Donald Trump’s recent campaign speeches have the tenor of a scorned child, with much ranting and raving about the “rigged” nomination process. “Little Marco, his State Chairman, & their minions are working overtime-trying to rig the vote,” Trump tweeted in March. A few weeks ago, griping about losing Colorado’s delegate race, he barked, “We have a rigged system.” He also told a crowd in Syracuse, “The system is rigged. … They gotta do something about it. The Republican National Committee better get going because I’ll tell you what, you’re gonna have a rough time at that convention in July … because people want to vote and the people wanna be represented properly.”
Trump paints himself as the hero of the political underdog, warring against a monolithic system that stamps down the little guy — little guys like billionaire businessmen who’ve spent their careers giving political donations in an effort to curry favor, it seems. Indeed, the system Trump claims to be so upset about now that he’s running for president is the same one he’s admitted to using to his advantage (or at least trying to).
Trump has given to political candidates on both sides of the aisle. For example, he gave a total of $12,500 to Hillary Clinton’s Senate and 2008 presidential campaigns, and a whopping $77,500 to current nemesis Mitt Romney’s White House run. (All numbers in this piece are derived from data the Trump campaign reported to the FEC, and accessed via the Center for Responsive Politics.) Trump makes no secret of this; in fact, he seems somewhat proud of it, and his explanations for his bipartisan largesse are perhaps some of his most honest yet: “I was a businessman, and it was my obligation to get along with everybody, including the Clintons, including Democrats and liberals and Republicans and conservatives,” he told Sean Hannity in January. “As a businessman, I had an obligation to do that.” And, like a businessman, Trump expected favors from those to whom he donated, as he noted during a Fox News debate in Cleveland all last August:
“I gave to many people before this — before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them. They are there for me. That’s a broken system.”
Likewise, at a March CNN debate in Florida, during a discussion of America’s “corrupt” electoral system, specifically super PACs, Trump remarked, “I know the system far better than anybody else, and I know the system is broken. … I know it so well because I was on both sides of it.”
He went on:
“I was on the other side all my life and I’ve always made large contributions. And frankly, 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.”
An examination of Trump’s donations since 1998 reveals that the bulk of Trump’s political largesse has gone to politicians in places where he does business — like Florida, where he long supported disgraced politico Mark Foley; Nevada, where he’s given $9,400 to Democratic Sen. Harry Reid over the years; and of course New York, where notables like Chuck Schumer, Kirsten Gillibrand and Anthony Weiner have all received Trump dough.
It’s unclear what, if any, favors Trump actually received from any specific politicians to whom he donated. But the donations that most make one wonder what favors he was hoping for were those made during the 2014 election cycle, just as his current White House run took shape.
It was in 2014 that Trump dispatched adviser Sam Nunberg to report back on hours of conservative talk radio, the disgruntled reactions and diatribes of which became the backbone of Trump’s current campaign, according to a recent New York magazine profile. Like a good weathercock, it seems Trump staked out his current political positions based on Nunberg’s reports, rather than deeply held political beliefs. Listening to those calls, Trump saw a convenient way to run a presidential campaign. As his campaign crystallized, he started pumping serious dollars into Republican races across the country, from Massachusetts to California. In all, he gave $67,300 in individual donations to congressional and Senate Republican candidates between January 2014 and May 2015. He gave nothing to Democrats in this period, after years of supporting them.
Most of those 2014-15 donations were in $1,000 increments, and only $16,000 were in his stomping grounds of Florida, Nevada and New York. Instead, Trump spread his dollars to races all across the country, from Massachusetts to California, giving to lesser known, often first-time candidates like Montana’s Steven Daines, Georgia’s David Perdue and North Carolina’s Thom Tillis, a man who once complained that his state’s black and Latino populations were growing faster than “traditional” groups.
That $67,300 doesn’t include the $15,200 in joint fundraising for Lindsey Graham and his victory committee, the $5,000 Trump gave to rival Ted Cruz’s Job Growth and Freedom PAC, nor his donations to influential Republican organs, including $32,400 to the National Republican Senatorial Committee and $64,000 to the RNC. It also excludes dinero given to GOP parties in the early caucus and primary states of Iowa ($9,000) and New Hampshire ($5,000), and the Republican Party in South Carolina ($15,000). (Trump ended up winning three of those races this spring, losing only Iowa, to Ted Cruz.)
Trump has suggested strongly that he thinks political donations entitle him to political sway — the worldview of someone whose entire identity has been shaped by dollars and cents. So perhaps he figured his cash would help grease the wheels for his ongoing run. Unfortunately for him, that’s not the case. At least ten of the over three dozen candidates he gave to between 2014 and 2015 endorsed one of Trump’s rivals. And a number of others have come out against Trump’s hateful rhetoric. John Cornyn, to whom Trump gave $3,600 between May 2014 and June 2015, called the businessman an “albatross” around the party’s neck; appalled by Trump’s declaration that Mexican immigrants are rapists, Nevada Sen. Dean Heller gave his $2,000 Trump donation to charity; Missouri Rep. Ann Wagner did something similar, sending her $1,000 Trump donation to the VFW after Trump claimed John McCain isn’t a war hero; Barbara Comstock of Virginia also donated her $3,000 Trump contribution.
While money does indeed make the electoral world go ’round, most politicians have some concrete political identity; they’re not so cynical that they don’t have some kind of litmus test for whom they’ll support, and clearly Trump fails some of them.
There are some things even Trump’s money can’t buy.