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The real reason Donald Trump self-financed his primary campaign

A man wearing a Donald Trump mask in downtown Cleveland on Monday.
A man wearing a Donald Trump mask in downtown Cleveland on Monday.
Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

Even some of Donald Trump’s fiercest critics have agreed with one key part of his campaign: that the Republican Party’s special interests and elite donors have too much control over its politicians.

"Jeb Bush is a puppet to his donors," Trump said in August. "Sheldon Adelson is looking to give big dollars to [Marco] Rubio because he feels he can mold him into his perfect little puppet. I agree!" Trump said on Twitter.

This message fit with Trump’s promise to self-finance his own campaign, and it was crucial to forming the origin story of Trump as a bold "traitor to his class" who could speak secret truths to power.

Critics noted that Trump didn’t really self-finance his campaign, and that his policies promised to do just as much for elite billionaires — if not more — than any of his rivals. But the assumption has always been that his rejection of special interests was intentional — that Trump, for all of his faults, really did try to blaze an independent trail largely free of support from the donor class.

It turns out we’ve been giving him too much credit. In a report for BuzzFeed on Monday, reporter McKay Coppins reveals that Trump aggressively courted top Republican donors for their contributions, sending them personal messages and signed photos as direct appeals to the financial bigwigs.

Trump would later turn against them, not out of any principled opposition to taking their money — but because they wouldn’t give it to him anyway.

Coppins reports:

Often, [Trump] would start out trying to do it the traditional way — wooing rich contributors, courting conservative elites, making offers to top-flight strategists — only to find himself fumbling through yet another unfamiliar universe of taunting insiders.

While other 2016 contenders carefully strategized over how to bag billionaire mega-donors — from the Koch brothers to Paul Singer — Trump simply assumed that his status as a financial peer would do all the selling necessary, two of his former aides told me. But when he tried making his appeals to them, he was spurned — sometimes in humiliating fashion. ...

[Former Trump aide Sam] Nunberg later confessed to me that Trump’s principled stand against the corrupt donor class was little more than lucky spin. "The truth is, he would have raised money if he could have … Donald never had any intention of self-financing."

It was a great stroke of fortune for Trump’s candidacy. After a series of exhaustive interviews and polls with Trump voters, MSNBC’s Benjy Sarlin concluded in June that Trump’s eschewal of the donor class was the single biggest reason voters thrilled to his candidacy in the primary.

"He can’t be bought," Trump supporter Eleanor Crume, 72, told MSNBC. "He’s not going to be bought by the lobbyists."

Crume was right. Trump couldn’t be bought. But not because he wasn’t up for sale — because nobody was making an offer.


Watch: Why Trump can't change and become "moderate"

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