WASHINGTON — With the official launch of President Donald Trump's 2020 reelection campaign Tuesday, Corporate America faces a vexing challenge: Should it put campaign money behind the incumbent Republican running for reelection?
Typically, that would be an easy call for companies long aligned with the GOP's low-tax, free market message. But this is not a typical year, and Trump is not a typical Republican president.
Even after Trump has largely finished his corporate-friendly tax cut and deregulation agenda, Corporate America may see less potential return on investment in a second Trump term in office. His disruptive trade confrontations with China, Mexico and the European Union have sent shockwaves through the business world, and insiders say companies may wonder whether associating with Trump could alienate employees and customers.
A new NBC-Wall Street Journal poll shows that 52% of respondents say they are very uncomfortable with the president's candidacy, and only 23% called themselves enthusiastic about it. At the same time, the president has been attacking the reliably Republican and pro-business U.S. Chamber of Commerce.
In a phone call to CNBC last week, Trump called the Chamber's executive vice president Myron Brilliant "not so brilliant" and questioned the organization's patriotism, saying: "When you look at it, the Chamber is probably more for the companies and the people that are members than for our country."
Add to that the president's penchant for attacking American companies by name, and it adds up to an election cycle in which some insiders believe Corporate America could set a record low for contributions to a presidential campaign.
"He's attacked everyone from Harley-Davidson to AT&T," said one Republican consultant who declined to be named. "So I don't think there's a lot of interest in getting too close to him. He's an incredibly divisive figure."
The consultant said the Trump campaign is focused on rallying its base in key Electoral College states and not as concerned with the president's national popularity, which wasn't his path to the White House in 2016. But corporate leaders, the consultant said, have a different scorecard. While the president may not care about his popularity in big states like California and New York that he is not likely to win in 2020, CEOs certainly do: "Companies don't play to the Electoral College, they play to broad public opinion."
This president has already dramatically underperformed his Republican predecessors among business PAC donors. According to the Center for Responsive Politics' Andrew Mayersohn, Business PACs gave more than $2 million to the last GOP president running for re-election, George W. Bush, in 2004. Mitt Romney's unsuccessful campaign raked in over $948,000 in 2012. Both figures dwarf the $47,700 Trump raised from business PACs in 2016.
Asked what the Trump campaign is doing to garner corporate support, the campaign's communications director, Tim Murtaugh, responded with a statement.
"President Trump has made it clear that U.S. jobs and employers are his top priorities when engaging in trade negotiations and no one can mistake that he puts America first," Murtaugh wrote. "He is the President who finally stood up to China, renegotiated a dated and flawed NAFTA, and is improving and expanding our trade deals worldwide. Our economy is booming and America is leading the world again."
Part of the reason for the decline in corporate contributions is unrelated to the president. The Citizen's United Supreme Court decision in 2010 made it possible for corporations to give large sums to noncandidate super PACs and anonymously to nonprofit groups known as 501c4s. That's given companies the option of keeping their contributions secret and made it less necessary to give directly to a candidate's campaign.
Experts say companies will take advantage of the secrecy in 2020 to contribute funds that will benefit Trump, but won't link them publicly with his presidency. "They'll put money into c4s and super PACs and let the Trump campaign know when they're putting money in to get credit for it — but not do it in public to get bashed," said a Republican strategist who declined to be named. "I think the money's going to be out there, it's just going to be more masked."
But it's not just customers. CEOs are also worried about upsetting employees as they strategize ahead of the campaign season, said a former White House official. "The pressure's not just external, it's internal," the official said. "I've talked to executives who say, 'That sounds great, but my employees will never allow it.'"
Then there's the president's political agenda. A second Republican strategist said Trump's decision to threaten tariffs against Mexico — not as part of a trade dispute but as part of his immigration agenda — represents a threat to the business community.
"This is a turning point in his presidency" said the strategist, who declined to be named. "This opened people's eyes in the business community like nothing else. It's pretty serious."
The Republican consultant agreed: "A lot of companies, I believe, have been quiet and on the sidelines and thankful for the regulatory relief and the tax reform. But trade sets them back quite a bit. The president has gone full-on tariff — the answer to everything is tariffs, no matter what the problem."
Across the aisle, though, is a huge field of Democratic candidates — not all of whom represent a world view Corporate America will love. If Democrats nominate Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders, said the Republican consultant, companies may have no good 2020 options for their campaign cash.
"If its Bernie or Warren," the consultant said, "I think Corporate America is going to sit this one out."