The Republican Dilemma of the Stingy Billionaire

Photo credit: Gage Skidmore
Photo credit: Gage Skidmore

With the release of Donald Trump’s FEC filing on his holdings claiming his net worth above $10 billion, the question arises once again: why won’t Donald Trump self-fund his campaign?

Does Trump — a self-proclaimed elite businessman used to making investment judgments — know deep in his heart that he is likely to lose and thus doesn’t want to spend more of his own money even to become President — or is he in fact so illiquid that he can’t even come up with a paltry $500 million (less than 5 percent of his reported net worth) to help his own campaign?

The filing document is what the FEC terms a PFD or “Personal Financial Disclosure.” It is a projection by the filer of what they assert their worth to be. But facts are stubborn things, which is why, absent a tax return as proof of his PFD assertions, we’ll never really know for sure if he’s a financial genius or a charlatan. Are Trump’s unwillingness to self-fund and his unwillingness to reveal his tax returns two strands from the same cord? Without financial transparency, Trump’s claim that “this is the kind of thinking we need for this country,” remains spurious at best and a downright fraud at worst.

Mr. Trump’s PFD contains some other surprising information. For instance, he reported that his revenue increased $190 million during his run for the White House. Isn’t this, by extension, the kind of scandalous pocket-lining that voters — perhaps especially Trump voters — should find so upsetting about politics today? Run for office and enrich yourself? Oh, and then there’s the duplicity — he holds bonds in companies he has publicly criticized, including a company that shipped jobs to Mexico, whom he has also criticized. (Surely there is a source of quick liquidity to help out with his campaign — sell those bonds, Mr. Trump.)

Most voters aren’t CPAs or tax lawyers and shouldn’t have to hire one to figure out whom the people running for president really are. Unless and until Trump follows the standard practice of previous modern era presidential candidates, including Barack Obama and John McCain and Mitt Romney, and releases his full tax returns, voters won’t know the truth. But whatever the truth is to why Trump won’t self-fund — whether simple greed or poor management leading to a liquidity crisis — the fact remains that Trump’s refusal to self-fund is forcing a major crisis in the Republican Party. After all, putting the world’s wealthiest economy in the hands of someone who can’t manage his own checkbook just might be problematic.

Most polls show that Trump hurts Republican down-ballot candidates. This problem, already bad, becomes a full-blown crisis once those other candidates, from Senate to school board, are starved of money because the RNC has to ensure that its seemingly exceptionally wealthy presidential candidate is fully funded to run a national campaign. By the time this problem becomes apparent, it may well be too late to do anything about it. There’s only so much money available for politics, and money used for Trump is money that could have been used to help the party at all levels. Even saving $500 million would go a long way toward the GOP holding the Senate and House, no matter who wins the presidency.

If Trump really believed that he could win, or if he truly cared about his adopted party (his third, after Democrat and Reform), then he would open his personal checkbook and give even five percent of his net worth to help himself. But if he’s not investing in his own future, why should the rest of us?

For all the hype and bluster about Donald Trump uniting the GOP, serious and credible doubts remain about his impact on the larger party. Indeed, the idea of ticket-splitting has gained new currency in political conversations today. Republicans faced with a Hobson’s choice between straight ticket voting with Trump at the top of the ticket, or not voting at all, ticket-splitting could make a roaring comeback in this most unusual of political seasons. For those unwilling or unable to vote for either Trump or Clinton — and their numbers appear to be growing — efforts to identify an independent alternative are gaining credibility.

A May 18 national poll released by Data Targeting shows the growing strength of voter dissatisfaction:

2. Here are the most striking, historic numbers: 58. 55. 65. What are they?

  1. 58% of respondents are dissatisfied with the current group of Republican and Democratic candidates for President.
  2. 55% of respondents favor having an independent presidential ticket in 2016.
    1. A shocking 91% of voters under the age of 29 favor having an independent candidate on the ballot.
  3. 65% of respondents are at least somewhat, pretty or very willing to support a candidate for President who is not Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton.

Is it any wonder, then, that serious and determined conservatives like William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard magazine, and others continue to explore alternatives? Despite being excoriated even by friendly fire, Kristol valiantly soldiers on, working to provide Republican voters an alternative to Mr. Trump and whomever the Democrats might ultimately choose. His premise to mount an alternative campaign is not to create a new permanent third party, but as he stated in a recent email, to be “a one-time, emergency adjustment to the unfortunate circumstance (if it happens) of a Trump nomination.” It “would support other Republicans running for Congress and other offices, and would allow voters to correct the temporary mistake (if they make it) of nominating Trump.”

And the Libertarian Party’s new pairing of Gary Johnson and William Weld, is also gaining another look from “none-of-the-above” voters. Both are former moderate Republican Governors, Johnson in New Mexico and Weld in Massachusetts.

All of this should add pressure on Mr. Trump to release his tax returns to prove his alleged financial and managerial acumen. And if he won’t self-fund, even partially, his still wet portrait as a presidential contender will begin to dry with messy streaks. In politics, perception is reality and the Republican reality will be that their nominee really has something to hide and that they have been badly snookered. And that won’t end well.

However, if Trump were to put in $500 million (not merely a promise to do so, but actually sending the check), more people might be willing to believe him and improve his prospects. But until then, two things are certain. First, the search for alternative candidates will continue in earnest, and second, down-ballots candidates will have challenges competing for money. And that could easily lead to GOP disaster in the fall, particularly in tight Senate races where Democrats will be well funded.

So, with typical Trumpian bluntness, I will suggest that he put up or shut up. Where are those tax returns, Mr. Trump?

Clint Cline is the president of Design4, a national media and messaging firm based in Florida.