More than a third of the almost 200 people who have met with President-elect Donald Trump since his election last month, including those interviewing for administration jobs, gave large amounts of money to support his campaign and other Republicans this election cycle.
Together the 73 donors contributed $1.7 million to Trump and groups supporting him, according to a POLITICO analysis of Federal Election Commission records, and $57.3 million to the rest of the party, averaging more than $800,000 per donor.
Donors also represent 39 percent of the 119 people Trump reportedly considered for high-level government posts, and 38 percent of those he eventually picked, according to the analysis, which counted candidates named by the transition and in news reports.
While campaign donors are often tapped to fill comfy diplomatic posts across the globe, the extent to which donors are stocking Trump’s administration is unparalleled in modern presidential history, due in part to the Supreme Court decisions that loosened restrictions on campaign contributions, according to three longtime campaign experts.
The access and appointments are especially striking given Trump’s regular boasting during his campaign that his personal fortune and largely self-funded presidential bid meant that he would not be beholden to big donors, as many of his rivals would.
“If the people who are counseling the president-elect are the donor class — who, as Trump told us, give because they want something in return, those are his words — you will not get the policies his voters were hoping for,” said Trevor Potter, an election lawyer who advised John McCain’s 2000 and 2008 presidential campaigns and founded the Campaign Legal Center.
“The risk here is disillusionment by the voters who voted for change and are going to end up with a plutocracy,” Potter said.
A Trump transition spokesman said: “President-elect Trump has nominated successful and qualified individuals to serve in his administration to implement a pro-growth, pro-America agenda. Together, they are committed towards ending the corrupt Washington system that have failed the American people for far too long.”
In the primaries, Trump called Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio “puppets” for accepting big money. He also attacked Hillary Clinton for meeting with donors to the Clinton Foundation when she was secretary of state, even though he overstated the proportion of such meetings, and those donations went to charity, not toward putting Clinton or other Democrats in office.
“By self-funding my campaign, I am not controlled by my donors, special interests or lobbyists,” Trump declared on Facebook in September 2015. “I am only working for the people of the U.S.!”
At the 2015 Iowa State Fair, Trump said he was rejecting large contributions because he knew they came with strings attached.
“I’m turning down so much money,” Trump said. “But if [someone] put it up, I’d feel obligated, because I’m a loyal person.”
Later, Trump did start fundraising more actively and also taking money from some of the Republican Party’s largest donors. Now several of them are joining his administration.
Trump has stocked his Cabinet with six top donors — far more than any recent White House. “I want people that made a fortune. Because now they’re negotiating with you, OK?” Trump said, during a Dec. 9 speech in Des Moines, Iowa.
“The way this whole transition is going so far, we have as a general matter an unbelievable and shocking disregard for propriety and conflicts, much less the raging hypocrisy,” said Norm Ornstein, a political scientist at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative-leaning think tank. “The bigger issue is the huge conflicts of interest, and the utterly brazen way Trump and the people around him [are] turning this into pay-to-play in a fashion never seen before.”
The biggest donor who has met with Trump since the election is Todd Ricketts, Trump’s pick for deputy secretary of commerce. Ricketts hails from the family that founded TD Ameritrade, owns the Chicago Cubs and is among the Republican Party’s top benefactors. They handed Republicans more than $15.7 million for 2016 and more than $26 million in previous cycles. The family also organized a super PAC called Future45 that became the largest unlimited-money group supporting Trump. Todd Ricketts personally donated $63,835 to Republicans.
Trump’s choice to lead the Department of Education, Betsy DeVos, and her family (heirs to auto parts and multi-level marketing fortunes) spent $10.4 million this cycle, including $445,000 to Trump’s joint fundraising committee (known as Trump Victory) and one of the super PACs supporting him. She and her husband, Dick, have contributed to the campaigns of 17 senators who will vote on whether to confirm her.
Linda McMahon, the wrestling magnate whom Trump named to helm the Small Business Administration, gave $6 million to a pro-Trump super PAC. She and her husband, Vince, are also the largest donors to Trump’s foundation.
Labor Secretary-designee Andy Puzder, CEO of the parent company of the Carl’s Jr. and Hardee’s fast food chains, and his wife gave $160,000 to Trump Victory and more than $600,000 to other Republicans this cycle.
Trump’s pick for treasury secretary, investor Steven Mnuchin, personally chipped in $425,000, but was arguably responsible for almost everything Trump raised as his campaign’s finance chairman.
Beyond the donors joining Trump’s administration, two of his biggest benefactors perhaps wield more influence over the transition than any individual donors in history.
Rebekah Mercer — who with her father, the hedge fund billionaire Robert Mercer, spent more than $22 million backing Republicans this past cycle — is closely aligned with chief strategist Steve Bannon and special counselor Kellyanne Conway, and she has taken a crucial role picking Cabinet nominees. Robert Mercer gave $2 million to a pro-Trump super PAC.
Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist playing an influential role on Trump’s transition team, spent almost $3.3 million this cycle, including $250,000 to Trump Victory and $1 million to a super PAC.
Trump also met with former AIG CEO Maurice “Hank” Greenberg, who gave Republicans more than $10 million this cycle (including through his company, C.V. Starr & Co.), on Dec. 12 and with Cerberus Capital Management CEO Steve Feinberg, who gave $339,400 to Trump Victory and $1.47 million to a pro-Trump super PAC, on Nov. 16. It wasn’t clear whether they were being considered for administration jobs or why they got to sit down with the president-elect.
Trump has reveled in the weeks-long pageant of dignitaries parading through Trump Tower, and his aides say he’s seeking out the counsel of people who are leaders in their fields. Many are not donors, including a number of public officials. Some even donated to Hillary Clinton or other Democrats.
POLITICO compiled the list of meetings from the transition’s daily conference calls and confirmed news reports. Donor tallies include spouses and, in the case of Ricketts and DeVos, other close relatives who participate in the families’ political largess.
The totals also include the roughly $3.3 million that John Bolton, who was in the running for a State Department post, raised for Republicans through his PAC and super PAC, and $100,000 that Ben Carson, Trump’s pick for Housing and Urban Development, transferred to Trump’s campaign from his own defunct presidential fund.
“It’s safe to say this is a departure from what we normally see in terms of Cabinet appointments,” said Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks money in politics. “There will be a lot of debate about whether money played a disproportionate role in their nomination, but the larger question looms of what exactly are their qualifications, political patronage aside.”
Brent Griffiths contributed to this report.
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