The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Trump is attracting a new crop of big donors, including many who have never given before

Dan Costa donated $37,500 to President Trump’s reelection campaign. (Elijah Nouvelage/for The Washington Post)

Dan Costa, who runs four apparel companies in Northern California, was never a major political donor. But last year, he made a large contribution to the GOP for the first time: $37,500 in hopes of four more years of President Trump.

“That’s a big investment for anybody,” said Costa, whose only other contribution to a presidential candidate was $1,000 to Mitt Romney in 2012. “It’s like insurance that is going to help save the country. . . . It’s for me and my grandkids and the next generations.”

Trump’s vaunted political money machine is helping drive record sums to the Republican National Committee, and not just from the same donors who supported him in 2016. Enticed by exclusive gatherings and ecstatic about the president’s tax cuts, an eclectic new crop of donors is going all in, giving five and six figures to support his reelection.

Their ranks include investors in a South Florida hot yoga studio, a Ni­ger­ian American real estate developer in Dallas and the head of a trucking business in Los Angeles. They have been joined by veteran GOP donors who have returned to the fold after sitting out Trump’s 2016 campaign.

The Washington Post's Michelle Ye Hee Lee explains how wealthy donors can give unlimited sums to support their favorite politicians, despite donation caps. (Video: The Washington Post)

The Washington Post identified at least 220 big donors to Trump’s reelection who are either new to major political giving or sat out the last presidential general election. Together, they have deluged pro-Trump fundraising committees with more than $21 million — a cash infusion that suggests a newfound enthusiasm for the president among supporters capable of writing large checks.

The influx of these donors represents a shift for Trump, who criticized other candidates’ reliance on wealthy backers during the 2016 election. This time, his campaign is actively wooing them, holding glitzy fundraisers that give people who donate large amounts a chance to mingle with his inner circle and often snap pictures with Trump himself.

Trump’s take-all-comers approach this time has brought in donors with various agendas — creating legal headaches at times. Among those newly motivated to give large sums were Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman — characters in the impeachment saga whose contributions to pro-Trump committees in the hundreds of thousands helped them quickly insert themselves into Trump’s orbit. They face campaign finance charges partly related to a six-figure donation they made to a super PAC.

And Robert Hyde, a Parnas associate who claimed to be tracking a U.S. ambassador disliked by Trump, has donated more than $41,000 since 2016 to the various pro-Trump committees, records show. Hyde, a long-shot congressional candidate in Connecticut, has said he was not particularly interested in politics before Trump. In recent days, he has denied monitoring the former ambassador to Ukraine.

Wealthy donors now allowed to give over half a million dollars each to support Trump’s reelection

Meanwhile, Trump is now also supported by a more traditional source of party money: longtime GOP donors who shunned him during his 2016 campaign. By and large, those wealthy establishment donors have fallen in line behind Trump’s reelection, said Lisa Spies, a longtime Republican fundraiser.

Among those now on board are Dan and Farris Wilks, billionaire brothers who made their money in the fracking industry in Texas. They supported Sen. Ted Cruz (Tex.) in the 2016 primary race, then held back on support for Trump in the general election. But so far, they have given a combined $100,000 toward the president’s reelection.

“There are very few ‘Never Trumpers’ [continuing to hold back support], and there are very few donors who are disengaged,” Spies said. Additionally, she said, Trump “has a whole new crop of donors. A lot of these people have never been involved before.”

Many first-time big donors contacted by The Post were enthusiastic boosters of Trump who said they were moved to give by the president’s tax cuts, his deregulation agenda and their confidence in the economy.

They expressed trust in Trump’s decision-making and shared his indignation over Democratic attacks. They viewed their contribution as an investment — not just in the country’s future but in their own personal prosperity.

Several donors said they do not love everything the president tweets but find him authentic and relatable.

“Sometimes I’m like, why did he do that? But at the same time, you’ve got to remember, he’s not a polished politician,” said Raul Esqueda, who gave $35,000 to support Trump’s reelection.

Esqueda, who runs a commercial credit company in Austin and says business is booming under Trump, said he does not feel tied to a party. He said he preferred Mitt Romney over Barack Obama for president in 2012 but does not feel particularly enthusiastic about the Utah senator now.

Esqueda’s newfound giving earned him an invite to the 2019 White House Christmas party.

“To visit the White House, that’s cool,” Esqueda said. “You get to see all the paintings around. They have hors d’oeuvres and drinks, music. Overall, it was a nice get-together. . . . We got a lot of photographs.”

Trump and the RNC raised almost half a billion dollars last year — and still had nearly $200 million heading into 2020

Since Trump’s election, more than 1.6 million new donors have contributed to the Republican Party, in both large and small amounts, party officials said.

It remains to be seen whether these donors will continue to give in such large amounts to the Republican Party or drop off once Trump leaves office.

“You have a group of individuals in the country who are big supporters and big believers of the president that, much like we saw in the 2016 election, are unique to him,” said Brian O. Walsh, president of the pro-Trump super PAC America First Action, which is attracting many of these donors. “That’s the magnet that attracts them to want to participate at a higher level than ever before.”

Democrats are taking note of the amounts of money flowing to the Trump reelection effort.

Democratic strategists said Trump’s ability to raise and spend massive sums from big donors to Trump Victory — a joint fundraising committee that is drawing these new contributors — is similar to the money advantage that Obama had in his reelection battle against Romney. With the exception of the billionaires in the 2020 Democratic race, the eventual nominee will probably need a financial boost in the general-election fight against Trump.

“The [2020 Democratic] nominee will be broke, as Romney was against us,” said Jim Messina, Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign manager. “One point to look at is how much money Trump and the [joint committees] are raising. I have never seen spending like it. And it’s a lot on rallies, which are expensive and speak to the base.”

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The parent company of SOL Yoga in Fort Lauderdale and Miami, which donated $100,000 to America First Action in 2019, did not respond to requests for comment. Yu Kevin Guan, a trucking company owner who donated $235,000 to Trump Victory, also did not respond to a request for comment. Both were first-time donors under Trump.

Some new donors have rapidly immersed themselves in the mix-and-mingle world of private fundraisers and “donor appreciation” events.

GOP fundraisers said offering such perks to new donors comes at a lower cost, because they are new to the experience. Established GOP donors have already attended marquee events such as the State of the Union address or have had private meals with previous presidential nominees.

But new donors enjoy even modest gatherings, like a panel featuring a Cabinet member or drinks in the lobby of Trump’s hotel in Washington, strategists say. Their social media feeds often include selfies with Trump loyalists and influencers, such as former White House press secretary Sean Spicer and Andre Soriano, designer of “Make America Great Again” gowns.

At last month’s winter retreat for Trump Victory donors, for example, guests socialized with Trump’s family members, campaign manager Brad Parscale, Fox News’s Jeanine Pirro, Trump lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani and other major figures in Trump’s orbit, according to social media posts of attendees.

Trump’s 2016 campaign was run on a shoestring. His reelection machine is huge — and armed with consultants.

Many new donors have in turn become fundraisers for Trump, recruiting people they know to give as well.

Xinyue “Daniel” Lou, who gave his first major donation of more than $37,000 to Trump Victory in 2017, said he felt valued when party officials described him as an “investor” in the Republican Party. And so, he said, he urged other well-to-do people in the Chinese American community to give to Trump. Many, he said, had never been tapped by a political party before and were intrigued by Trump’s presidency.

“I was privileged to be invited to a number of events” for donors, including ones where he met top White House officials and members of the Cabinet, Lou said. “Because of my political contribution and involvement, I was in those seats and I was able to have my input.”

Ejike Okpa, a Ni­ger­ian American commercial real estate developer in Dallas who started a PAC called Africans for MAGA, gave his first major political donations to Trump’s reelection: $35,000 in 2017 and $10,000 in 2018. He has always preferred nontraditional candidates, he said — he gave $250 to Obama in 2008 — and he likes that Trump is a fighter and disrupter in Washington.

Okpa is now a bundler for Trump Victory and boasts a collection of selfies with the president’s family, a signed copy of Donald Trump Jr.’s book and an autographed thumbs-up photo with Trump.

“What he stands for, the way he has approached doing things for America, just kind of intrigues me,” Okpa said. “I vote, but when you match that with a financial contribution, it’s an additional show of support and commitment.”

Alice Crites contributed to this report.