A Project of The Annenberg Public Policy Center

Trump vs. Club for Growth


Donald Trump repeatedly has accused Club for Growth of airing attack ads against him because he refused to give the conservative group a $1 million donation – or what Trump calls “a form of extortion.”

Club for Growth tells a much different story. It claims Trump offered to make a donation – or what the group now calls “a setup.”

It’s impossible to know for sure who is telling the truth. But at the least, those who have heard Trump’s anecdote should know there is another side to his story, and that there is more context and history to the rift than Trump lets on. We’ll lay out some of that history, and the facts where possible, and let readers make up their own minds.

Here’s Trump’s recent telling of the anecdote during a campaign rally in Ocean City, Maryland, on April 20 (starting at the 20:04-minute mark).

Trump: The other day, I get a call from a friend of mine. And he was telling me, it’s sort of funny, we’re talking about it. They have this firm, it’s a conservative think tank. The guy’s a moron. They have this firm, and they come up to see me in my office, number of months ago. And I said, “What do they want? Who are they?” It’s called the Club for Growth. You ever hear of these losers? So they come up to see me, and I say, “Who are they?” And I did it for a friend. And he said, “Will you see them?” This was a wonderful meeting. The guy spends, I think he’s an ex-congressman or something – which tells you a lot about him — the guy spends time telling me about the Club for Growth. And I’m sort of like, I’m busy as hell, folks. So I’m looking, I said, “Good, are you finished. What do you want?” “Would you give us $1 million?” I said, “What! Why?” You know,  just because you’re rich, you don’t have to be stupid, right? I’d rather take a million and give it to that guy with the glasses. …

So this guy comes up, and he tells me about the Club for Growth. Nothing, I’m like falling asleep. And then he asks me for a million dollars. … I said, “Do me a favor, put it in writing.” He puts it in writing. I get a letter, Club for Growth, Mr. Trump, great seeing you, would you give us a million dollars? So I tell them no. That was an easy one, actually. Now, they advertise against me. Trump. They talk about all sorts of whatever. Whatever they can think of, they put ads up. And I say, think of it, here’s a guy who comes up, and in a way it’s a form of extortion. But he comes up to my office, asks me for money. Writes a letter – you’ve seen the letter on the website, I put it out – writes me a letter asking me for a million dollars. I say, in a very nice way, “Ah, no thank you.” And now they’re one of the people that fight me and advertise against me. Politics is a wonderful business, isn’t it folks? Isn’t this a beautiful business? Just a beautiful, beautiful, business.

Trump has relayed a version of this story numerous times, including: at a rally in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on April 4 (starting at the 1:10:02 mark); in an interview on the Fox Business Network on March 23; and in a town hall-style interview with Fox News’ Sean Hannity on March 21 (at about the 17:09 mark).

We reached out to Club for Growth. Its response? “Donald lies as easily as most people breathe,” Club for Growth spokesman Doug Sachtleben told us via email.

Club for Growth vs. Trump, 2011

The fracture between Trump and Club for Growth goes back to 2011, when Trump was flirting with a presidential run and Club for Growth came out with several press releases and an op-ed from its president that were highly critical of Trump’s conservative credentials.

One press release from Club for Growth on April 18, 2011, labeled Trump “a liberal” based in part on his past comments in support of universal health care, taxes on the super-wealthy to erase the country’s debt, a tariff on Chinese imports and opposition to NAFTA. In another release on April 19, 2011, the group took aim at Trump for supporting eminent domain. And a third press release on April 20, 2011, criticized Trump for supporting the auto bailout.

In addition, then president of Club for Growth, Chris Chocola, a former Republican congressman, wrote an op-ed for the New Hampshire Union Leader on April 21, 2011, in which he blasted Trump as a faux conservative and “a chameleon who’ll say anything to get attention, but not a serious candidate for the Presidency.”

In response, Sachtleben said, Trump called Club for Growth to talk to Chocola, “and to try to dispute what the Club said.”

In an interview on MSNBC’s “Hardball with Chris Matthews” on April 19, 2011, Chocola referenced his conversation with Trump.

Chocola: Actually, I talked to Mr. Trump today. He told me he’s evolved on this [a large tax hike on the super-wealthy to pay off the deficit]. I’ll let him be the one to explain it. But you know, I think you need to have consistency. You need to have core beliefs. We don’t see that in his candidacy.

Matthews: Did you tell him that?

Chocola: Yes. Absolutely. I told him what we are looking for is somebody that has core beliefs that are going to carry those core beliefs into office and not change with the political environment and what’s expedient. You know, he’s a business guy. He’s looking for expedient solutions to the problem he has now. What we think we need as a presidential candidate is someone that is a pro-growth champion, someone that has these core beliefs, not a pro at self-promotion and business expediency.

In an interview with Trump the same day on ABC News, host George Stephanopoulos confronted Trump with the news that “the head of the Club for Growth, a major group inside the Republican Party, has said you’re just another liberal.”

“Me? A liberal?” Trump responded. “What is the Club for Growth and who are they supporting? Because I understood — I had heard about this just a little while ago. I had heard that they have a favored candidate, whoever that may be.”

So while Trump now says he hadn’t ever heard of Club for Growth when the group asked for a meeting in 2015, he had reason to know what the group was back in 2011. And he knew the group was outspoken in its opposition to his potential 2012 run as a Republican presidential candidate.

Club for Growth vs. Trump, 2015

Fast forward to late May 2015, three weeks before Trump officially announced his candidacy for president. This much both sides agree on: Club for Growth’s new president, David McIntosh, a former Republican Indiana congressman, met with Trump.

That the two men met is not in dispute, but who called the meeting and what was discussed very much is.

Trump said Club for Growth reached out to him and asked for the meeting. Club for Growth says Corey Lewandowski, who would soon become Trump’s campaign manager, reached out to Club for Growth and requested the meeting with Trump.

“There was no mention of his potential presidential candidacy, but said he wanted to talk about what the Club was doing this election,” Sachtleben said.

Sachtleben said McIntosh declined Trump’s invitation to meet at a golf course, and instead agreed to meet at Trump’s office on May 26.

“At that meeting Trump said he wanted to know what the Club was doing,” Sachtleben said. “David [McIntosh] talked about some of the Senate races the Club’s PAC had endorsed in. Trump said he was interested in donating to those races. David pointed out that they didn’t see eye to eye on trade and taxes. Trump said he was still interested and told David to send a follow-up letter making that request. This, we now know, was a setup.”

McIntosh sent two letters dated June 2, 2015: one to Lewandowski — which Trump later released — and one addressed to Trump, which the Club released. Both include a request for a $1 million donation, but the two letters are worded slightly differently.

The one to Lewandowski reads, “During our meeting, Mr. Trump expressed an interest in supporting the Club for Growth in its efforts to promote pro-growth, limited government policy. Enclosed is a letter for Mr. Trump and a request for a $1,000,000 contribution to the Club for Growth.” The letter asks Lewandowski to pass the letter for Trump along to his boss.

The second letter, addressed to Trump, reads:

McIntosh letter to Trump, June 2, 2015:  I very much enjoyed our recent meeting in New York. While we don’t see eye to eye on every issue, it’s good to know that there is some common ground between us.

The Club for Growth is committed to promoting pro-growth, limited government policies, including: lower taxes, free-trade, and doing away with harmful government regulations that are preventing businesses from creating jobs and stimulating our economy. As we both know, it is business owners who create jobs — not the government.

To that end, the Club for Growth is actively researching candidates who share these fundamental American ideals and are willing to fight for them. Once the Club identifies a potential future champion of economic freedom, it polls to determine if a path to victory exists.

If the Club is confident in the character of the candidate and the possibility of victory, then the Club’s PAC endorses the candidate and plays a vital role in helping elect him/her to Congress.

When we met, you expressed interest in helping to fund the Club for Growth’s efforts to fight for economic freedom.

That is why I am hoping you will consider making a most generous contribution of $1 million to the Club for Growth.

The contribution would have a dramatically positive impact on the Club’s ability to identify future free-enterprise champions. I hope that I can count on your support.

Sachtleben noted that the first paragraph states that “we don’t see eye to eye on every issue,” and that the letter states that it was Trump who “expressed interest in helping to fund the Club for Growth’s efforts to fight for economic freedom.”

Trump never replied, Sachtleben said, and two weeks later declared his candidacy for president.

It’s true that Club for Growth has been outspoken in opposition to Trump’s candidacy. Club for Growth Action, the group’s super PAC, began running a series of ads painting Trump as a liberal, based on many of the same issues it had attacked him for in 2011. Back in September, we wrote about an ad from Club for Growth Action that claimed Trump “supports higher taxes.” A lawyer for Trump fired off a letter threatening a “multi-million dollar lawsuit” if the group did not pull its TV ad. It did not. We concluded that the ad’s claim relied on statements made by Trump 15 years ago, and that those statements were not consistent with the proposals that Trump provided as a presidential candidate.

We wrote about another Club for Growth Action ad in February that similarly claimed Trump “supports higher taxes,” even though Trump had since issued a tax plan that would significantly cut taxes for individuals and businesses.

On March 23, the Club for Growth PAC endorsed Ted Cruz for president.

So is the barrage of attacks on Trump from Club for Growth payback for Trump’s refusal to contribute $1 million to Club for Growth? Was Trump trying to curry the favor of Club for Growth with a contribution? Or was Trump setting up Club for Growth, so that he could dismiss the group’s expected opposition to his campaign when it arose?

Again, we can’t know for sure. Only Trump and the folks at Club for Growth know who is telling the truth.

We can say, though, that Club for Growth did actively criticize Trump’s potential presidential bid in 2011, and that the letter Club for Growth sent to Trump did not promise an endorsement or silence. Rather, it noted policy differences with Trump, even as the sides had found some common ground, and said that Trump had voiced some support for the Club’s efforts to elect conservative members to Congress. The Trump campaign did not respond to our request for further clarification of the meeting.