ST. CLAIRSVILLE, Ohio -- If a candidate solicits big money from special interests, that candidate is on the take.
Or so argued presidential candidate Donald Trump -- the same Donald Trump who now, as the presumptive Republican nominee and despite that year-long stance, is nevertheless soliciting big money from those same special interests.
Developer Llwyd Ecclestone and his wife, Diana, gave the Trump "Victory" fund $768,000. Real estate investor Thomas Barrack gave $299,600, while casino magnate Phillip Ruffin kicked in $284,600.
Those donations were from May, when just 51 individuals giving a minimum of $19,600 contributed $3.1 million to Trump's fund for transfer to the Republican National Committee, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
Trump has held additional big-ticket fundraisers since then, with more scheduled in the coming days and weeks. One set for the Wednesday before the nominating convention asks a minimum $25,000 per person, up to the legal maximum of $449,400.
The good news for the self-described billionaire is that his hard-core supporters do not seem to care.
A HuffPost/YouGov poll found that a full 64 percent of Republicans who had voted for Trump in the primaries reported they were "not bothered at all" by Trump reversing himself on accepting special interest money -- even though 75 percent of those same Republicans had moments earlier said they were more likely to support a self-funding candidate. Only 3 percent said the new position bothered them a lot, while 30 percent said it bothered them a little.
(The Internet-based poll was conducted over two days last week and included 1,000 respondents nationally. It has a margin of error of 4.7 percentage points.)
A recent rally Trump staged at the Ohio University Eastern Campus provided flesh-and-blood examples of that thinking.
Ruth Holland, who initially supported Ted Cruz in the Republican primary but switched to Trump because the Texas senator was “too establishment,” had no problem with Trump’s 180-degree reversal. “Why would he spend his own money when someone’s giving it to him?” said the 71-year-old retiree from Wheeling, West Virginia.
JoAnn Pizzino, 62, traveled down from Steubenville to see Trump. “I’m a Trump Democrat. This is the first ‘R’ I ever voted for in my life,” she said. Although at first she said it was “very important” that candidates not take large donations, she similarly had no concerns with Trump’s half-million-dollar solicitations. “That’s okay,” she said. “The bottom line is: Anything he does is okay.”
The bottom line is: Anything he does is okay. JoAnn Pizzino, Trump supporter
“They've lost sight of their principles,” said Regina Thomson, a Colorado delegate to the nominating convention this month and a leader in the “dump Trump” movement. “They're angry, and he says he's going to burn the house down."
Where Trump could have a problem, though, is with the voters he is trying to attract to win the general election -- independents who are angry with the system that both he and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) call “rigged.”
Among independents, only 43 percent reported they were not bothered by Trump's reversal regarding big donors, with 25 percent saying it bothered them a lot and another 20 percent reporting they were bothered a little.
From the very start of his candidacy last June, Trump has accused his opponents of being pawns of their major benefactors. “I don’t need anybody’s money. I’m using my own money,” he said in his announcement speech at Trump Tower. “I’m not using lobbyists, I’m not using donors. I don’t care. I’m really rich.”
At the first Republican primary debate, last August, he was even more explicit in his description of the role of money in politics. “I gave to many people, before this, before two months ago, I was a businessman. I give to everybody. When they call, I give,” he said. “And do you know what? When I need something from them two years later, three years later, I call them, they are there for me.”
At the following month’s debate in California, Trump continued. “The donors, the special interests, the lobbyists have very strong power over these people,” he said, referring to his opponents onstage. “I am not accepting any money from anybody. Nobody has control of me other than the people of this country.”
And this February, he had scorn for politicians who took “special interest” money: “They do exactly what those folks want them to do,” he said at a South Carolina debate. “I'm the only one in either party self-funding my campaign,” he said two weeks later in Houston. "I'm going to do what's right."
Yet just as he closed in on the nomination, Trump began acknowledging that he fully intended to seek contributions for the general election.
"You are talking about a billion dollars or a billion and a half dollars,” he told Fox News the morning after he won the Indiana primary. “I'm not looking for myself, I'm looking out for the party, so the party can compete in Senate races and House races. I want to raise money for the party."
In reality, the money “for the party” is indistinguishable from money for himself. The Republican National Committee uses the money to drive turnout for the entire GOP ticket, which is led by Trump. And in debates and speeches over 10 months, Trump made no distinction between special interest money given for the primary and that used for the general election.
The irony for Trump: All the bashing of the GOP donors who were giving to his primary rivals has made it harder to now persuade them to open their wallets for him. Fundraising has been anemic, with Trump reporting all of $3.1 million raised specifically for his campaign in the month of May, a figure that includes as much as $1.9 million from the sale of hats and T-shirt. (In contrast, all-but-certain Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton raised $28 million in May directly for her campaign and another $14 million for the Democratic National Committee and nearly three dozen state parties.)
Trump made his work even more difficult this week by refusing to release proof that he forgave $50 million in loans to his campaign. The campaign claimed it was preparing and sending the FEC the letter on June 23, which would convert the loans into irrevocable contributions. The FEC did not report receiving any such letter, and this week Trump’s campaign said it would include it with its report of June contributions and expenses that is due July 20.
That means potential donors will have no assurance beyond Trump’s word that he will not use as much as $2,700 received from each donor to pay himself back until the day GOP delegates are scheduled to officially make him their nominee.
“That's why he's having such trouble raising money, because they don't see him as an honest broker,” said Thomson, the anti-Trump activist. “I've recently dubbed him King Con. He's perpetrating one of the biggest cons on the Republican Party ever."
Trump loyalists, though, shrug it all off. Brenda Johnson, 62, drove four hours to St. Clairsville from her home near Cincinnati to see Trump. She, like his other supporters, was not at all upset by Trump’s new position on big money.
“I think people should donate to Donald Trump,” she said, adding that she would if she could find a job other than at McDonald’s or White Castle. “He needs help. He’s working for the American people.”
Editor's note: Donald Trump