Two Prominent Jewish Republican Donors Cut GOP Ties Over Trump

Leslie Wexner and Seth Klarman have both contributed millions of dollars and are known as supporters of Israel

Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon
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Leslie Wexner and Seth Klarman
Leslie Wexner and Seth KlarmanCredit: Bloomberg, WikiMedia Commons
Amir Tibon
Amir Tibon

WASHINGTON – Two prominent Jewish donors to the Republican Party announced over the past days that they are cutting their ties to the GOP because of U.S. President Donald Trump. The two donors, Seth Klarman and Leslie Wexner, have both contributed millions of dollars to Republican groups and candidates in recent years. They are both also known as major Jewish philanthropists and supporters of Israel.

Wexner anounced his decision last week following a visit by former U.S. President Barack Obama to Ohio. Wexner, who in 2012 gave hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups supporting Obama’s Republican election rival that year, Mitt Romney, said he now misses Obama’s humility and candor. He then stated, speaking at a philanthropic event: “I’m no longer a Republican.”

Newspapers in Ohio made headlines from the statement, describing Wexner as the largest Republican donor in the state prior to last week’s announcement. In the current election cycle, Wexner and his wife have donated $2.8 million to “With Honor,” a political action group that supports both Republican and Democratic candidates who have served in the military and who promise to engage in bi-partisan legislation if elected to Congress.

The Columbus Dispatch quoted Wexner as saying: “I won’t support this nonsense in the Republican Party. I’ve been a Republican since college, joined the Young Republican Club at Ohio State. I’m an independent now.”

Wexner has spoken out previously against Trump’s conduct both as a presidential candidate and as president. During the 2016 election, Wexner donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to groups supporting the Republican nomination of Jeb Bush, who ended up losing to Trump in the party’s primary.

Last summer, following Trump’s statement that some of the far-right demonstrators at Charlottesville were “very fine people,” Wexner said he felt “ashamed” to be a Republican. Speaking of Obama, he said: “I was struck by the genuineness of the man; his candor, humility and empathy for others.”

Wexner is the chairman and CEO of L Brands, a company that includes the brands Victoria’s Secret and Bath and Body Works. His philanthropic activities have included a $100 million donation to Ohio State University’s medical center and cancer research institute. In Israel, he is most famous for being the main donor behind the Wexner Foundation, which sends ten Israeli public servants every year to study at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

A few days after Wexner’s announcement, The New York Times published a lengthy interview with Klarman, a Boston-based billionaire and the owner of the news website The Times of Israel. Klarman has donated even more than Wexner to Republican groups and candidates in past election cycles. Yet this year, he told the newspaper, he was planning to give millions of dollars to Democratic groups and candidates, in the hope that the Democrats will take control of Congress.

Klarman gave as much as $7 million to the Republican Party during the two Obama administrations. He also contributed to the campaigns of a number of Republican candidates during the 2016 Republican primary, including Senator Marco Rubio and Speaker Paul Ryan. Yet by the time of the 2016 election, he made headlines by announcing that he was planning to vote for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.

In the interview, Klarman described Trump as a risk to democracy in the United States and accused Republican lawmakers of being “spineless” and “cowards.” He added that “we need to turn the House and Senate as a check on Donald Trump and his runaway presidency.”

Klarman has so far contributed close to $5 million to Democratic groups and candidates ahead of the November midterm elections, and he estimated that by the fall, he will have donated close to $20 million.

Besides investing millions in The Times of Israel, Klarman has been one of the main donors of CAMERA, a right-wing organization that monitors media reports on Israel. He has donated millions of dollars to The Israel Project, an advocacy group in Washington, and his family foundation has also supported the American Jewish Committee.

Ron Klein, a former member of Congress from Florida and chairman of the Jewish Democratic Council of America, told Haaretz that he wasn’t surprised to read about Klarman's and Wexner’s rejection of the Republican Party. “There are many people within the Jewish community who are long-time supporters of the GOP, but are unhappy and uncomfortable with Trump – with his policies, his temperament and his style,” Klein said.

He called the quotes attributed to Klarman and Wexner “big statements,” adding: “I think it’s important for our democracy to have a strong two-party system, where both parties are strong and healthy. Right now the Republican Party is totally capitulating to Trump, and that’s why people who care about our democracy are making these statements.”

Noah Pollak, a Republican political consultant who has worked on pro-Israeli campaigns, told Haaretz that “some donors don't like that traditional Republicans aren't standing up to Trump – but what evidence is there that traditional Democrats are standing up to the ascendant extremists in their Party? Right now Democrats are falling over each other trying to be the farthest left person on stage, and that includes embracing the left's hostility to Israel. Donating to this circus isn't going to improve the health of American politics and I'm certain it won't be good for the U.S.-Israel relationship.” 

Matt Brooks of the Republican Jewish Coalition told Haaretz on Monday: "There is no question that folks have very strong feelings both pro and con for this administration, as many did under Obama as well. Very few are neutral on the Trump Administration. As such, it’s not surprising that some GOP donors have decided not to give. However, we are also seeing many new donors and people significantly increasing their support to the GOP because of the strong pro-Israel actions of this President, including moving the Embassy, ending the Iran deal and cutting off funding for UNRWA and the PA. The RJC is on track to have one of its strongest revenue years ever." He also noted that Klarman used to support Democratic candidates in the past, "switched to GOP, and is now back to Dems."

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