Trump super-PACs finding it hard to collect on pledges

Tom Barrack, chairman of Colony Capital Inc., speaks during an interview in Los Angeles in 2015. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Tom Barrack, chairman of Colony Capital. (Photo: Kevork Djansezian/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

A pair of super-PACs set up to boost Donald Trump have been struggling to collect on big dollar commitments to fund TV ads against Hillary Clinton, amid mounting signs that major GOP donors are still spooked about backing the presumptive Republican nominee.

So far, the pro-Trump super-PACs have banked only a small fraction of the tens of millions of dollars they had been promised by big contributors, sources familiar with the groups’ fundraising operations tell Yahoo News. ‘What we’re seeing is that the donors are just frozen, they’re paralyzed,” said one frustrated super-PAC fundraiser.

In early June, private equity mogul Thomas Barrack got big headlines when he told CNN that he had lined up $32 million in pledged contributions to Rebuilding America Now, a super-PAC he helped establish to promote Trump’s candidacy. That came as Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, was telling donors that Barrack’s operation was the campaign’s preferred destination for big-dollar, unlimited contributions that only super-PACs are legally allowed to receive.

But Rebulding America Now has collected only $2 million of those pledges — from a single donor — Laurance Gay, the managing director of Rebuilding America Now, confirmed to Yahoo News. “Not every pledge becomes a contribution,” he said. Gay declined to disclose the identities of the donors who so far have failed to fulfill their pledges.

Moreover, in a potentially ominous sign, Barrack — a longtime friend of Trump — has backed away from an active role in raising money for Rebuilding America Now. He did so after getting warnings from his Chinese business partners that his high-profile support for Trump could disrupt his firm’s plans for major investments in China, according to one veteran GOP strategist who has been in close touch with Trump’s operation.

“Tom Barrack is not going to be as involved as he had once hoped to be, and I’m sure it has something to do with his business,” said Gay. But Gay denied rumors in GOP circles that the super-PAC may be disbanding: He said the group has gotten new pledges of $10 million (yet to be collected) to help fund five to six new TV ads bashing Hillary Clinton that have been prepared by veteran GOP adman Alex Castellanos.

“We have a full strategy,” said Gay. “I’m pretty sure we’re going to be able to meet our budget.”

Barrack did not respond to a request for comment. But the super-PAC’s troubles are mirrored by the difficulties a rival pro-Trump super-PAC has had in collecting funds. That super-PAC, called Great America PAC, raised a paltry $2.5 million this month from donors despite direct appeals from its co-chairman, veteran GOP strategist Ed Rollins.

Those high dollar contributions to Great America PAC have been relatively tiny by super-PAC standards — the biggest was $300,000 from William Doddridge, CEO of the Jewelry Exchange, fundraising sources told Yahoo News. This compares with 20 contributions of $1 million or more that have rolled in to Priorities USA, the main pro-Clinton super-PAC, which has raised $75 million this cycle, according to the latest campaign reports.

“There’s a lot of these donors that say they just need to see where this going to go,” Rollins told Yahoo News. “They want to know, ‘Is Trump going to be viable candidate?’ They’re saying, ‘Let me wait a couple of weeks.’”

One big problem has been intense feuding between the two competing Trump super-PACs, paralleling the tensions within Trump’s own campaign. When it was initially launched last spring, Rollins’ super-PAC had the blessing of Trump’s then campaign manager, Corey Lowendowski, who was fired two weeks ago. (Although super-PACs are in theory independent of campaigns, the lines between them have eroded in recent years, so that campaigns and candidates themselves freely raise money for them.)

When Rollins arranged a super-PAC donor event at the ranch of legendary Texas oilman T. Boone Pickens, Manafort — a bitter rival of Rollins dating back to the Reagan administration — called up Pickens’ chief political adviser and urged him to cancel the event, signaling the campaign wanted big dollar contributions to go instead to the Barrack super-PAC, according to multiple sources familiar with the exchange. The event at Picken’s ranch was scrapped and so far the Texas oilman has yet to write a check.

Nor, for that matter, has casino mogul and big-dollar GOP donor Sheldon Adelson, who last month was reportedly ready to back Trump — and spend up to $100 million — on his own super-PAC. But to date, there has been no sign that Adelson has cut a single check to any super-PAC backing Trump.

Another big problem, according to Rollins and others, is Trump himself. After a disastrous report two weeks ago that his campaign committee had only $1.3 million in the bank (compared with $42 million for Clinton) Trump stepped up fundraising events and launched an online effort that appears to have backfired this week with the disclosure that it included online email solicitations of foreigners — including members of the British Parliament. (It’s illegal for foreigners to contribute to U.S. political campaigns and watchdog groups have responded by filing complaints about Trump’s fundraising with the Federal Election Commission.)

But Trump has remained dismissive about his need for big donors — “I don’t want that kind of money,” he said about checks from “Wall Street fat cats” that he claimed Clinton was collecting — suggesting that he could garner his own free media by appearing on TV talk shows. All that makes it difficult for the super-PACs to entice donors to write big checks.

Rollins said there are still “three or four big guys” who can step up to the plate and cut hefty checks that might make Trump competitive. He declined to identify them, but one who may have revealed himself this week is Robert Mercer, a secretive hedge fund mogul who together with his daughter poured over $13.5 million into a super-PAC backing Ted Cruz. This week, he launched a new effort — informally pitched to donors as “Defeat Crooked Hillary PAC” — that will seek to recruit big donors to the idea of attacking Clinton rather than backing Trump.

“Some donors don’t want to associate with something overtly pro-Trump,” Dave Bossie, the veteran Republican operative who has been hired to run the PAC told Bloomberg News. “This gives people an opportunity to aggressively get involved at whatever level they might want but have it solely focused on being a Hillary Clinton effort.”

But whether a super-PAC that simply bashes Clinton is enough to make Trump a viable candidate is an open question. “We got a couple of more weeks to settle this one way or another,” said Rollins. But, he added, “time is running short.”