Mark Lennihan/Associated Press/File
WASHINGTON — Donald Trump’s appeal, for many voters, lies in his supposed business savvy. But America’s business community, typically a crucial pillar of support for Republicans, still is not convinced.
At best, many Wall Street executives and business leaders are befuddled by what policies a President Trump would pursue because the candidate has outlined few specific proposals or named few advisers in key areas.
At worst, they fear the economic consequences of Trump’s brash rhetoric and pledges to scrap trade deals, deport millions of undocumented workers, and punish corporations that move operations outside the United States.
“They’re looking at a Trump-Clinton election as probably not the best choice for anybody,” said former House majority leader Eric Cantor, a Republican who is now vice chairman at investment bank Moelis & Co.
“He’s a businessman . . . [but] he’s been on so many sides of every issue that you never know.”
The rupture occurring within the Republican Party over Trump’s stunning takeover is sending tremors through executive suites across the country.
After bashing Wall Street and pushing a populist, antiestablishment theme throughout the primary, the presumptive GOP nominee has signaled in recent days that he’s now ready to start courting America’s corner offices for support and political cash for the general election ahead. But there are signs that support will not materialize, at least not to the extent it has for Mitt Romney, John McCain, and George W. Bush in past GOP campaigns.
Trump named a well-connected hedge-fund manager last week as his campaign finance chairman and announced that he will no longer almost exclusively self-fund his campaign.
The Trump campaign did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
Cantor said he will back Trump, despite disagreeing with much of what the candidate says, but other industry officials predict Trump will have a hard time attracting support from the financial sector — and he even risks losing support to Hillary Clinton. She was New York’s senator for two terms, but her platform as a presidential candidate isn’t particularly friendly to them.
“I think most Wall Street money will be with Hillary Clinton,” said Brian Gardner, a Washington analyst with investment bank Keefe Bruyette & Woods Inc. “There are relationships there. There’s familiarity. So even to the extent that some people on Wall Street don’t support her policies, I think there’s just a comfort level with her versus Donald Trump.”
The GOP has long been the party of big business, despite some frayed ties amid the rise of the Tea Party movement.
The US Chamber of Commerce, the most powerful business lobby in town, doesn’t endorse in presidential races but has spent tens of millions of dollars in key congressional races in recent cycles — almost entirely to benefit Republican candidates. Wall Street overwhelmingly favored Romney in the 2012 race.
A broad defection of Wall Street and other business support to Clinton would be a major reversal from recent years — all the more notable as Clinton has been pushed to adopt a more populist tone by her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders.
A decision by Republican-leaning executives to sit out this cycle could undercut Trump and the Republican National Committee’s efforts to raise enough cash to compete.
More business leaders might yet embrace the bombastic billionaire — once the shell shock fades. A few major figures lined up behind Trump after he clinched the mantle of presumptive nominee. Casino mogul and GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson said he would support Trump. So did Home Depot cofounder Ken Langone, who was supporting Governor John Kasich of Ohio in the primary season.
Still, many in the financial sector are wary, insiders say.
“There’s no consistency of message,” one financial executive said. “No one is in the know.”
The Trump campaign has convened few meetings with executives or trade groups to discuss proposals. Nor has he named many policy advisers that would hint at the direction he would take in the Oval Office.
On the stump, he has said he wants to kill the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, the complex and sweeping response to the 2008 market meltdown. Much of the legislation is opposed by Wall Street’s lobbyists in Washington. But Trump also spent the entire primary campaign slamming his opponents for maintaining ties to investment companies and big banks.
Trump has bashed hedge fund managers as “getting away with murder” for enjoying the so-called carried interest tax loophole, which allows them to pay a lower tax rate on income than the average worker. By wanting to trash the loophole, Trump is aligning himself with President Obama and the Democratic primary field — hardly a typical position for the GOP nominee.
Trump hasn’t actively sought money from Wall Street or elsewhere, largely self-funding his primary campaign. He’s changing course now that he faces the prospect of a general election tab of $1 billion or more.
Clinton is way ahead. Trump has raised only about $540,000 from the finance, insurance, and real estate sector, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan organization that tracks political money.
Clinton has raised more than $40 million from those industries. (Former Florida governor Jeb Bush still outpaces them all, having raised more than $68 million from the sector before he dropped out of the race.)
On Thursday, Trump named Goldman Sachs veteran Steven Mnuchin, chief executive of hedge fund Dune Capital Management LP, to be his national finance chairman. Mnuchin, who has done business with Trump, according to the campaign, “brings his expertise in finance to what will be an extremely successful fund-raising operation for the Republican Party.”
Some industry insiders believe many in the financial sector will keep their wallets closed.
Despite his boasts of potent negotiating prowess, the real estate mogul’s rhetoric makes buttoned-up business types nervous, industry officials say. Some of his positions — particularly on trade and immigration — run counter to Corporate America’s agenda. His unscripted remarks also can cause heartburn.
Most recently, Trump said he might try to get China and other US creditors to accept less than 100 cents on the dollar to cut the national debt during tough economic times. It’s the kind of off-the-cuff statement that could seriously rattle financial markets if made by the commander in chief.
Bond market experts were aghast. The Clinton campaign seized on the comments as evidence of Trump’s instability, putting out a statement from former Obama economic aide Gene Sperling saying Trump’s suggestion amounted to embracing a possible default on the national debt.
“It would risk a global financial meltdown, drive up interest rates for Americans for decades, and seriously harm middle-class families,” Sperling said in the statement.
“That’s preposterous,” Cantor said of Trump’s debt comments. Such remarks worry him, he said, but “I attribute that to more of Donald Trump’s rhetoric when he’s in a campaign environment.”
Other Trump foes in the industry are less forgiving.
“Even if you suspect Trump might win, if you contribute to his campaign, you’re buying a ticket on the crazy train,” said Tony Fratto, a former Bush administration official and outspoken Trump critic, whose consulting firm Hamilton Place Strategies advises major financial firms.
He pointed to controversial Trump comments about women and minorities, among others. “You own everything that he does and says as long as he’s a candidate. . . . That’s an enormous risk.”
Even if the business elite in Manhattan office towers and Washington’s K Street don’t rally to Trump, his insurgent campaign could find allies on Main Street. Many small-business owners worry less about trade and immigration, and in some cases disagree with big business.
Last month, the head of a major small-business trade group, Juanita Duggan, a former White House aide to presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, attended a meeting with Trump in Washington. She emerged from the meeting, where she presented her group’s policy agenda, with a positive view of the presumptive GOP nominee.
“He was very gracious, he asked very penetrating questions, and he has an excellent command of facts,” Duggan said in an interview. “He was impressive.”
For the 325,000 members of her group — the National Federation of Small Business — top concerns include taxes, over-regulation, and the Affordable Care Act, which the group sued to overturn in a case that the group ultimately lost before the Supreme Court. The positions Trump has sketched out in these areas “look like they are headed in the right direction,” such as his proposal to have a single flat business tax rate of 15 percent for big and small corporations, and a pledge to eliminate the estate tax, Duggan said.
“We definitely would need more information about how this all fits together,” she said, “but some of the top line things he’s talked about are things that NFIB has been support[ive] of for years, decades.”
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