September 22, 2017
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What We Knew About Donald Trump’s Inner Circle, When We Knew it

By Jared Bennett, Publicintegrity.org


Scroll through Donald Trump’s Twitter feed long enough and you’ll see the president-elect prizes loyalty.

It’s no surprise, then, that some of Trump’s earliest backers are finding jobs in his developing administration.

All along, the Center for Public Integrity has reported on key Trump allies who now find themselves well positioned in Trump’s incoming presidential organization chart.

Let’s start at the top:

Steve Bannon, senior counselor and strategist, and Kellyanne Conway, presidential transition senior adviser

These two joined the Trump campaign from what seemed like an unlikely source: A super PAC, just like the ones he called “horrible,” “very corrupt” and “total scams.”

Conway led Keep the Promise I back when the super PAC was supporting Ted Cruz. It was rebranded as an anti-Clinton PAC “Make America Number 1” around the same time Conway left to join the Trump campaign.

Make America Number 1 is largely a product of Robert Mercer, a hedge fund executive, and his daughter Rebekah, the director of the Mercer Family Foundation who lives in a Trump building on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

The Mercers provide financial support for Breitbart News, the conservative site that Steve Bannon left to join the Trump campaign, and a handful of other Bannon projects.

How the Mercers affected Trump go beyond money, as one Republican mega-donor explained at a panel of political donors at the Texas Tribune Festival this September that Center for Public Integrity senior political reporter Dave Levinthal hosted.

Toby Neugebauer said: “I give her — Rebekah Mercer — a lot a lot of credit for talking some sense into Donald Trump to bring [Conway] on board and get her there, and we’ll see if it pays off in the end.”

Spoiler alert: It paid off.

Don McGahn, White House counsel

Don McGahn’s ties to Trump stretch back to the 1980s in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where Trump relied on McGahn’s well-connected uncle, Paddy McGahn, to push his business interests. Things ended on a sour note after a dispute over money.

Don McGahn is best known in Washington, D.C., for his time with the Federal Election Commission. Former FEC colleague Ellen Weintraub says he was “consequential like a sledgehammer was consequential” and “did his best to undermine the law.” McGahn doesn’t exactly share his bosses views on political spending. He’s known for pushing back against campaign spending restrictions based on free speech grounds.

Ben Carson

Nothing’s official yet, but Ben Carson will supposedly serve as Trump’s Housing and Urban Development secretary.

In a Republican primary field of establishment politicians, Carson and Trump were consummate outsiders.

The demure doctor put together an impressive small-dollar fundraising machine built on the collection of personal information from millions of supporters. Months later, the campaign reported earning quarter million dollars by selling donors personal information, as Center for Public Integrity reporter Carrie Levine predicted it would.

Most recently, Carson reportedly told friends he lacked government experience to serve an official role in Trump’s administration — although this hasn’t dissuaded Trump.

Nikki Haley, ambassador to the United Nations

Although Haley initially criticized Trump’s candidacy, she warmed up to him along with many other Republicans who first endorsed another GOP presidential candidates. Under Haley’s tenure as governor of South Carolina, the state earned a D- in the Center for Public Integrity’s 2015 State Integrity report card.

It wasn’t all bad for Haley, though. She received about $380,000 worth of free passes to University of South Carolina and Clemson football games during her first four years as governor.

Todd Ricketts, deputy commerce secretary

The Chicago Cubs co-owner had a good year.

His baseball team won the World Series, and Ricketts was one of the primary backers of Future 45, a super PAC that went from attacking Trump to spending big money on his behalf.

Betsy DeVos, education secretary

The DeVos family is well known in Republican money circles. Let’s let Betsy DeVos do her own talking about political money, from this 1997 op-ed:

"[M]y family is the largest single contributor of soft money to the national Republican party … I have decided, however, to stop taking offense at the suggestion that we are buying influence. Now, I simply concede the point.”

Diane Hendricks, Trump policy adviser and inaugural committee member

Wisconsin’s richest woman spent nearly $5.5 million on a conservative super PAC that in turn flooded the state’s airwaves with ads attacking Hillary Clinton and Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Russ Feingold.

She also made major contributions to Freedom Partners Action Fund, a super PAC backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch, and the Republican National Convention committee.

Tom Barrack, inaugural committee leader

Barrack is the wealthy real estate investor behind Rebuilding America Now, a super PAC that launched some of the election’s most blistering TV ads attacking Hillary Clinton.

Barrack and Trump are old friends. He hosted a fundraising event for Trump at his California home with a $25,000 cost of admission and gave more than $400,000 to the joint fundraising committee benefiting Trump’s campaign and the Republican Party.

Steven Mnuchin, treasury secretary

It’s easy to see why Trump likes Mnuchin. Besides business prowess, the two share Hollywood ambitions and a history of contributing money to politicians — including some Democrats.

Before joining the Trump campaign in May as the national finance chairman, Mnuchin worked for Goldman Sachs for 17 years and bankrolled Hollywood films such as “American Sniper,” ”Gravity” and “Avatar.”