A Top Clinton Donor Says It's Time to Stand Up to Trump

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Billionaire Clinton backer J.B. Pritzker says he’ll do “whatever I can do and whatever is reasonable” to stop the Donald. Jim Young/Reuters

As Donald Trump has moved from maverick outsider to the likely Republican nominee for president, a small band of his fellow billionaires have been funding Hillary Clinton’s campaign, determined to do whatever they can to keep him out of the White House. “At this point in the cycle, it is very hard for me to imagine Trump can be stopped on the Republican side,” says venture capitalist J.B. Pritzker, one of Clinton’s indefatigable boosters—who also happens to be a multibillionaire. “So, it is extremely important to see Hillary win, not just because I think she is the best candidate, but because the stakes are so high.”

While some have suggested that Clinton’s “mega-donors” could be on the brink of being tapped out, nothing could be further from the truth, says Pritzker, an heir to the Hyatt Hotel fortune who is also a private investor. “I am prepared to do whatever I can do and whatever is reasonable to make sure that it is Hillary who makes it to the White House and not Trump,” he tells Newsweek.

Pritzker and his wife, Mary Kathryn (known as M.K.), are among the top five donors to outside spending groups backing Clinton, contributing more than $2.8 million to Priorities USA, a political action committee (PAC) that supports Clinton and can legally take unlimited donations. Pritzker and his wife, who each donated $1 million in January, will contribute more, he says, if necessary. He declined to say exactly how much he’s willing to spend, but  the 51-year-old Chicagoan, who is worth an estimated $3.3 billion, is calling this election “one of the most important of my life.”

That it takes billions now to elect a president was highlighted last month by Clinton’s Democratic opponent, Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, who blasted “a campaign finance system which is corrupt, which is undermining American democracy, which allows Wall Street and billionaires to pour huge sums of money into the political process.” He has also questioned why so many billionaires are supporting Clinton, suggesting they expect to get something in return.

Other billionaires in the Clinton camp include hedge fund tycoons James Simons of Renaissance Technologies in New York, who also donated $3.5 million to pro-Clinton efforts in January, as well as S. Donald Sussman of Paloma Partners in Greenwich, Connecticut, who contributed $2.5 million. Donations to Priorities USA increased by more than 60 percent during the second half of last year, as Trump surged in the polls ahead of his Republican opponents before Super Tuesday.

Although Jeb Bush’s failed bid in the Republican primaries proved that funding alone doesn’t guarantee victory, money matters and the GOP has a lot more of it, Pritzker notes. “The Democrats have not raised anywhere near what the Republicans have,” he says. “And that’s without factoring in Trump’s billions.”

Republican donors, such as billionaires Charles and David Koch, along with their sprawling donor networks, have pledged to spend up to $889 million in this election cycle—an amount, Pritzker points out, that would easily dwarf any Democratic war chest, even Clinton’s.

“We are witnessing an array of financial firepower that’s been heretofore unheard of,” he says . “Trump can spend virtually an unlimited amount of his own money on this election, which makes him unlike any of the other candidates in the race. So those who oppose him will have to work very hard to make sure he doesn’t win.”

Trump’s private fortune has always been mysterious, and he has so far declined to make his tax returns public. He was estimated by Forbes late last year to have a net worth of $4.4 billion, but he claims to have much more. As Trump squares off against an army of deep-pocketed billionaires, Pritzker reckons this year’s presidential race may be the closest thing America’s seen yet to a clash of America’s 1 percent. (And that would include Clinton, who has millions herself.)

Pritzker’s family, which is active in politics, is one of the richest in America, with an estimated $30 billion to its name (Trump claims to be worth around $10 billion). Pritzker’s late uncle, Jay Pritzker, was co-founder of the Hyatt hotel chain, a real estate magnate and philanthropist. Pritzker’s older sister, Penny Pritzker, is a billionaire Democrat and the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Pritzker wouldn’t comment on the possible political leanings or donations of his other family members, but said his family is more or less split “half and half” between Democrats and Republicans.

Three of Clinton’s top five billionaire backers in the 2016 cycle have a history with Trump.

Pritzker’s uncle on his father’s side, Jay Pritzker, who died in 1999, had a number of run-ins with the young Trump dating back to the 1970s. Trump partnered with the Pritzker family in 1976 to acquire the Commodore Hotel in New York, turning it into the Grand Hyatt—his first big real-estate coup that cemented his reputation. The Pritzker name, already well-established in the real estate business, gave Trump entrée into Manhattan’s clubby inner circle of property titans. This was a breakthrough moment for the Queens-born scion of an outer borough real estate family.

But things went awry. Trump and Pritzker had agreed that if they needed to change a deal point, they would allow for a 10-day period to work it out. When Jay Pritzker took a trip to Nepal and could not be reached, Trump challenged the terms, reportedly telling Pritzker later , “I tried to call you. I gave you 10 days. But you were in Nepal.” J.B. Pritzker says he’s never had any personal conflicts with Trump, but he knows the story of how Trump treated his uncle. “Does it really surprise you to know that that was Donald Trump?” he says.

Clinton’s No. 1 donor, the world’s richest hedge fund billionaire, George Soros, has given in excess of $7 million to Priorities USA, the super PAC backing Clinton. He’s also had business dealings with Trump, though there’s nothing to indicate there was any friction between the two over those dealings. According to a report in the Chicago Tribune , Soros participated in a $160 million investment in 2004 with other funds to finance Chicago’s Trump Tower through Grove Capital LLP, a spinoff of Soros’s eponymous New York hedge fund, Soros Fund Management. Soros had no comment on the investment or its outcome.

Soros, who is worth an estimated $24.5 billion, gave $25,000 to a super PAC backing Clinton at the beginning of 2015 before stepping up his donations to $1 million in June to Priorities USA and then an additional $6 million to the super PAC in late December. Soros adviser Michael Vachon told Newsweek, “Does George think Trump would be a disaster as a president? Sure. But I think that’s been the feeling in a lot of quarters.”

Clinton’s second-largest donors after Soros are media mogul Haim Saban, and his wife, Cheryl, who donated $6.4 million to Clinton and a smattering of Democratic state organizations. As part of that total, their biggest chunk of cash—$3 million—went to Priorities USA in December. Last May, the Sabans hosted a dinner party at their Beverly Hills mansion for more than 700 people, raising an additional $1.9 million for the Clinton campaign.

Saban, chief executive of investment firm Saban Capital Group in Los Angeles, also had a run-in with Trump just last year. When the Republican presidential contender suggested in June that undocumented Mexican immigrants were “criminals, drug dealers, rapists,” one of Saban’s companies, Univision—a Spanish-language network he bought in 2007—dropped coverage of Trump’s Miss USA and Miss Universe pageant telecasts.

Trump immediately filed a $500 million lawsuit, alleging political interference from Saban , who, Trump claimed, caused Univision to end a five-year deal it had just inked with Trump’s Miss Universe Organization for U.S. Spanish-language television rights to its beauty pageants. The complaint accused Saban’s company of a “politically motivated attempt to suppress Trump’s freedom of speech” and stated that the real reason Univision had cut ties with Miss Universe was because Trump had “dramatically risen in the polls while expressing critical views of Ms. Clinton.”

Univision dismissed Trump’s complaint as “both factually false and legally ridiculous.” Saban, who has called himself a “one-issue guy” with a focus on protecting Israel, declined to talk to Newsweek about his fund-raising for Clinton or the lawsuit, which was recently settled. The terms were not disclosed.

Trump’s proposals to ban or block certain immigrants from entering the country have vexed both Soros and Saban. Soros was born in Hungary and Saban in Israel. Each are Americans with dual citizenship.

In late January, at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Soros said, “Donald Trump is doing the work of ISIS” by denigrating Muslims, and predicted Clinton would handily beat him in the general election.

“Trump is an anathema to America’s democracy and values,” Pritzker agrees. “I have a lot of Republican friends. So many of them are shocked and appalled and are desperately hoping for a different answer for the party than Trump.”