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Donald Trump is now accepting the kind of big-money donations he thinks corrupts politicians

Donald Trump is preparing to take the big money donations he campaigned against in the Republican primary.
Donald Trump is preparing to take the big money donations he campaigned against in the Republican primary.
Matt Mills McKnight/Getty Images

Donald Trump, who has spent months decrying politicians who take big money for their campaigns, now says he will accept money from big-dollar donors for the general election.

Trump's team announced last week that he will create a fundraising apparatus that will take big checks from the wealthiest donors to fund a campaign that could cost upward of $1 billion, according to Bloomberg.

"He's done a complete 180," says Josh Stewart, a spokesperson for the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics. "A central part of Trump's campaign for the nomination was that he was not bought and paid for and would self-fund his campaign. Now, he's going back on that."

In other words, Trump has now become the very kind of candidate he's said he spent decades buying off.

Donald Trump wasn't completely self-funding his campaign, but it was pretty close

Trump's theory of money in politics has always been clear: Wealthy donors pour cash into campaigns, and politicians cut them special deals in exchange once elected.

Since declaring his candidacy, Trump has attacked politicians accepting campaign donations as being bought off by special interests. This message has clearly resonated with primary voters, who have repeatedly listed Trump's financial independence as central to his appeal.

Trump Ralph Freso/Getty Images

"Their lobbyists, their special interests and their donors will start calling President Bush, President Clinton," Trump has said. "And they’ll say: ‘You have to do it. They gave you a million dollars to your campaign.'"

For the most part, Trump could claim to be an antidote to that.

Trump was certainly exaggerating claims that his campaign was independently financed — Trump has ponied up $36 million of the $48 million raised for his campaign, with the rest from small donor gifts, according to the Committee for Responsive Politics. And then there's the issue that Trump has loaned rather than given his campaign the money, opening the door for Trump to pay himself back at a later date with outside donations.

But these are mostly nitpicks that can obscure the bigger picture. Like Bernie Sanders, Trump has refused to raise money from wealthy donors in a way that really did meaningfully separate him from the rest of the Republican field (and Hillary Clinton).

"Throughout the primary, it seemed to bear out that he was mostly accurate that he was self-financing his campaign," Stewart says. "Now, there were a bunch of caveats — and you can get into the weeds of it — but I think he's now looking at the reality of the general election and going back on a significant promise."

What Trump's decision says about the general election

Throughout the primary, Trump said he donated to both Republican and Democratic politicians because doing so gave him pull over elected officials in both parties.

This was part of a broader pitch that informed Trump's campaign: Yes, Trump was once a businessman who played a corrupt system, but because he was an insider he knows how to expose that system from within.

"When [politicians] call, I give. And you know what, when I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them," Trump said. "They are there for me. That's a broken system."

Trump protester rally Jabin Botsford/Washington Post via Getty

Trump's new fundraising operation puts him directly in the role of the politician he said he was once trying to buy. Asked about the conflicting messages, Trump ally Roger Stone argued that the donations wouldn't compromise Trump because Trump himself can't be compromised.

"Donald Trump knows Wall Street will pay both sides," Stone told the New York Times. "Why shouldn’t he take their money to beat Hillary? They are going to find out you can’t co-opt Donald Trump. He’s his own man with his own nationalist views. He can’t be bought. Sure, he’ll take their money, but he won’t change his views."

This seems like a much less compelling theory of Trump's candidacy than the one he advanced in a primary. It relies much more heavily on the idea that Trump himself amounts to a uniquely pure generational candidate, rather than relying on facts that supported his earlier rhetoric — and, for some voters, rang true.

Of course, that doesn't mean Trump won't try to have it both ways. Trump could move to accept big donor checks while continuing to hammer Clinton for being bought off by special interests — even if there's no longer a substantive difference in their campaign finance operations.

"It'll be interesting to see if Trump abandons his rhetoric on attacking other candidates around this issue," Stewart says. "I don't think he will."

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