Trump spawned a new group of mega-donors who now hold sway over the GOP's future
Wesley Barnett was just as surprised as anyone to learn from news reports that the Jan. 6 Trump rally that turned into a violent assault on the U.S. Capitol was funded by Julia Jenkins Fancelli, an heiress to the fortune of the popular Publix supermarket chain. But Barnett had extra cause for being startled: Fancelli is his aunt.
Barnett said he was at a loss to explain how his aunt — who isn't on social media, lives part time in Italy and keeps a low profile in their central Florida town — got mixed up with the likes of Alex Jones and Ali Alexander, the right-wing provocateurs who were VIPs at the Jan. 6 rally in front of the White House.
Over the last five years, it has become clear that former President Donald Trump has activated a new set of mega-donors who were not previously big spenders in national politics. Some of the donors appear to share the more extreme views of many Trump supporters, based on social media posts promoting falsehoods about election fraud or masks and vaccines. Whether they will deepen their involvement or step back, and whether their giving will extend to candidates beyond Trump, will have an outsized role in steering the future of the Republican Party and even American democracy.
ProPublica identified 29 people and couples who increased their political contributions at least tenfold since 2015, based on an analysis of Federal Election Commission records compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. The donors in the table below gave at least $1 million to Trump and the GOP after previously having spent less than $1 million total. Most of the donations went to super PACs supporting Trump or to the Trump Victory joint fundraising vehicle that spread the money among his campaign and party committees.
In the current system of porous campaign finance rules and lax enforcement, a handful of ultra-rich people can have dramatic influence on national campaigns. Many of Trump's biggest backers, such as the late casino magnate Sheldon Adelson and his wife, Miriam, or the Illinois packaging tycoons Richard and Elizabeth Uihlein, aren't shown in ProPublica's analysis because they gave millions to Republicans even before Trump. But several of the biggest new donors — banking scion Timothy Mellon and his wife, Patricia; Marvel Entertainment chairman Ike Perlmutter and his wife, Laura; and Dallas pipeline billionaire Kelcy Warren and his wife, Amy — now rank among such better-known, longer-running donors as Blackstone CEO Stephen Schwarzman, professional wrestling founders Linda and Vince McMahon, and casino mogul Steve Wynn.
For some new donors, the sudden increase in their political contributions may have as much to do with newly acquired wealth as with the ascent of Trump and his grip on the Republican Party. But others inherited fortunes or made them long ago, yet never made a splash in campaign finance records until now. Several of the donors have not spoken publicly about their support for Trump or have not been extensively covered before. ProPublica requested interviews with everyone named in this article and included comments from those who responded.
“Things are diametrically different from when Trump was in office," Marlyne Sexton, who has given more than $2 million since 2015 after giving less than $115,000 before, said in a phone interview. Sexton, whose husband runs an Indianapolis-based property management company, attended a dinner with Trump in 2019, Politico reported.
“People are afraid to walk down the street, it's a joke," Sexton continued. Asked why people were afraid, she said, “You can answer that for yourself, and if you can't then we probably don't agree. I can't help you understand that."
Big Lie Believers: Julia Fancelli and Gregory Fancelli
In addition to pledging $300,000 to fund the Jan. 6 rally in Washington, Julia Fancelli actually had a hotel suite reserved, according to organizers who spoke on the condition of anonymity. But in the end she did not attend, according to Caroline Wren, a Trump fundraiser involved in the planning.
Fancelli did not respond to requests for an interview, including one placed through the office of her family's foundation. Her estate manager, Schuyler Long, who also donated to Trump, declined to comment. In a statement to The Wall Street Journal, which first reported her involvement in the Jan. 6 rally, Fancelli said: “I am a proud conservative and have real concerns associated with election integrity, yet I would never support any violence, particularly the tragic and horrific events that unfolded."
Publix distanced itself from Fancelli, whose father, George Jenkins, founded the chain. The company said she isn't involved in operations and doesn't “represent the company in any way." Fancelli's holdings in the privately held company aren't known and she is not listed in financial disclosures as an owner of 5% or more of the company's stock.
Forbes has estimated the entire Jenkins family's wealth at $8.8 billion, ranking 39th in the country. Fancelli served as president of the family's foundation as of 2019, according to the organization's most recent tax filing. In addition to nonpolitical charities, the foundation also made a $30,000 grant to the Leadership Institute, which trains conservative activists.
Fancelli grew up with the rest of the Jenkins clan in Lakeland, Florida, and met her husband Mauro, a fruit and vegetable wholesaler, on a study abroad year in Florence, the local newspaper reported in 2018. Though the Jenkins family is prominent in Lakeland, Fancelli is not civically engaged and lives for much of the year in Italy.
In past elections, she generally gave a few thousand dollars at a time to the Republican National Committee and GOP congressional candidates, amounting to less than $200,000 total, according to FEC records. Her contributions took off starting in 2016. Since then she's given more than $2 million. Besides backing Trump, she was the largest donor to a super PAC supporting Michigan Republican Eric Esshaki, who lost to Rep. Haley Stevens.
Fancelli's donations to Trump drew some notice. But until the Jan. 6 rally, the most news she made was for being a theft victim: In December 2020, a murder suspect stole three pieces of a silver tea set through the window of Fancelli's modest house.
Fancelli's son, Gregory, accompanied her to a Trump campaign luncheon in Palm Beach in 2019 and donated in his own name. “My mother and I are big supporters of the president," he told a local reporter in October.
Unlike his mom, Gregory Fancelli is active in the Lakeland community. He works on restoring local houses and mosaics, as well as a planetarium designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, the last with the help of a grant from the National Park Service in August 2020. He has donated money to a school board candidate through shell companiesnamed after fictional characters such as Tony Stark (better known as Iron Man) and a Ghostbuster, Peter Venkman.
He also occasionally posts online about politics, and in the months after Trump lost the election, his views appeared to harden. On Christmas Day in 2020, Fancelli said on Facebook that COVID-19 was a “fake pandemic" and argued with Facebook friends who referenced case numbers and people they personally knew who died of the coronavirus. “It doesn't have the magnitude of a pandemic, unless you combine all the illnesses and flues and give it one name," Fancelli wrote. “Definitely a very powerful scare tactic by the Chinese and the UN."
In other posts, Fancelli appeared to embrace Trump's rhetoric calling President Joe Biden soft on China and falsely claiming that the election was stolen. In March, Fancelli posted a video mocking Biden for tripping on the stairs to board Air Force One, mashing up the footage with video of Trump hitting a golf ball. To a friend who commented “Fore more years!" Fancelli replied, “Fore more years of chinese puppetry!"
Another friend commented, “80 million people voted for this?" Fancelli replied, “Some people voted for him, the rest is fraud."
Gregory Fancelli declined to be interviewed.
Online Conspiracy Theorists: Leila Centner, Michael and Caryn Borland
David and Leila Centner have never spoken publicly about their support for Trump and hadn't made a political donation (except two that were refunded in 2018) until they gave a combined $1 million to support Trump's 2020 campaign. Come Jan. 6, the Miami couple were VIP guests at the rally on the Ellipse, according to organizers. The couple declined to comment through a spokesperson.
David Centner started and sold several successful web businesses, then made a fortune on a company that processed highway tolls. In 2019, taking advantage of a provision in Trump's tax bill, the Centners reportedly invested $40 million in a fund to build affordable housing for teachers. The tax incentive, known as Opportunity Zones, was intended to entice investors into developing poorer neighborhoods. But many wealthy and well-connected people have foundwaysto use it to subsidize their preexisting projects.
After not being able to find a school that felt right for their daughter, the Centners started their own, the brightly colored Centner Academy in Miami's Design District.
Some school parents objected when Leila Centner used the building to host a campaign event for a conservative mayoral candidate. According to emails quoted in the Miami New Times, Centner responded to their concerns by saying, “Please do not tell me what types of events I can host in my own building after hours."
In January, the school hosted an event with Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the prominent antivaccine activist. David Centner introduced him as his “hero" and “personal inspiration," according to a video of Kennedy's talk.
In April, Centner instructed school employees not to get the COVID-19 vaccine. In a message to faculty and staff, she falsely claimed the vaccines don't prevent death or transmission of the disease, despite trials and research showing they do. She also cited a baseless conspiracy theory that merely being around other vaccinated people can cause reproductive problems in women.
“We cannot allow recently vaccinated people to be near our students until more information is known," Centner said in the message to staff. She told employees who wished to get the vaccine that they should wait until the end of the school year and that they might not be allowed to return to their jobs.
Centner's Facebook and Instagram posts are filled with misinformation urging people not to wear masks or get a COVID-19 vaccine. She falsely claimed that the media has covered up vaccine side effects ranging from rashes to death. She also has posted attacks on the nation's top infectious disease adviser, Dr. Anthony Fauci, as well as drug companies and other doctors. She has cited debunked studies claiming masks harm children and compared face coverings to the yellow stars that the Nazis ordered Jews to wear. Years ago, she posted a video — now covered by a fact-checking warning — about testing bottled water for pH levels and fluoride.
Centner is slated to speak next month at a “mask-free, freedom-fighting" conference featuring Trump adviser Roger Stone, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and MyPillow CEO Mike Lindell.
Centner is not the only major new Trump donor who has promoted conspiracy theories. Michael and Caryn Borland of Newport Beach, California, have given a total of about $1.6 million since 2015. In the past they'd given less than $13,000. With their new high-roller status, they were guests at the 2020 GOP convention. Then-Vice President Mike Pence canceled a planned fundraiser at the Borlands' Montana home after the Associated Press reported that the would-be hosts shared QAnon memes on Facebook and Twitter. The posts are no longer available.
“This is not a forum for politics," Caryn Borland, a singer-songwriter of Christian music, later posted on her Facebook page. “Whether they be my opinions or anyone else's. If you express any political opinions on this page they will be taken down immediately." The couple didn't respond to requests for comment.
The Borlands met while working in a grocery store and started a modest life together, according to David Wood, a film producer who worked with them on an ill-fated project. Then they inherited a fortune on Caryn's side, Wood said. Her father was an executive of a California-based industrial materials company in the 1980s, according to corporate records, and court filings indicate that she has a multimillion-dollar trust in her maiden name. The trust's holdings include land assessed at $1.6 million in Arizona, according to tax records.
“They were not even middle class, then they inherited a massive fortune," said Wood, who received a $10 million check from the trust for the film project in 2019. Amid a lawsuit, he agreed to return $4 million, according to court papers. “I don't think they were completely prepared for it," Wood said. “I don't know if anyone would be."
Business Benefits: Kelcy Warren, Roger Norman, Palmer Luckey
Some of the biggest new donors are less outspoken about their ideologies but gained tangible benefits from Trump's presidency.
Dallas billionaire Kelcy Warren welcomed the impact he anticipated Trump would have on his company, Energy Transfer Partners, which operates the Dakota Access Pipeline. Two days after the 2016 election, he told investors, “Having a government that actually backs up what they say, that we're going to support infrastructure, we're going to support job creation, we're going to support growth in America, and then actually does it? My God, this is going to be refreshing."
On Trump's fourth full day in office, he signed an executive order to help clear the way for the Dakota Access Pipeline, a thousand-mile link to North Dakota's oil fields. Energy Transfer's stock price soared, and Warren's wealth climbed from $2.8 billion to $4.5 billion, according to Forbes. The magazine said the percentage gain was bigger than that of any other American that year.
The Dakota Access Pipeline became a high-profile controversy in 2016 when environmentalists and Native Americans rallied to the support of the local Standing Rock Sioux, who raised concerns that the pipeline would endanger their drinking water. With Trump's support, the pipeline was completed in April 2017 and started shipping oil the next month. But legal challenges continued, and a federal court in Washington eventually held that the Trump administration cut corners on the required environmental reviews.
Warren's company is now trying to convince a judge not to shut down the pipeline, arguing in an April court filing that the company stands to lose as much as $4.28 million a day. Some Democrats are calling on Biden to close the pipeline, but the current White House hasn't taken a position.
Warren and his wife are prominent philanthropists in Dallas (they developed a downtown park and named it after their son). But they were not major political donors until Trump came along, having spent less than $600,000 in total. Since 2015, however, they've given more than $17 million. Warren declined to comment through a company spokesperson.
Another first-time mega-donor who benefited from Trump's actions was Roger Norman, a reclusive real estate investor in Reno, Nevada. In his first-ever interview, with a Reno TV news station in 2018, Norman recounted making and losing fortunes several times over, despite never learning to read or write.
Norman's crown jewel is the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, 104,000 acres of desert that he and his partners bought for $20 million in 1998. Today it's worth billions after becoming a hub for companies including Tesla, Google and Switch.
The site benefited from the Opportunity Zone program in Trump's tax bill, thanks to some influential friends. As The Washington Post reported in 2018, Treasury officials originally decided the area was too prosperous to qualify for the benefit. But Norman's business partner recruited Nevada Republicans, including the governor and a senator, to lobby for the designation.
Norman then gave more than $2 million to support Trump's reelection, compared to the less than $100,000 in total political contributions he'd made in the past. “You're a little late to that story, I'm not donating anything now," Norman said in a brief phone conversation, declining to discuss the matter further.
Another new mega-donor turned a professional setback arising from his support for Trump into a new opportunity. Palmer Luckey built a prototype for a virtual reality headset as a teenager and sold his company, Oculus VR, to Facebook for $2 billion in 2014. Forbes estimated the 21-year-old's cut at more than $500 million.
Luckey has credited Trump's book “The Art of the Deal" with inspiring him at age 13, according to The Wall Street Journal, and he sent Trump a letter in 2011 encouraging him to run for president. During the 2016 campaign, Luckey donated $10,000 to Nimble America, a pro-Trump group associated with misogynistic and white-supremacist online posts. Luckey has given conflicting accounts of whether he wrote some of the messages under a pseudonym. After an internal uproar at Facebook, the company placed Luckey on leave and fired him in 2017, the Journal reported.
Luckey deepened his political activism, expanding his giving and hosting a fundraiser for Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas. He started a new company, Anduril, that would cater directly to the Trump administration by making security technology for the southern border. The company raised $200 million from investors and won government contracts totaling almost $100 million.
Luckey didn't respond to requests for comment.
Luckey's sister, Ginger Luckey, is engaged to Matt Gaetz, the embattled Florida congressman and Trump ally. Their mother, Julie Luckey, who home-schooled Palmer, was slated to be a VIP guest for the Jan. 6 rally. It's not clear if she attended. She didn't respond to requests for comment.
Government Posts: Ike Perlmutter, Duke Buchan, Lynda Blanchard
Duke Buchan, a wealthy but little-known Wall Street investor, wasn't shy about coveting an ambassadorship after he and his wife gave the Trump Victory fund almost $450,000 each, the maximum amount allowable by federal campaign finance laws in 2016. One of the last vestiges of the spoils system, cushy diplomatic posts routinely go to campaign patrons. Buchan and his wife, joint donor Hannah Flournoy Buchan, declined to comment.
Buchan told friends that he viewed Trump as a disrupter and cheered the candidate's attacks on political correctness, looking forward to saying “Merry Christmas" again, The New York Times reported in 2017. Buchan was rewarded with an appointment as ambassador to Spain, where he had studied abroad decades earlier. He reportedly complained that European Union regulations scuttled his plans to bring his polo ponies along. While in office, Buchan took part in the Trump administration's controversial efforts to oust Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro.
While ambassadorships are common rewards for big donors, Lynda Blanchard was unusually blunt about it. According to a person familiar with her appointment who asked not to be named in connection with the discussions, Blanchard explicitly reminded transition officials how much she donated. She and her husband gave more than $2 million to Republicans between 2015 and 2018, when Trump nominated her as ambassador to Slovenia, Melania Trump's native country. Blanchard didn't respond to requests for comment.
Blanchard, who founded a real estate investment firm, is now staking millions on her own candidacy for U.S. Senate in Alabama. She held a fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago in March with a surprise appearance from Trump, but then he endorsed her rival: Rep. Mo Brooks, one of the leaders of the congressional effort to overturn the 2020 election results.
One new Trump-era mega-donor was rewarded with a less-conventional role in his administration. Ike Perlmutter, the Marvel Entertainment chairman who was one of Trump's largest overall backers and belongs to his Mar-a-Lago club, became an unofficial yet influential adviser on veterans issues. As ProPublica first reported in 2018, Trump gave Perlmutter and two associates sweeping influence over the Department of Veterans Affairs. They had a hand in policy and personnel decisions, even reviewing budgets and contracts.
Perlmutter, who declined to be interviewed for this article, has said he had no formal authority and sought no personal gain.
A liberal veterans group, VoteVets, sued the VA over Perlmutter's role, alleging that it violated a Watergate-era sunshine law. In March, an appeals court said the case could proceed.
Personal Ties: Anthony Lomangino, Steve Witkoff, Vernon Hill
Though Perlmutter, 78, was drawn in by his personal relationship with Trump, he has become a bigger force in Florida Republican politics. Before backing Trump, he and his wife gave $2 million to a super PAC supporting then-presidential candidate Marco Rubio, and more recently he's become a major benefactor of Gov. Ron DeSantis, widely considered a leading contender for the party's 2024 presidential nomination if Trump doesn't run.
For other new mega-donors who got involved because of their personal ties to Trump, it's less clear if their support will extend to other candidates.
Fellow Mar-a-Lago member Anthony Lomangino and his wife have given more than $3 million, plus $150,000 to help aides cover legal fees arising from the Robert Mueller's Russia investigation. They had previously given less than $40,000 total. Lomangino, whose wealth derives from selling a recycling-collection company to industry giant Waste Management, declined to comment.
Vernon Hill, Trump's sometime banker and golf buddy, gave more than $2 million, 10 times more than he'd ever given before. In 2020 he praised the federal government's small business relief program, which his bank, like many others, helped administer. Hill didn't respond to requests for comment.
Steven Witkoff, a New York real estate friend, gave more than $2 million and served as an informal adviser on tax cuts, opioids and reopening businesses during the pandemic. He has also since become a DeSantis backer. Witkoff didn't respond to requests for comment.
John McCall, the business partner of Trump's friend and purported hairspray supplier Farouk Shami, gave $1.7 million to Trump and the GOP since 2015, versus less than $20,000 previously. McCall didn't respond to requests for comment.
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