Presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump is taking a lot of flak for leaving the country on a two-day business trip at a time when his campaign seems to be struggling, but an announcement today by his chief fundraiser may do more to recharge the Trump Train than any public appearance the candidate himself could have made.
Trump’s finance chief, Steve Mnuchin, said on CNBC Thursday morning that Trump has officially forgiven the $50 million he loaned to his campaign over the past year.
“He loaned $50 million to the campaign. He's now forgiven that loan. So that is a contribution,” Mnuchin said. “He has also said he will contribute significantly more money.”
To this point in the campaign, Trump’s financial commitment to the enterprise has been unclear. For a man constantly bragging about his vast wealth, he seemed a bit stingy when it came to funding his run for the presidency. His staff is skeletal by presidential campaign standards (presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton has nearly 10 times the number of paid staff as Trump.)
The fact that the money Trump did give to the campaign was classified as a loan also created discomfort among some potential donors, who rightly wondered if every dollar they sent to the Trump campaign would go not toward winning the White House, but into Trump’s personal bank account.
Thursday’s announcement that Trump had reclassified the loans as contributions and the statement by Mnuchin that the billionaire former reality television star plans to contribute more still are powerful signs of commitment to the campaign. Trump has skin in the game today in a way he did not over the last year.
"Trump had absolutely no choice," said Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia. "Big donors were determined not to give to his campaign if he were just going to turn around and reimburse himself.
"Another reason why Trump’s hand was forced was the turmoil building for the GOP National Convention. He has to right the ship — or appear to do so — or he risks an embarrassing rebellion in Cleveland, staged in front of a hundred TV cameras."
Sabato also noted that there is reason to be skeptical about the announcement. "Given Trump’s record, we’ll all need to see proof that these purported actions have been taken."
The news came a day after the Trump campaign reported an enormous one-day online fundraising haul of $3 million in response to an email solicitation that told supporters that it needed to raise $100,000 on an “emergency” basis. Trump offered to match all contributions up to $2 million, which means the total infusion to the campaign was presumably $5 million.
Mnuchin announced the total in an interview with Fox Business Television, but was critical of the strategy. “That email was a mistake,” he said. “That was not in line with our marketing, and it was not an emergency.”
Indeed, it points to one of the inherent problems with the Trump campaign: It’s tricky for a guy who regularly reminds everyone of how rich he is to be constantly poor-mouthing to donors about his need for cash.
Earlier this week, the Trump campaign was hammered by critics when it reported that it had only $1.3 million in cash on hand at the end of May. The Clinton campaign, by contrast, had $42 million.
Taking the campaign’s word for it that $3 million in donations came in Wednesday (Trump has been notoriously unreliable when it comes to announcements about money he’s raised), there is at least a possibility that Trump can quickly undo some of the damage his lackluster showing in the seven weeks since becoming the presumptive nominee has done.
If that’s a performance the campaign can replicate going forward -- a big “if” -- then Trump could plausibly raise tens of millions of dollars a month from now until the election. It’s not clear that he would stand any chance of closing the money gap with Clinton, short of writing a huge personal check, but cutting into her 30-fold advantage is critical, both practically and symbolically.