Major Trump donors who soured on him after 2020 and Jan. 6 now insist he's their best choice

Some of them argue his demeanor and election denial don't eclipse his strengths.

November 27, 2023, 7:29 AM

Donald Trump and his allies are ramping up high-dollar fundraising efforts with less than two months to go until the Iowa caucus begins the 2024 Republican primary, as several major donors show signs of returning to the former president -- including those who once called on him to exit the race.

Some observers say the changing view of big financial backers shows a recognition that because Republican voters are sticking with Trump amid his continued controversy and legal troubles, he remains a very real contender for the White House.

Trump is battling a slew of unprecedented criminal charges -- all of which he denies -- but remains the front-runner in polling.

At the same time, anti-Trump Republican donors have spent millions while scrambling to coalesce behind an alternative candidate to take on the former president and anti-Trump voters remain divided between a handful of challengers.

Charlie Kolean, a GOP strategist who raises money for the Trump campaign, said that "while Trump may have not been some Republicans' first choice for 2024, many are coming back on board because the risk of Joe Biden being a two-term president is just too high."

"His lead in the polls is unparalleled and barring any legal action, there is nothing politically that could stop him from becoming the nominee," Kolean said.

Later this week, the former president and his campaign are hosting a fundraiser at the Trump International Golf Club in West Palm Beach, Florida, with ticket prices ranging from $11,600 per person for general attendance to $23,200 for attendance and a photo opportunity.

The following week, real estate executives Steven Witkoff and Howard Lorber are co-hosting a fundraiser for the former president in Hallandale Beach, Florida, for a $23,200-per-person ticket that includes a photo opportunity.

Both Witkoff and Lorber are longtime friends of Trump, and Witkoff testified as the first witness for Trump's defense team in a New York civil trial in which Trump is accused of inflating the values of his properties. Trump has denied any wrongdoing.

But other Republican donors who had shown reservations about Trump after the 2020 election or had been sitting on the sidelines are now gradually coming out in support of him, too.

Over the last couple of years, a number of the GOP's big backers -- from financiers like Ken Griffin, Thomas Peterffy and Stephen Schwarzman to cosmetics executive Ronald Lauder and oil and gas mogul Harold Hamm -- turned their backs on Trump or expressed reservations about him.

Some cited the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol and efforts to overturn the 2020 presidential election and some blamed Trump for Republican disappointments during the 2022 midterms. Others said the party needed a new generation of leaders.

Several bundlers and fundraisers that raised money for Trump had also moved on to raise money for his 2024 rivals.

Home Depot co-founder Bernie Marcus was among the major donors that had declined to weigh in on the 2024 presidential election before he announced a surprise endorsement of Trump in an op-ed published on the website Real Clear Politics in early November, saying the "stakes are just too high" and the "choice is simple."

"I understand the frustration of some of my Republican friends who do not like or are offended by things Donald Trump does and says," Marcus wrote. "I, too, have been frustrated at times, but we cannot let his brash style be the reason we walk away from his otherwise excellent stewardship of the United States during his first term in office."

"I endorse him not only because he has the best chance of winning the general election but because he is the best person to take on and dismantle the administrative state that is strangling America," Marcus argued.

A top GOP donor, Marcus has been one of Trump's most loyal political benefactors over the years, giving millions of dollars to his campaign and various other fundraising vehicles supporting him.

In March, however, Marcus donated $16,000 to South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley's federal joint fundraising committee soon after she announced her presidential bid.

Hamm, the energy magnate, followed a similar pattern.

He was one of Trump's biggest donors during Trump's first presidential bid and throughout Trump's presidency but called for Trump to drop out of the race earlier this summer.

Hamm also told the Financial Times earlier this summer that "Jan. 6 separated a lot of people" in the GOP and that the party needed a chaos-free candidate in 2024.

Hamm told the Financial Times that Trump should become a Republican "kingmaker" instead of running for the presidency again.

Hamm donated $16,000 to Haley's joint fundraising committee after she announced her presidential bid and gave $6,600 to Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis' campaign after he announced.

Later, in August, Hamm gave $3,300 to the Trump campaign. Last month, Hamm had a private meeting with the former president at his Mar-a-Lago Club in Palm Beach, Florida, with a $200,000 check for a pro-Trump super PAC, according to The Washington Post.

Dan Eberhart, a GOP donor who supports and raises money for DeSantis but had previously supported Trump, wasn't surprised.

"He's saying the quiet part out loud," Eberhart said, describing his own thoughts on Hamm's moves. "Even for the people that don't really prefer Trump, it's about time to come home, rally around Trump, and he recognizes that." (Multiple efforts to reach Hamm for comment were unsuccessful.)

PHOTO: Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump looks on during a campaign rally at Trendsetter Engineering Inc., Nov. 2, 2023, in Houston.
Republican presidential candidate former President Donald Trump looks on during a campaign rally at Trendsetter Engineering Inc., Nov. 2, 2023, in Houston.
Brandon Bell/Getty Images

Eberhart said there appeared to be an emerging consensus that Trump may not be able to be toppled -- but he's not so sure.

"I'm still firmly with DeSantis, but look, again, the quiet part out loud: At some point, I'm gonna have to make a switch if he doesn't win the nomination," Eberhart said.

Emphasizing his continued support for DeSantis, saying Trump "lacks discipline," appears tired and is almost as old and slow as President Joe Biden, Eberhart said he's still waiting for DeSantis' momentum and for Trump to "trip himself up." But he added: "I don't think anything DeSantis or Haley does is going to make them gain 20 points overnight."

"If Trump wins Iowa, I think he hits escape velocity," Eberhart said. "And there's a sense of inevitability to a certain extent. The media and people like me are just pretending there's a race going."

He noted DeSantis has had momentum in Iowa recently with endorsements from Gov. Kim Reynolds and Iowa evangelical leader Bob Vander Plaats but wondered: "Is it enough? I hope so, but we will see."

Bill White, a longtime friend of Trump who also bundles donations for the campaign and the pro-Trump super political action committee Make America Great Again Inc., told ABC News that several donors in his circle have recently returned to Trump, especially after a large-scale fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago last month in which organizers announced they raised $6 million.

"One couple from Chicago was just on the fence, just waiting, waiting, waiting, waiting," White said. "But they gave after the speech," he added. "They said, 'Look, I went online and donated the max. It looks like he's gonna be the nominee.'"

Republican donor Don Tapia -- a U.S. ambassador to Jamaica in the Trump administration -- also doubled down on his support for Trump after having a "question mark" about him in the wake of the 2020 election.

"Complaining every day, every month, every week about the election being stolen ... you can say it was stolen, you might not like the outcome, but the proof's in the pudding. Get over it. Let's move on and look to 2024," Tapia said of his thoughts after the last presidential race. He said that he also does not like Trump's demeanor, though he believes a strong personality is a necessity in the New York business world.

He said he was "sitting back to see how the national platform would fill itself out" before he decided again that Trump is the best option for the Republican Party.

"When I looked there [at the other candidates], it was only a training session for the people that's on that platform right now," Tapia said.

He recently hosted a fundraiser for Haley at his home at the request of a friend and said he found the former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. "very impressive."

"She has a good donor base and she covered issues extremely well," he said.

Nonetheless, he said he sees her as a potential leader of the next generation of the Republican Party -- not 2024 material.

"If I were asked to host Donald Trump, my home is open," he said.