Politics / April 8, 2024

His Billionaire Buddies’ Bribery Bails Out Trump, Again and Again

The problem isn’t that the former president is broke but that he’s for sale.

Jeet Heer
Trump at Palm Beach Fundraiser
“Buddy, can you spare a dime?” Donald and Melania Trump with host John Paulson and his girlfriend at Trump’s fundraiser last week. (Alon Skuy / Getty Images)

Donald Trump hates to be upstaged, so it was entirely predictable that when Joe Biden raised a record $26 million at a fundraiser late last month, the former president would try to find a way to regain the spotlight. The Biden donation drive was a star-studded event at Radio City Music Hall, which attracted 5,000 guests (as well as some cagey protesters who broke through the tight vetting) and featured celebrity performers (Queen Latifah, Lizzo, Ben Platt, and Cynthia Erivo) and celebrity politicians (Bill Clinton, Barack Obama).

Surprisingly, the Trump affair held on Saturday was more low-key. It was a dinner at the home of hedge fund manager John Paulson, featuring defeated rivals from the presidential primary (South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, tech impresario Vivek Ramaswamy) as well as Trump himself addressing a group of very old billionaires. In lieu of entertainment, the guests were fed, according to NBC News, “endive and frisee salad, filet au poivre, and pavlova with fresh berries.” They must have enjoyed the meal because, according to the Trump campaign, they chipped in $50.5 million—close to twice Biden’s haul.

To be sure, any boast by Trump should be treated with skepticism and needs to be verified before being believed. He has a long history of making up impressive numbers—a habit that has gotten him in legal trouble for lying about the value of his properties. But whatever the exact size of Trump’s boodle bag, it was no doubt impressive given the nature of the guests. The website Unprecedented described them as “greedy grandpas” and provided a helpful list of names and ages:

• Activist food industry investor Nelson Peltz, 81
• Entertainment mogul Isaac Perlmutter, 81
• Sugar baron José Fanjul, 80
• Hotel owner and aerospace entrepreneur Robert Bigelow, 79
• Oil tycoon Harold Hamm, 78
• Big-data billionaire (and funder of the 2016 anti-Hillary psy ops
campaign) Robert Mercer, 77
• NY supermarket king John Catsimatidis, 75

The cochair of the event was casino tycoon Steve Wynn (age 82). This is an unsavory lot. Wynn has been accused of sexual predation by dozens of women, a fact that led to his ouster as Republican National Committee financial chair in 2018. The other plutocrats in the room have less lurid histories but many have been guilty of financial predation. Given their vast wealth, the purported total of $50.5 million is negligible, the equivalent of the small change an ordinary person can find in the crevices of a sofa.

According to the Trump campaign, the former president, while addressing this gathering of fat cats, “spoke on the need to win back the White House so we can turn our country around, focusing on key issues including unleashing energy production, securing our southern border, reducing inflation, extending the Trump Tax Cuts, eliminating Joe Biden’s insane [electric vehicle] mandate, protecting Israel, and avoiding global war.” Some of this is Trump’s boilerplate speech, but two items stand out. “Unleashing energy production” surely spoke to oilman Hamm, while “extending the Trump Tax Cuts” was music to everyone in the room. The Trump tax cuts of 2017 enormously benefited the rich and are set to expire in 2025. So Trump’s direct message to the audience amounted to “donate your millions to me and I’ll save you much more money in taxes.”

In making these tax cuts so central, Trump is taking a real political risk. Because of their skew towards the ultra-wealthy, Trump’s tax cuts have always been enormously unpopular. Perhaps aware that his image as a populist tribune was undermined by the company he was keeping, Trump told reporters before the dinner, “People are just wanting change. The rich people want it. Poor people want it.” Trump’s formulation, of course, elides the fact that the change rich people want is very different from what poor people want.

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The large donations from this dinner weren’t the only case of billionaires coming to Trump’s rescue. As Reuters reported on Friday, Don Hankey, “the billionaire businessman whose company Knight Specialty Insurance provided the $175 million bond that Donald Trump posted in his New York civil fraud case, told Reuters that the fee his firm charged the former U.S. President was low.” Hankey was a Trump supporter in 2016, so, despite his avowal that this was a business decision, it’s hard not to see the sweetheart deal as politically motivated. Further, Trump, who was heading toward financial distress earlier this year due to court fines and legal costs, was saved by Wall Street thanks to a windfall from his social media company Truth Social. As my Nation colleague Chris Lehmann noted, Trump “leveraged his brand into a massive payday founded on profoundly dubious paper valuations.”

All the money that the wealthy are throwing at Trump is still a bargain. Trump’s tax cuts cost the federal government more than $2 trillion in revenue—a figure that could rise to $10 trillion if Trump is reelected. In other words, Trump is the key for the richest Americans to keep getting a bigger share of the economic pie. The money Trump gets from the rich is little more than a bribe.

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Last month, Axios reported that the Biden campaign had a “monster cash advantage over Trump.” Foolishly, the Biden campaign has mocked Trump for his lack of money, describing him as “broke Don.” The Biden campaign also suggested Trump’s fundraising was so poor he should be treated like a failed contestant on the show The Apprentice and “fire himself.”

This taunting is ill-advised on a number of grounds. For one thing, it seems to accept the dystopian logic of the Supreme Court Citizens United decision that money deserves to rule the roost. Further, the Democrats had a fundraising advantage in 2016 and 2020, but both elections were close on a presidential level, with Trump narrowly winning the Electoral College the first time and narrowly losing the Electoral College the second time. Finally, as the dinner at Paulson’s house proves, Trump can draw on the deep pockets of the wealthy whenever he needs to. Given all his services to plutocracy, Trump will never be “broke Don.”

Fortunately, the Biden campaign has started to change its tune. In response to the Saturday dinner, Biden released a video showing him standing next to Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, the outstanding economic populist in American politics. In the video Biden says, “When [Trump] thinks the cameras are not on, he tells his rich friends, quote, ‘We’re going to give you tax cuts.’”

Biden seems to have learned, finally, that the trouble with Trump is not that he’s poor but that he stays rich by selling his services to fellow plutocrats. Whatever his actual net worth, Trump is an honorary member of the billionaire boys’ club. The task of the Biden campaign is to keep reminding voters of this fact.

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Jeet Heer

Jeet Heer is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation and host of the weekly Nation podcast, The Time of Monsters. He also pens the monthly column “Morbid Symptoms.” The author of In Love with Art: Francoise Mouly’s Adventures in Comics with Art Spiegelman (2013) and Sweet Lechery: Reviews, Essays and Profiles (2014), Heer has written for numerous publications, including The New Yorker, The Paris Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, The American Prospect, The GuardianThe New Republic, and The Boston Globe.

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