President Donald Trump and Joe Biden, the Democrat hoping to unseat him, are raking in millions for their campaigns at high-dollar events but have not fully disclosed details about the elite fundraisers who collect cash on their behalf, campaign-finance watchdogs say.
With the exception of federal lobbyists who serve as campaign bundlers, federal law does not require presidential candidates to release their full lists of the political fundraisers who help “bundle” together donations from friends, relatives and business associates to underwrite costly White House campaigns. But presidential nominees over the years, including George W. Bush, John McCain, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, voluntarily disclosed so-called bundler information.
Obama, for instance, publicly updated his list of fundraisers quarterly and divided them into broad tiers, ranging from those who had collected more than $500,000 apiece to those who collected between $50,000 and $100,000 each.
“Without knowing who these campaign bundlers are, the public has no way of knowing if they have undue influence because of their ability to raise large sums of money for candidates,” said Michael Beckel, research director of Issue One, which supports transparency in fundraising.
Issue One joined more than a dozen other watchdog groups last year in urging presidential candidates to make details about their big-money fundraisers public on a regular basis.
Biden released a bundler list late last year, disclosing the names and hometowns of more than 230 individuals and couples who had collected at least $25,000 for his campaign.
It includes heavy hitters from the worlds of politics and Democratic fundraising, such as Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg, Bill Clinton White House chief of staff Erskine Bowles, Connecticut Gov. Ned Lamont and private equity investor Alan Patricof.
But the list, released in late December, was virtually unchanged as of Thursday morning, months after Biden became the presumptive nominee and began to raise money in earnest for the general election. And the list did not include any details on how much each bundler had raised on his behalf.
A Biden campaign aide this week declined to discuss future bundler disclosure.
Biden’s campaign does grant journalists access to fundraising events, which have been conducted “virtually” in recent months because of the coronavirus pandemic. And Biden’s team identifies those serving as the main hosts.
A recent Biden event, for instance, raised $4 million — setting a single-day record for the campaign — and featured as its lead hosts San Francisco billionaire and former presidential candidate Tom Steyer and other Silicon Valley figures focused on climate change.
On Tuesday, another virtual fundraiser, hosted by Sen. Kamala Harris of California and the state’s lieutenant governor,. Eleni Kounalakis, raised $3.5 million for Biden.
Trump hits the road
Trump is set to raise eye-popping sums this week — his first in-person fundraising events since the pandemic upended traditional campaign activity.
A fundraiser he was to attend Thursday in Dallas has brought in $10 million, according to a Republican National Committee official. The event at a private home in Dallas came with a steep entry fee: $580,600 per couple. About 25 people are expected to attend.
Trump also is slated to appear at a Saturday fundraiser at his golf club in Bedminster, New Jersey. About 25 people are expected to attend, at $250,000 a head.
Both events benefit Trump Victory, the campaign’s joint fundraising operation with the Republican National Committee and nearly two dozen state committees.
(An individual cannot donate more than $5,600 directly to a presidential candidate for the primary and general election. But legal changes in 2014 eased restrictions on donations to political parties — paving the way for six-figure checks to the joint political operations that candidates establish with party committees. Biden’s joint fundraising agreement with the Democratic Party entities seeks as much as $620,600 from donors to support him and other Democrats.)
Trump, who relied heavily on small-dollar donors and his own personal wealth at the start of his 2016 campaign, has stepped up his use of bundlers to help underwrite his reelection. In May 2019, the campaign formally rolled out its bundling program and quickly attracted 200 enrollees.
Bundler ranks grow
Earlier this year, Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News personality and the girlfriend of presidential son Donald Trump Jr., assumed the role of national chairwoman of the Trump Victory Finance Committee, where she is credited with expanding its ranks of fundraisers — including allowing middle-class donors to “bundle” grassroots donations for the campaign.
Trump bundlers who raise $1,000 in contributions from five other contributors, for instance, receive a “commemorative gift” and VIP access for two to a Trump campaign rally. Those who collect $25,000 can join the “Trump Train” and get more perks, including conference calls with campaign surrogates.
Today, it counts more than 3,000 people as bundlers, operating in seven tiers, according to the campaign.
And Team Trump has created new bundling programs, recently announcing that nearly two dozen Republican House members would raise money for Trump’s reelection as newly minted “House congressional captains.”
A Trump campaign spokesman declined to discuss whether the campaign would release more details about bundlers moving forward.
As required by law, Trump Victory has disclosed details about federal lobbyists who collect money for the committee. Its most recent filing with the Federal Election Commission shows six lobbyists raising nearly $4 million during the first three months of the year.
This list was led by Texas lobbyist Kent Hance, whose clients include the drug industry trade group PhRMA. He raised more than $1.5 million for Trump Victory, the filing shows.
Beth Rotman of Common Cause, one of the groups calling for greater disclosure, said bundlers are crucial to campaigns because they allow candidates to quickly scoop up vast sums without exceeding legal donation limits.
Political fundraisers often go on to win top government jobs and plum assignments as ambassadorships. Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin oversaw Trump’s fundraising operation in 2016; Trump’s ambassadors to Italy and the United Kingdom also were top campaign bundlers.
“This is absolutely at the crux of the reason that we have contribution limits at all,” Rotman said, “the idea that excessive money wields excessive influence in our government.”