NEW YORK — Wall Street is getting ready to go nuclear on Donald Trump.
Terrified that the reality TV star could run away with the Republican nomination and bring his brand of anti-immigrant, protectionist populism to the White House, some top financiers are writing big checks to fund an effort to deny Trump a majority of delegates to the GOP convention.
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The effort is centered on the recently formed Our Principles PAC, the latest big-money group airing anti-Trump ads, which is run by GOP strategist Katie Packer, deputy campaign manager for Mitt Romney in 2012.
The group, initially funded by $3 million from Marlene Ricketts, wife of billionaire T.D. Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts, wants to saturate the expensive Florida airwaves ahead of the state’s March 15 primary with hopes of denying Trump a victory that could crush the hopes of home state Sen. Marco Rubio.
A conference call on Tuesday to solicit donors for the group included Paul Singer, billionaire founder of hedge fund Elliott Management; Hewlett Packard President and CEO Meg Whitman; and Chicago Cubs co-owner Todd Ricketts, one of Joe and Marlene Ricketts’ three sons. Wealthy Illinois businessman Richard Uihlein is also expected to help fund the effort. Jim Francis, a big GOP donor and bundler from Texas, was also on the phone call on Tuesday.
One person close to the Our Principles PAC said money will not be an issue.
This person said Singer, who is worth close to $2 billion, is fully dedicated to making sure the group has all the funds it needs to inundate the airwaves in Florida and other states viewed as not entirely friendly to Trump, a group that includes Illinois, Missouri, Arizona, Wisconsin and other states in the Northeast and West. Ohio could join the list if Trump moves ahead of the state’s governor, John Kasich, in the polls.
“The money is not going to be a problem. We will raise what we need to do what we need to do,” the person close to the new anti-Trump PAC said. “Yes, there are people who are skeptical, but there are just as many ready to write big checks. The question is only whether Trump truly is really Teflon.”
The theory, this person said, is that voters are still largely unaware of the full case against Trump. “We have not seen how he holds up to real sustained attacks over the KKK and David Duke stuff, over Trump University, over Trump Mortgage. People don’t really know about that stuff. We are about to find out what happens when they find out about it.”
Hope Hicks, a spokeswoman for Trump, dismissed the latest effort. “This is yet another attempt by the establishment elites and dark money that control the weak politicians to maintain control of our broken and corrupt system. Mr. Trump will continue to stand for the people and the issues they care about,” she said.
Packer said in an interview that the effort is focused on denying Trump the 1,237 delegates needed to win the nomination outright. “This is a delegate battle; it’s not going to be like other years, and 71 percent of the delegates have not been awarded,” she said. “There is just a huge chasm between Trump and the other candidates, and there is going to be no coalescing around him. It will go all the way to Cleveland,” site of the GOP convention in July.
Packer said that, of the hundreds of millions spent on GOP ads in 2016 thus far, only $9 million has been spent opposing Trump. “In 2012, we spent $10 million against Newt Gingrich in Florida alone.”
The pitch to Wall Street titans and other CEOs is that a President Trump would be disastrous for markets and the economy. Many economists say that if the U.S. were to deport 11 million undocumented immigrants in a single year, the immediate hit to gross domestic product would lead to a depression. And slapping massive tariffs on goods from Mexico and China could dramatically increase prices for U.S. consumers and create destabilizing trade wars. “The most important thing about Trump is, he is completely unpredictable and volatile, and the one thing business needs is predictability,” Packer said.
But prosecuting that case will take tens of millions of dollars spread across multiple states.
And many Wall Street donors are already burned out after pumping over $100 million to Jeb Bush and his Right to Rise super PAC with nothing to show for it. Wall Street’s support is also splintered among candidates at the moment. Singer is backing Rubio. Financiers Stanley Druckenmiller and Ken Langone are backing Kasich. And many senior executives say trying to stop Trump now is a foolish crusade that will wind up burning cash with nothing to show for it.
“My personal view is that Trump is going to get the nomination anyway and there is nothing that can be done about it now,” the chief executive of a Wall Street bank who once backed Bush said in an interview on Wednesday after turning down a pitch to contribute to a new anti-Trump super PAC. “I never believed Trump could get anywhere near where he is right now. I thought he was ridiculous and people wouldn’t really vote for him. All of that was wrong.”
Another top Wall Street executive who raised large amounts for Bush and has so far declined to help fund the new PAC dedicated to stopping Trump said that if there were a single alternative in the race things might be different. But as it is, this executive said, there is virtually no way to keep Trump from the nomination.
“I think Trump is going to win, and my concern is that anything we do now is just going to help Hillary Clinton win the general election,” the executive said. He added that the theory that Rubio or someone else could take the nomination in a brokered convention borders on the absurd.
“Even if Trump goes in with less than a majority of the delegates, say 900 delegates, he will be way ahead, and if you take it away from him, the 40 percent or more of voters who supported him would go completely ballistic and guarantee that Hillary wins.”
The one thing most of Wall Street agrees on at this point is that Trump’s grasp of economic policy is weak at best. And should he manage to defeat likely Democratic nominee Clinton in the fall, already turbulent markets could go completely haywire.
“Trump has a kindergarten view of economics. The man says China is manipulating currency. China is in the biggest currency run in history, they’re losing $100 billion a month,” Druckenmiller said on CNBC’s “Squawk Box” on Wednesday morning. “He doesn’t know what he is talking about. The stuff that comes out his mouth just astonishes me.”
Other Wall Street analysts say the biggest risk from Trump is that no one really knows what his core beliefs really are. And it is not clear what kind of people he might appoint to critical jobs in his administration. Trump thus far has floated only billionaire activist investor Carl Icahn as a possible economic adviser in his administration.
“The biggest fear of a Trump presidency is the only person we know would be a part of the administration at this point is Donald Trump,” said Sean West, deputy CEO and head of the United States practice at advisory firm Eurasia Group. “And even three months into the primary season, we don’t have any feel for what Trump actually stands for, only for what he is willing to say to win. I don’t believe Trump is really comfortable cutting back trade with other countries, but the way he delivers his message could certainly trigger retaliation from other countries.”
While the view that Trump is a fraud who has no idea what he is talking about is widespread on Wall Street, few are convinced there is any real path to deprive him of the nomination at this point.
That leaves many Wall Street Republicans with the same conundrum as naional party leaders: Figure out a way to make peace with Trump, pray for an independent bid by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg or quietly hope Clinton wins the general election in November.
Clinton has many supporters on Wall Street — something that has complicated her primary campaign against Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders — and plenty of Republicans who don’t like her would still prefer her to Trump. “I could never support Hillary,” the Wall Street executive who raised money for Bush said. “But plenty of my friends will just hold their nose and vote for her.”
Even the person close to the new Wall Street-funded effort to stop Trump says the result of their efforts could wind up being nil. “Trump is winning now, but he is not running away with it,” the person said. “We will see if we are able to slow him down.”