A few years ago, Stephen Schwarzman was just the latest deep pocket on Wall Street to open up to Donald Trump. Right now, he’s the biggest one left.
Donations to Trump’s 2020 campaign from the most elite corners of American finance would be down drastically compared with 2016 — were it not for the notable exception of Schwarzman, who has become one of the president’s most ardent Wall Street backers.
Indeed, the private equity mogul single-handedly accounts for the vast bulk of the reported contributions toward Trump’s re-election effort over the past 18 months from people associated with the 31 banks and investment firms that dominate the U.S. financial industry.
Schwarzman, co-founder ofBlackstone Group Inc., has contributed $3.7 million of the $4.8 million from this select group, a Bloomberg analysis found. Without him, the total amount would represent a 69% decline from the 2016 cycle.
The analysis is based on a review of disclosed campaign donations of at least $1,000 from employees at the group of companies — including banks, asset managers, hedge funds and private-equity firms like Blackstone — to Trump’s campaign, the largest political action committees backing him, and the Republican National Committee. It includes donations from spouses.
Giving to Trump has wavered even though Wall Street has generally thrived under his administration. Banks got some of the biggest breaks when he pushed through tax cuts. His regulators eased industry rules. Trading desks are coming off one of their best runs ever, despite the tumult in the broader economy brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
Normally money flows to incumbent Republican presidents from Wall Street, which leans to the right and likes safe bets.
But for the first time since 2008, most of the broader financial industry’s money is flowing to Democrats, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Democratic challenger Joe Biden has raised five times as much from people in the securities and investment industry as Trump.
So why aren’t Wall Street denizens shelling out the way they did in 2016?
Bloomberg reached out to dozens who previously donated to Trump but shut their wallets this time. Virtually none wanted to discuss it publicly. Some, in demurring, pointed to the charged political climate. None had switched to Biden.
David Nolan, a now-retiredMillennium Management executive who gave to Trump in 2016 and 2018, and may again this year, has theories on why like-minded financiers are less vocal.
“It’s dangerous if you run a business, any company that deals with the public, or a Wall Street firm, because the left gets very touchy about anyone disagreeing with them,” Nolan said, pointing to the recent dustup when the head of Goya Foods Inc. praised Trump’s leadership. “They’re less likely to be public with their support of Trump and politics in general.”
Indeed such tensions can even arise at home.
When a Bloomberg reporter attempted to call aMorgan Stanley executive and tried to leave a message, his wife said she didn’t know about his contributions, asked for details and then needed a moment to catch her breath. “I am not a Trump fan,” she monotoned. Her husband later texted to say he couldn’t talk.
Gary Alexander, a longtimeWells Fargo & Co. financial adviser who recently retired, said he didn’t mean to give to Trump in the first place. A client invited him to attend a breakfast in 2016 that turned out to be a fundraiser, which left Alexander listed as a donor. He isn’t sure how he will cast his vote this year.
“I won’t vote for President Trump,” he said. “I already know that.”
It’s possible, of course, that some are disillusioned. The tepid financial support for Trump comes as national polls show Biden leading the president by more than 6 percentage points, according to the RealClearPolitics average.
New Yorkers have expressed frustration with Trump’s handling of the viral pandemic that hit the city especially hard. Polls show dissatisfaction with his reaction to racial unrest. And he’s ratcheted up tensions with China, a market some financial executives are looking to as a source of future profits.
Then there is Trump’s governance style: While his tweets and spontaneous policy announcements often spur trading, they can complicate long-term business planning.
Voices across the industry had openly predicted the politically untested reality TV star would pivot to a more traditionally presidential persona as soon as he took office and surrounded himself with advisers. In early 2017, JPMorgan Chase & Co. Chief Executive Officer Jamie Dimon publicly praised the “very serious people” joining Trump’s orbit, such as former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. executive Gary Cohn.
But many of them havesince left the White House, including Cohn and Goldman veteran Dina Powell. Both are longtime political donors, but neither appears in the Federal Election Commission’s database of contributors to Trump’s campaigns. Powell, who has since returned to Goldman, is known to maintain relations with the Trump family and may provide support.
“People thought in 2016 that he would be more pragmatic and less irrational — that’s what Wall Street likes — but unfortunately he’s done the opposite,” said Anthony Scaramucci, the hedge fund impresario who helped raise money for Trump’s ascent in 2016, later served as the president’s communications chief for 11 days and now urges others to vote the president out. “Given his behavior, tweeting, highly charged racism and handling of coronavirus, I don’t think people want to be associated with him.”
An RNC spokesperson said Trump is having no trouble setting fundraising records.
“President Trump enjoys support from a vast number of industries, but most importantly, from real voters across the country,” said Mandi Merritt, the spokesperson. “Since President Trump was elected, we’ve seen 2 million new donors invest in the party both small and large, which shows the clear enthusiasm for this president and our party.”
Schwarzman has essentially replaced onetime megadonor Robert Mercer of Renaissance Technologies in the 2020 cycle, after he slashed contributions as part of a broad retreat from political giving. But he’s not the only Wall Street billionaire holding back this time.
Paul Singer, who initially helped finance the anti-Trump movement, later went on to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars to the GOP after Trump won the election. Singer and Mercer also each gave $1 million to Trump’s inauguration, joining KKR & Co.’s Henry Kravis. But disclosures show no donations from Singer and Kravis to Trump in recent years, while Mercer’s are a fraction of what he once gave.
Ken Griffin, who gave to the RNC and a pro-Trump super PAC focusing on electing Republicans in the 2018 midterms, hasn’t given when Trump has been on the ballot. Not that Griffin’s cash hasn’t come up. At a White House event in January, Trumpcalled out to the crowd for Griffin, who wasn’t present: “Ken Griffin, Citadel. What a guy he is. Where are you, Ken? Where the hell is he? He’s trying to hide some of his money.”
Since Trump took office, many top Wall Street donors have focused on congressional candidates, betting that if Biden wins, Republican lawmakers can keep him in check, said Trump fundraiser Dan Eberhart, the CEO of oilfield services company Canary.
The campaign finance records offer a snapshot of Wall Street’s support for Trump through mid-2020. But there are limits: Not all disclosures identify employers or spouses. There are smaller PACs and ways that donors can support candidates on both sides out of public view. Bloomberg’s focus on 31 major firms leaves out smaller money managers and parts of the financial world off Wall Street, such as real estate and insurance.
The tally for 2016 excludes giving to the RNC before Trump became his party’s presumptive nominee in May of that year, as well as contributions to certain political committees before they shifted to support his candidacy. This time, the incumbent and his allies have had additional time to raise money without competition. They could still draw more from Wall Street in the months ahead.
Trump’s biggest champion in finance, Schwarzman, remains unfazed. He runs the world’s largest overseer of alternative assets.
Schwarzman noted in his book last year that he has talked to U.S. presidents for decades, and in 2015, he said he has known Trump for about 40 years. The Blackstone chief — whose longtime advocacy for doing more business in China contrasts with Trump’s current posture — has delivered messages from Chinese President Xi Jinping to Trump and set up meetings between them, including one at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate in Palm Beach.
Still, Schwarzman turned down Trump’s invitation to join his administration. He agreed to Trump’s request that he set up a team of executives to “tell me the truth.” He’s since attended meetings and events with Trump, including flying with him on Air Force One to Florida, a few hours after Schwarzman chaired a CEO forum in the White House State Dining Room.
The Trump years have been good to Blackstone. Its share price has more than doubled since the 2016 election, largely after tax cuts encouraged the publicly traded partnership to convert to a corporation. Schwarzman cut his first check to the campaign in December 2017, one week before Trump signed the tax bill into law.
“As someone who has sought to be supportive of the president in various matters, it’s not surprising that Steve has contributed to his campaign,” Blackstone spokesperson Christine Anderson said in a statement. “However, any insinuation that Steve’s financial support is a direct result of the tax reform bill — which raised the personal tax rates of every senior Blackstone executive given the near-elimination of the SALT deduction — is patently false.”
Cohn, Powell and representatives for the billionaires either couldn’t be reached or declined to comment. Trump’s campaign didn’t respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for America First Action, billed as Trump’s “official” super PAC, declined to comment.
Meanwhile, many of Schwarzman’s deputies are backing Biden. When Biden recently teased a proposal to fund care for children and the elderly by extracting billions from wealthy Americans, it was at a fundraiser hosted by Blackstone Chief Operating Officer Jonathan Gray.
Any restraint in giving to Trump doesn’t necessarily indicate a desire for a Biden presidency, said Don Steinbrugge, who runs New York-based Agecroft Partners, which helps hedge funds raise money from investors.
“He has more support than what most people would publicly communicate,” Steinbrugge said. “Wall Street supports the Republican Party in general, and I think if they vote Republican they are doing so more to support the party than the particular individual that’s representing the party.”
— With assistance by Demetrios Pogkas, Sridhar Natarajan, Bill Allison, and Dan Reichl
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