Donald Trump hates Washington, or says he does. He hates politicians, but he gives them money so he can have influence over them. That’s good business sense for a real estate mogul in New York City. But does it explain Trump’s campaign contributions to the late Senator Ted Kennedy and other members of the liberal Kennedy clan running in lesser races in Maryland and Rhode Island and Massachusetts?
“I happen to know he gave not only to me but to other members of my family,” Kathleen Kennedy Townsend told The Daily Beast. A check of federal and state records confirms that a Donald J. Trump of New York gave a total of $3,000 to the Democrat Townsend in her failed gubernatorial bid in Maryland in 2002, plus $10,000 in donations to Senator Kennedy, Mark Kennedy Shriver, Joe Kennedy II, and Patrick Kennedy, who in 2005 is the most recent Kennedy recipient of Trump’s largesse. All of course are Democrats.
Billionaire businessmen famously hedge their bets, so Trump’s conservative supporters are likely to forgive him for giving to Democrats, even those with the high-profile Kennedy pedigree. The ones who are surprised are the Kennedys, who took Trump for a Democrat and are taken aback by some of his positions, particularly on immigration. “He has such charisma and presence and such ability,” says Townsend, who chairs the Democratic advocacy group American Bridge. “Why doesn’t he take such talents and build something instead of beating up on defenseless immigrants just trying to build a home for themselves?”
Townsend says she doesn’t know Trump personally, but other members of her family do, and they view his campaign as “out of character” with the man they thought they knew. “For anybody who knows him, he’s just playing,” she says. “If you look at the field, he’s a standout. I would hope he would use it to build something instead of tearing down immigrants.” Her message to Trump: “Use your skills; use your talents to lift people up.”
Trump’s affinity for the Kennedys is part practical, part celebrity worship. “He likes to be where the action is,” says a former Ted Kennedy staffer. You never know what party list a donation might land you on, and Trump’s need to be part of the in crowd is well documented. He likes people with names, and anything with a Kennedy surname opens doors. He donated to Mark Kennedy Shriver’s bid for Congress in 2002; Shriver lost in the Democratic primary.
When queried about the contribution, a spokesman for the Save the Children Action committee, which Shriver now heads, said Shriver had no recollection of any interaction with Trump, and had to look it up in his records to confirm the donation.
That would seem to defeat the transactional purpose of campaign giving as defined by Trump, but if you’re living life in the fast lane, you never know when these acts of kindness might pay off in the future. Paul Equale, a former lobbyist in Washington, says he learned early in his career, “When a politician asks you for money, you give it, and that’s the attitude of wealthy businessmen.”
The ideological purity that the Republican base demands of other politicians doesn’t appear to extend to Trump, whether it’s who he gives money to, or the positions he takes, which change from year to year or even day to day. His supporters are not going to hold him to any substantive position. He hates Washington, and he hates politicians, and that’s enough. His message is that if voters want to break the system, they should vote for him because he knows how the system works, and he can blow it up.
When he says he gives money to everybody so he can have influence over everybody, “He’s spot on, we have a pay-to-play system,” says Equale.
It’s not clear what if anything he got out of his giving to the Kennedys, other than feeling good about contributing to a political family that his generation of yes, Democrats, revered. “When he wants something, people return his call. Some people think that’s the way the system should work,” says Scott Swenson with Common Cause.
Trump brags about benefitting from the current system—how he got Hillary Clinton to attend his wedding because he gave to her campaign. But he has also blown the whistle on a campaign finance system that jumped the shark with the post-Citizens United Super PACs. “He certainly talks about it,” says Swenson, “But as a self-funded billionaire, he’s not exactly the poster child for a solution. He exemplifies the problem.” Like everything else about Trump, he makes his own rules.