Committee between Trump campaign and RNC.
Total$54,395,949 $153,123,258$145,043,555

Source: Federal Election Commission, Center for Responsive Politics

The main super PAC backing Trump, America First Action, has been the leading vehicle for contributions from ultra-wealthy donors, raising a total of nearly $39 million to date, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. America First Action can take unlimited contributions, and has raised about $31.5 million from donors contributing at least $100,000, Public Citizen’s analysis found.

America First Action is affiliated with America First Policies, a dark money group founded shortly after Trump’s election. The group was started by aides, including Trump digital director Brad Parscale, who is now managing Trump’s 2020 reelection campaign; Pence chief of staff Nick Ayers, who turned down the job of White House chief of staff; and former top Trump campaign official Rick Gates, who is now cooperating with Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation.

America First Policies has spent more than $9 million on television advertising, according to an analysis by the Brennan Center for Justice. The money has gone toward ads promoting Brett Kavanaugh’s nomination to the Supreme Court, Gina Haspel’s confirmation as CIA director, for the GOP tax bill that passed in late 2017 and to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

In an IRS filing, America First Policies recently revealed that it had raised $22 million in 2017, exceeding the $4 million raised that year by its sibling super PAC, America First Action. Taken together, the groups have said they aim to raise a combined $100 million between both organizations in 2018. However, several corporate donors to America First Policies, including CVS Health, Southern Company and Dow Chemical, have said they will no longer give to America First Policies after MapLight reported their contributions and several outlets exposed racist and anti-Semitic remarks by America First staffers.

In its structure as a 501(c)(4) organization, America First Policies, is similar to the structure of Organizing for Action, a group started by former Obama administration officials to promote President Barack Obama’s agenda while he was in office. However, Unlike America First, the Obama group voluntarily disclosed its donors.

Trump allies also have set up two fundraising committees in conjunction with the Republican Party and state parties. These joint fundraising committees, Trump Victory and the Trump Make America Great Again Committee, allow donors to write six-figure checks, which then can be parceled out to state political parties, other campaigns and national political parties. These kinds of fundraising vehicles were amplified by the Supreme Court’s 2014 McCutcheon v. FEC decision, which eliminated aggregate caps on donations to federal campaigns, parties and political action committees. Meanwhile, according to Politico, the Republican National Committee and the official Trump campaign are planning to merge their 2020 fundraising operations and field mobilization efforts into the Trump victory organization, in an effort to avoid the kind of infighting that plagued the 2016 campaign.

The Trump political operation’s reliance on big-money donors is a sharp contrast from the early days of Trump’s candidacy, when he pledged to be independent of moneyed interests. Trump even said at a 2016 presidential debate that “special interests, lobbyists, donors, they make large contributions to politicians and they have total control over those politicians. I don’t want anybody to control me but the people right out there. And I’m going to do the right thing.”

On several occasions during his presidential campaign, Trump spoke about the influence of big money in politics. During a Republican debate in Miami, he blasted “special interests, lobbyists, donors” saying that they “make large contributions to politicians and they have total control over those politicians.” He called super PACs “a disaster,” claiming he could institute reforms because of his history of making donations to political candidates. With characteristic bluster, Trump claimed that “I know the system better than anybody else and I’m the only one up here that’s going to be able to fix that system because that system is wrong.”

Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s first campaign manager, disavowed super PACs, telling the Washington Post in fall 2015 that that, “Unlike other campaigns, we don’t have a quote-unquote designated super PAC that we tell people to give money to.” One early super PAC tied to Trump even shut down to avoid the campaign’s wrath. But by May 2016, Trump had softened his stance, telling MSNBC he was considering soliciting donations, because he did not necessarily want to dispose of valuable real estate assets. “I mean, do I want to sell a couple of buildings and self-fund?” Trump said. I don’t know that I want to do that necessarily, but I really won’t be asking for money for myself, I’ll be asking money for the party.”

By the time of Trump’s nomination, his campaign had retreated from its anti-super PAC stance. A close ally, billionaire private equity real estate investor Tom Barrack, launched the Rebuilding America Now super PAC in June 2016 to court big money donors. The New York Times has reported that this super PAC is now under investigation for possible illegal foreign contributions. In the weeks before the election, Trump sons Don Jr. and Eric Trump were attending super PAC events. As president, Trump has come full circle, morphing from a candidate who was critical of the corrosive influence of money in politics to a willing participant in the big-money politics that have defined the post-Citizens United era.

The Trump presidency has laid bare the need for sweeping ethics reforms in the executive branch and to the nation’s campaign finance laws. Public Citizen has long championed a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and supports public financing of campaigns to end the massive influx of corporate and special interest money into our elections.

Next month, U.S. House lawmakers are expected to advance a set of important democracy reforms that include public financing of elections. They also include requirements for outside political groups to disclose their donors and for social media platforms to disclose who is paying for political ads. As a piece of the disclosure puzzle, Public Citizen has pushed for the Securities and Exchange Commission to require corporate disclosure of political spending, which Republicans in Congress have blocked for several years.

Below is a list of of major Trump donors:

DonorBioDonations TotalIndustry
ADELSON, SHELDON G.CEO of Las Vegas Sands/GOP Donor$5,005,000Gambling
ADELSON, MIRIAM DR.Wife of Sheldon Adelson$5,000,000Gambling
PALMER, GEOFFREY H.Los Angeles real estate developer$4,105,000Real estate
BEAL, ANDREWBanker/investor and friend of Trump seeking to reopen Calif power plant$2,688,400Energy
MOSKOWITZ, CHERNACasino executive$2,000,000Gambling
WHEATLAND TUBE, LLCPennsylvania-based steel and aluminum company$1,750,000Steel
PROTECT THE HOUSEJoint committee formed to elect House Republicans$1,397,578Politics
RICKETTS, MARLENE M.Wife of TD Ameritrade Founder$1,240,000Finance
SCHWAB, CHARLES R.Founder of investment firm Charles Schwab$1,010,000Finance
KANTE, BENNIEChief Strategy Officer of multilevel marketing company that sells LipSense lipstick$1,005,000Beauty products
FERTITTA, FRANK J IIICasino/Ultimate Fighting Championship billionaire$1,000,000Gambling
FERTITTA, LORENZO J.Casino/Ultimate Fighting Championship billionaire$1,000,000Gambling
MELLON, MATTHEW T IIHeir to Mellon banking fortune, died in April 2018$1,000,000Finance
MURRAY ENERGY CORPORATIONCoal company led by Trump ally Robert Murray$1,000,000Energy
SCHWAB, HELENWife of Charles Schwab$1,000,000Finance
SINGER, PAUL E.Hedge Fund Manager$1,000,000Finance
RICKETTS, J. JOETD Ameritrade Founder$905,000Finance
CALIFORNIA VICTORY 2018Joint Committee formed to elect Calif. Republicans to House$667,199Politics
GREAT AMERICA ALLIANCEDark money group supporting Trump$550,000Politics
AMERICA FIRST POLICIES, INC.Dark money group supporting Trump$526,911Politics
CONTINENTAL RESOURCES, INC.Shale oil producer$500,000Energy
DEJOY, LOUISFormer CEO of XPO Supply Chain; President of LDJ Global Strategies$500,000Transportation
HAMM, HAROLDCEO of Continental Resources Inc., shale oil producer; board member of America First Policies$500,000Energy
PERKINS, RANDAL RFounder of debris hauling company$500,000Waste
STEPHENS, WARREN AChairman of investment bank Stephens Inc.$500,000Finance
WYNN, STEPHEN ACasino executive/friend of Trump$500,000Gambling
WRIGHT, KAREN BUCHWALDCEO of Ariel Corp., a maker of natural gas compressors$485,000Energy
RASTIN, THOMASExecutive VP, Ariel Corp., husband of Karen Wright$430,000Energy
DONALD J. TRUMP FOR PRESIDENT, INC.Official Trump reelection committee$357,006Politics
CHILDS, JOHN WChairman of private equity firm JW Childs Associates$355,000Finance
ESTEY, CRAIGFounder of slot machine chain$355,000Gambling
ANSARY, SHAHLA MRS.Wife of Hushang Ansary$352,500Energy
SCHWARZMAN, STEPHEN A.CEO of Blackstone Group LP$344,400Finance
ANSARY, HUSHANG HON.Former Iran ambassador to US; chairman of oil and gas equipment firm Stewart & Stevenson LLC; chairman of Parman Capital Group LLC$342,500Energy
UIHLEIN, ELIZABETH A.President of packing supply firm Uline$339,000Packing
WANG, LIANBODeveloper of Catskills higher-education center in New York state$329,500Real estate
GLOBAL ENERGY PRODUCERS, LLCLiquefied natural gas export firm tied to Russian/Ukrainian interests$325,000Energy
HARDY, JOSEPH A IIIFounder of 84 Lumber$311,000Construction
GILLAM, ROBERTFounder of McKinley Capital Management; Wharton classmate of Trump$300,000Finance
LI, SHERRY XUEDeveloper of Catskills higher-education center$275,500Real estate
DRT, LLCLLC Registered to Andrew Lucht, chief financial officer of Lone Mountain Truck Leasing in Carter Lake, Iowa$250,000Transportation
ESTEY, PATRICIAWife of Craig Estey$250,000Gambling
PETERFFY, THOMAS P.Founder of Interactive Brokers Group$250,000Finance
RUSSELL, THOMAS HFounder of natural gas equipment firm Thomas Russell Co., now owned by Honeywell$250,000Energy
SIEGEL, JEANNE S.Wife of media investor Herbert Siegel$250,000Media/Entertainment
SINQUEFIELD, REX AIndex fund pioneer, billionaire Republican activist in Missouri politics$250,000Finance
THIEL, PETERVenture capitalist$250,000Technology
CHERA, STANLEYFounder, Crown Acquisitions$244,500Real estate
GUAN, YU KEVINCEO Baslong Logistics$240,000Transportation
ZUBERI, IMAADDemocratic fundraiser, Vice Chairman, Avenue Ventures Group$225,000Finance
BOLLINGER, DONALDFormer CEO of Bollinger Shipyards$200,000Manufacturing
DAVIS, LARRYManaging Partner, LNS Capital$200,000Finance
FANJUL, JOSEBillionaire sugar baron: Executive Vice President, Florida Crystals Corp.$200,000Agriculture
HILL, AL G. JR.Died in Dec 2017. Was grandson of Texas oilman H.L. Hunt.$200,000Energy
KEMMERER, JOHN L.Chairman of Jackson Hole Mountain Resort & Kemmerer Resources Corp.$200,000Finance
TOPPER, LEWIS E.Fast food franchise owner$200,000Restaurants
WEISER, RONALDMcKinley Associates Inc., former ambassador to Slovakia, chairman of Michigan Republican Party$200,000Real estate
HILDEBRAND, MELINDAWife of Houston oil billionaire Jeff Hildebrand$175,000Energy
CAYRE, JOECEO, Midtown Equities; First made fortune in music, entertainment, video games$170,000Real estate
CHERA, FRIEDA MRS.Wife of Stanley Chera$169,500Real estate
HODGES, MICHAEL LYNNChairman, Harpeth Financial/Advance Financial (high interest lender)$160,000Finance
TANG, LILY KIN J.Real estate agent, Upland, CA$160,000Real estate
WANG, TIANFounder Chinese Americans for Trump$152,500Unknown
CANIZARO, JOSEPHNew Orleans real estate developer and banker; CEO of Columbus Properties, LP, owner of First Bank & Trust$150,000Real estate
MASTROIANNI, NICHOLAS A. IIChief Executive Officer and Chairman of U.S. Immigration Fund LLC$150,000Real estate
TANG, BENPresident of Lawrence Consulting Co.$140,000Unknown
LEBOW, BENNETTChairman, BSL Capital, Chairman, Vector Group$135,000Tobacco
LORBER, HOWARD MCEO of tobacco and real estate holding company Vector Group$135,000Tobacco
BLANCHARD, JOHNAlabama real estate investor$125,000Real estate
BLANCHARD, LYNDA MRS.Nominee for Slovenian ambassador; Alabama real estate investor; Co-Founder 100X Development Foundation$125,000Real estate
BUCKLEY, MARJORIE B. MRS.Wife of Walter Buckley$125,000Finance
BUCKLEY, WALTER W.Investment advisor, Buckley Muething Capital Management Co., former CEO, Internet Capital Group$125,000Finance
DOLAN, JAMESCEO, Madison Square Garden Company$125,000Media/Entertainment
HILDEBRAND, JEFFERY D.Oil billionaire$125,000Energy
HODGES, TINACEO of high interest lender Harpeth Financial/Advance Financial$125,000Finance
LOMANGINO, ANTHONYCo-founder and Chairman, Southern Waste Systems$125,000Waste
LOMANGINO, LYNDAWife of Anthony Lomangino$125,000Waste
PERELMAN, RONALD O.Billionaire Chairman of Revlon; CEO of MacAndrews & Forbes Inc.$125,000Various
STITZER, MARKCEO, Hamlin Capital Management$125,000Finance
DENG, JON S.Product manager, information technology at Telit$105,400Technology
PRICE, KATHERINE MRS.Retired, Santa Monica Calif$105,000Retired
LIBERTY 2.0Super PAC tied to former EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt$102,555Politics
ADAMS, DANCEO, The Capital Corp.$100,000Finance
BERKOWITZ, BRUCEBillionaire investor with Fairholme Capital Management$100,000Finance
BISHOP, GEORGEBillionaire founder of Geosouthern Energy Corp., which sold shale assets for $6B$100,000Energy
BROTHERS, WILLIAMPresident, Arizona Facilities Supply$100,000Agriculture
CHU, CHINHFounder CC Capital (former Blackstone)$100,000Finance
CORRY, WILLIAMFounder, Corry Capital Advisors$100,000Finance
DEGUEYTER, KURT ANTHONYOwner, Bottom Line Equipment LLC$100,000Construction
DIEFENTHAL, EDWARD LCEO of Chemical industry equipment co$100,000Chemical
ESHELMAN, FREDRIC NChairman of Eyenovia/The Medicines Company$100,000Medicine/Pharma
EZRATTI, ITZHAKPresident, GL Homes of Florida Corp.$100,000Real estate
FARRELL, RICHARDFormer energy trader, investor, New Orleans restaurant owner$100,000Energy
GAO, CHENGDharma Joy Arts & Culture$100,000Unknown
GONSOULIN, AL ACEO PHI Inc., which provides helicopters to offshore oil & gas industry$100,000Energy
GREENSTEIN, IRA AKushner family friend, executive of IDT Corp., president Genie Energy; former White House Staffer$100,000Energy
HABEEB, PAUL V.Owner, The Delamore Companies/CEO CenterPointe Senior Living$100,000Real estate
HERD, MICHAEL ANTHONYVP, Herd Producing/Texas oil heir$100,000Energy
HERZKA, RALPHCEO of Meridian Capital, NY-based real estate finance firm$100,000Real estate
HESS, JOHN B.CEO of Hess Corp.$100,000Energy
HORNSTEIN, STEVEN S.Global Credit Advisers$100,000Finance
HUSTON, DANNY R.President, North American Midway Entertainment (traveling carnivals)$100,000Media/Entertainment
JOHNSON, ANN L. MRS.Palm Beach, Fla., wife of mutual fund billionaire Charles B. Johnson$100,000Finance
JOHNSON, CHARLES B.Mutual fund billionaire$100,000Finance
KIMMELMAN, DOUGLASSenior Partner/Founder, Energy Capital Partners (private equity firm focused on energy)$100,000Energy
KRAUSE, SHAWN M.Quicken Loans Executive; member of Trump transition team$100,000Finance
LAUDER, RONALD S. HON.Heir to Estee Lauder companies$100,000Beauty products
LEFRAK, HARRISON TUCKERSon of Richard LeFrak$100,000Real estate
LEFRAK, JAMES T.Son of Richard LeFrak$100,000Real estate
LEFRAK, RICHARDNew York real estate developer; Trump friend$100,000Real estate
LINDELL, MICHAELFounder, My Pillow$100,000Bedding
LORIA, JEFFREY H.Art dealer; former owner of Miami Marlins$100,000Art
MARCUS, BERNARDFounder of Home Depot$100,000Construction
MATSON, HENRY J.Long Beach, Calif. Builder$100,000Real estate
MATSON, HENRY J.Long Beach, Calif. Builder$100,000Real estate
MOLLESTON, MARGARET WPresident of GeoSouthern Energy Partners$100,000Energy
PRICE, WILLIAM F JR.Retired, Malibu, Calif.$100,000Retired
ROTH, STEVENCEO of Vornado Realty Trust$100,000Real estate
ROUSE, THOMAS MRetired former CEO of credit card processing firm$100,000Finance
SCHWARTZ, DONNAWife of Marvin Schwartz$100,000Finance
SCHWARTZ, MARVINInvestment advisor, Neuberger Berman$100,000Finance
SHAMI, FAROUKHair care entrepreneur; Trump friend; founder and chairman Farouk Systems$100,000Beauty products
SIMMONS, ANNETTE C. MRS.Ex-wife of the late billionaire Harold C. Simmons$100,000Waste
SIMONYI, CHARLESBillionaire former Microsoft executive$100,000Software
SIMONYI, LISAWife of Charles Simonyi$100,000Software
SNYDER, DANOwner, Washington Redskins$100,000Sports
SOLOWAY, STEPHENNew Jersey doctor, board member of Trump hotel named to WH sports, fitness, nutrition council$100,000Medicine/Pharma
SUTTON, NICHOLAS JExecutive Chairman, Resolute Energy$100,000Energy
TACITO, ANTHONYCEO of Tacito & Associates$100,000Marketing
TAWIL, ELIOTManhattan real estate executive with Wharton Properties$100,000Real estate
UIHLEIN, RICHARDFounder of Wisconsin packaging and supply company$100,000Packaging
WALLACE, BEATRICE CARREx-wife of the late Trinity Industries CEO W. Ray Wallace; ex-wife of oilman T. Boone Pickens$100,000Transportation
WITKOFF, ALEXANDER R.Real estate executive; former Trump Org executive$100,000Real estate
WITKOFF, ZACHARY D.Real estate executive$100,000Real estate
ZARNEGIN, ROBERTPresident/CEO of Beverly Hills real estate firm$100,000Real estate