WASHINGTON — Individuals tapped to serve on President-elect Donald Trump’s transition team, inaugural committee and in his Cabinet donated more than $35.7 million during the 2016 election to help install him in the White House, a USA TODAY analysis shows.
Casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his physician wife, Miriam Adelson, now part of the group raising money to underwrite the inauguration, gave more than $20 million to pro-Trump committees, according to the tally of Federal Election Commission reports. Wrestling franchise co-founder Linda McMahon, Trump’s pick to head the Small Business Administration, contributed more than $7 million.
All three were among donors to Future 45, a pro-Trump super PAC tied to the Ricketts family, the founders and heirs to the TD Ameritrade fortune. Family patriarch J. Joe Ricketts donated $1 million to the group in September.
Trump recently picked Ricketts’ businessman son Todd Ricketts, a guiding force in the family’s political operations, to serve as deputy Commerce secretary under billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, who has been tapped to lead the agency.
Ross himself donated $200,000 to a joint fundraising committee Trump established with the Republican National Committee (RNC). Another Cabinet pick, hedge fund CEO Steven Mnuchin, whom Trump has tapped to serve as Treasury secretary, served as national finance chairman for Trump’s campaign. Mnuchin also donated $425,000 to Trump Victory, a joint Trump-RNC fundraising committee.
Trump campaigned for the presidency as an outsider who was not beholden to rich donors and would “drain the swamp” in Washington of special-interest influence. But some of his wealthy supporters are playing key roles as he works to fill his administration, make policy decisions and assemble the millions of dollars in private money needed to fund his Jan. 20 swearing-in.
“It used to be that financial supporters would buy themselves an ambassadorship,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a Washington watchdog group. “Now, they have graduated to buying themselves Cabinet secretary positions.”
Trump aides say he’s picking successful individuals who support his policies. “President-elect Trump is hiring the best and brightest to help move our country forward by creating jobs, growing the economy and putting America First for the American people,” transition officials said in an emailed statement. “The team he is assembling will deliver on the promise to Make America Great Again.”
Trump himself has defended the millionaires and billionaires joining his team. “I want people that made a fortune,” he said recently, touting their negotiating skills.
USA TODAY reviewed donations to super PACs supporting Trump’s bid and to the joint fundraising committees he established with the Republican National Committee to take donations as large as $449,400. Super PACs, meanwhile, can raise unlimited amounts. The $35.7 million total does not include money donated by relatives of Trump’s picks.
The analysis shows donors sprinkled throughout key posts. Five of Trump’s picks for Cabinet-level jobs have donated to joint fundraising committees or super PACs to advance his candidacy.
In addition to McMahon, Mnuchin and Ross, fast-food CEO Andrew Puzder, tapped to serve as Labor secretary, was among the donors appointed to Cabinet posts. He give $85,000 to committees backing Trump and raised money for the campaign.
The campaign committee of Ben Carson, a former Trump political rival whom the incoming president picked to oversee the Department of Housing and Urban Development, transferred $100,000 to a pro-Trump super PAC in the days before the Nov. 8 election, recently filed Federal Election Commission reports show.
Another Cabinet pick, Education secretary-designate Betsy DeVos, did not donate to pro-Trump super PACs or to the joint fundraising committees, but her relatives contributed $245,000 to Trump Victory.
Other donors serve on Trump transition team’s executive committee.
They include billionaire tech investor Peter Thiel, who donated $1.25 million to pro-Trump efforts. Thiel, one of the few Silicon Valley moguls to back Trump, helped arrange a high-profile meeting Wednesday between the president-elect and some of the tech industry’s biggest executives.
Rebekah Mercer, who ran a pro-Trump super PAC, also sits on the transition’s executive team. Her father, New York hedge-fund billionaire Robert Mercer, donated $2 million to the super PAC in July after Trump secured the Republican nomination.
Some of Trump’s financial backers are doing double-duty as they prepare for him to take office: Hedge-fund CEO Anthony Scaramucci serves both on the transition’s executive team, which is working to devise policy and fill key jobs, and the inaugural leadership team that aims to collect millions for the Jan. 20 celebrations.
The inauguration committee is led by Thomas Barrack, a longtime Trump friend who held the first big fundraiser for Trump after the real-estate developer secured his party’s nomination. Seventeen “finance vice chairs” were announced Nov. 15 and represent a who’s who of Republican donors, ranging from the Adelsons and Wisconsin roofing magnate Diane Hendricks to Woody Johnson, the owner of the NFL’s New York Jets, who was a top fundraiser for Trump and the RNC.
All presidents find ways to reward their financial backers.
In 2008, a USA TODAY analysis found six top fundraisers among the 15 people that incoming President-elect Barack Obama had named to his transition shortly after the election. The current Commerce secretary, billionaire businesswoman Penny Pritzker, was a top Obama campaign fundraiser.
John Pudner, a Republican campaign-finance activist, said it’s natural that donors who stepped up to support Trump developed relationships with him.
Pudner said he’s “not as concerned” about the wealthy contributors entering the administration, as he is about what happens when top officials leave the government. He said he hopes Trump will safeguard against former staffers benefiting from their government jobs.
During the campaign, Trump pledged to impose a five-year ban on former executive branch officials lobbying their former colleagues in government and a lifetime against ex-senior administration officials lobbying the executive branch.