The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump’s critics are targeting his donors, sparking fears of a backlash against disclosure

Actress Debra Messing and President Trump.
Actress Debra Messing and President Trump. (AP)

Organized campaigns to publicly attack President Trump’s political donors have sparked growing concern among conservatives and advocates of greater transparency in political giving, who say donor information is being weaponized ahead of the presidential election.

The efforts — along with the increasingly available information online about donors giving as little as $1 — have reignited questions about how much transparency is too much and whether the laws governing the balance between transparency and privacy are adequate and relevant.

The most recent controversy came late last month, when actress Debra Messing, a frequent Trump critic, took to Twitter to demand a list of attendees to an upcoming high-dollar Trump fundraiser in Beverly Hills. “The public has a right to know,” she wrote.

The ask drew a rebuke from Trump, who tweeted that the “Will & Grace” star was trying to assemble a “blacklist” of Trump supporters. Messing ultimately released no such list, and representatives for the actress did not respond to requests for comment.

It was the latest instance of Trump critics taking aim at his donors, who have become the subject of online attacks and boycotts from liberals on social media when their identities become public.

A large amount of information about donors is publicly available — a result of laws intended to serve as a check on potentially corrupting influences on politicians. Campaigns and other committees are required to turn over to the Federal Election Commission the name, address, job title, employer and donation amount of anyone giving at least $200. The information is then published on the commission’s website.

Some advocates for transparency worry that the increasing attacks on political donors could spark a backlash against the disclosure of donor information required under federal law.

The advocates fear the attacks will discourage voters from political giving or steer them into contributing to political nonprofits — called “dark money” groups by critics — which are not required to disclose their donors and often collect millions from hidden sources.

“It might drive donors to currently dark-money channels, which we certainly think should have transparency,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen, which advocates for greater financial transparency in politics. The weaponization of donor information is a “whole different, new issue and something that we are concerned about,” she said.

Transparency advocates pointed to last month’s episode involving a tweet by Rep. Joaquin Castro (D-Tex.) as particularly concerning.

Castro tweeted a list of Trump donors in his district and their employers, blaming them for “fueling a campaign of hate that labels Hispanic immigrants as ‘invaders.’ ” Castro’s defenders say that he was simply using public information to provide a constituent service, and that he did not call for a violent reaction.

Nonetheless, the businesses of those donors — who gave the maximum $5,400 to Trump’s campaign — were flooded with angry calls. Castro has defended his tweet. He did not respond to requests for comment.

“The Castro thing was an aberration,” said Fred Wertheimer, longtime advocate of financial transparency in politics and the founder and president of the nonprofit Democracy 21. “It’s very, very unusual for a candidate to weaponize ordinary contributions from citizens without it being linked to potential conflicts or influence-buying.”

Still, Wertheimer said, ideologically driven attacks on donors are not new. It is the “right of citizens to make a determination” to boycott institutions that do not align with their political beliefs, he said.

A Trump donor in Beverly Hills, who plans to attend the upcoming fundraiser, said he was appalled by Castro’s tweet. The donor asked that neither he nor his wife be identified out of fear that someone would search for them online and find their home. The Washington Post reached him at his home using information in federal filings.

“It is a sad state in America when you can’t admit who you want as president,” the donor said. “I’m not supporting a Nazi or a KKK person. This is pathetic.”

The concept of donor disclosure — making public the names of those financing election campaigns — dates to 1908, when candidate William Howard Taft offered to voluntarily disclose donors to his presidential campaign. Taft successfully pushed for a law requiring the same of other federal candidates, to report donors giving $100 or more.

Congress raised the reporting threshold $200 in 1979. The thinking was that donations under $200 were not significant enough to buy any future politician’s vote and that disclosing donors’ identities would unnecessarily invade their privacy.

The Supreme Court upheld the concept of donor disclosure in its landmark 2010 case Citizens United, which allowed corporations to spend unlimited sums on independent political activity. “This transparency enables the electorate to make informed decisions and give proper weight to different speakers and messages,” the majority wrote in the case.

Many advocates for and against greater disclosure say the $200 threshold, set four decades ago, is outdated in the era of unlimited super PAC and online donations. Adjusted for inflation, the $200 in 1979 would be roughly $700 in 2019. Changing the disclosure limit would require congressional action.

An unprecedented volume of information is being made public about donors this election cycle.

ActBlue, a payment platform being used by all the Democratic presidential campaigns, is organized under a unique political committee structure that is required to release information of all donors using the service — including those who give far less than $200.

ActBlue officials said they inform all donors that their information will be made public. Since its founding in 2004, the nonprofit said, it has not had problems with donors’ information being abused.

Republicans have launched their own online payment platform, WinRed, to capi­tal­ize on Trump’s loyal small-donor base. WinRed donors’ information also will be made public.

The role of social media in political discourse “is something we have to watch,” Wertheimer said. “It’s not going to justify eliminating disclosure . . . but it’s worth watching because we see so much hostility and attack mode playing out on social media these days that takes us into uncharted waters.”

Already, more political activity is being funded through groups that are not required to disclose their donors, including by Democrats, who have typically criticized such efforts as “dark money” activity.

A new political nonprofit arm of the main House Democratic super PAC is running ads aimed at helping Democrats maintain their House majority in the 2020 elections.

The bulk of the money that Priorities USA, the main independent Democratic effort, raised so far this year flowed to its nonprofit arm, which does not reveal its donors. Previously, Priorities USA raised most of its donations through its super PAC, which must disclose donors.

And last year, liberal activists raised and spent millions from undisclosed donors in their fight to fend off Trump’s Supreme Court nominee Brett M. Kavanaugh.

The latest attacks on Trump’s supporters have been directed at attendees or hosts of his reelection fundraisers, where people pay up to six figures to schmooze with the president.

Last month, news about a high-dollar fundraiser at the Hamptons home of billionaire Stephen Ross prompted a national boycott of his businesses, including the luxury fitness brands SoulCycle and Equinox.

News of the fundraiser went viral among SoulCycle’s liberal clientele, and attendance declined 6 to 7.5 percent in the following weeks, according to an analysis by Vox.

Ronna McDaniel, Republican National Committee chairwoman, said the backlash has only encouraged the president’s supporters to rally closer to him, and she added that the party posted record fundraising figures in August.

More than 2,000 people are expected at the Beverly Hills fundraiser for Trump, officials said. One reason for the anticipated high attendance is that tickets start at $1,000 — a bargain for a private event headlined by the president.

The $1,000 tickets “sold out faster than a Led Zeppelin concert,” said Shawn Steel, Republican National Committeeman in California.

There are worries that anger toward Trump will lead to “collateral damage” to his supporters, he said.

“The trouble is, anybody can play that game. If anyone gives money to Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, do they have their homes picketed? Do they get hate mail? I don’t want them to,” Steel said.